“Culinary tradition is not always based on fact. Sometimes it's based on history, on habits that come out of a time when kitchens were fuelled by charcoal.” - Alton Brown
Growing up on Gumtree Grove, a farm on the outskirts of Utrecht, a little town nestled at the foothills of the Balele Mountains in Northern Kwazulu-Natal, we were far from the closest grocery store. Food and its preparation was an integral part of the daily routine of my home and family.
Eggs were supplied by the trusty hens in the chicken coop, and milk by a few cows kept solely for that purpose. Meat was in abundance as Dad farmed with beef and sheep, he was also a dab hand at growing vegetables. As such we never ran out of what Mom enjoyed serving alongside our roast or casserole at dinnertime - a veg above the ground, one below the ground and one that ran along the ground - one white vegetable, a green and an orange one - our daily plate of healthy colour! The kitchen being the heart of any home, running out of essentials such as flour, vanilla essence, coffee, tea, sugar, herbs, baking powder etc. was simply not an option. Mom’s pantry cupboard was thus reliably stocked with everything it took for this hub to produce daily meals, sweet treats, bakes, and bottles and bottles of canned fruit and preserves when the trees in the orchard dripped with their seasonal fruit.
I was privileged to be part of a generation that ate around the paternal heirloom dining room table three times a day. Breakfast punctually at eight, lunch at 1 o’clock as we sat in compulsory silence until the Springbok Radio one o’clock news broadcast was over, and potluck for supper at six.
Indelibly etched in my memory is the intrinsic role played by the young Zulu women who helped run our home and kitchen. During each six monthly rotation cycle, Mom, renowned for her teaching skills, trained new intakes of domestic staff with patience and care. I now realise what an honour and privilege it was to bear witness to Mom teaching these young women, and how this knowledge would be so significant to me in running my own home later in my life.
My earliest, most vivid and fondest childhood memory is of sitting on the old, painted Formica-topped table in our farm kitchen, alongside my mother, or Joselina or Beatrice, helping them to cook and bake. The pure joy of getting to lick the icing sugar dish on cake baking days was the yummiest of all!
Our farm kitchen always glowed with the warmth of the wood-stoked vintage Welcome Dover, and later the long awaited anthracite-fed, four-door Aga advertised in the Farmers’ Weekly, and bought with Mom’s savings from selling fresh eggs and baking for the local “Tuisnywerheid”. From the aromatic stews and roasts, the fudge, the bakes, the flapjacks and scones, the food created in this culinary space brought sheer delight to the very soul of my “little girl” days.
One of the highlights of my junior school days was the annual Utrecht Agricultural Show. I simply could not wait for when the competitions catalogue was released to see which categories I could enter in the children’s section. Apart from the knitting and sewing, the art and flower arranging, I invariably chose to make the Cocoa Fudge and Crumpets. During the weeks building up to the show, I would practice making them over and over again! And oh!, the anxious anticipation and glee to see the colour of the prize ticket placed by the judges under my offerings! Bright red for 1st prize, dark blue for 2nd, deep emerald green for 3rd place, and light blue for ‘highly commended’.
Boarding school days and years at university interrupted my home cultivated ‘happy kitchen time’. My love of cooking lay dormant for some time, but the joy of it had nevertheless taken root in my heart, ready to be resurrected at any opportune time.
Part 2 coming soon...