Project Origins (Legendary Food)


Project Origins (Legendary Foods)

8 June 2019
Eben van Tonder


Afar depression, 120 meters below sea level, an arid region near the Eritrean border in Ethiopia
Afar depression, 120 meters below sea level, an arid region near the Eritrean border in Ethiopia

My journey started by researching the use of salt in Africa, pre-colonial. We host the work on salt under The Salt Bridge, and the work on Southern Africa yielded the following articles:

i. Salt and the Ancient People of Southern Africa

ii. Builders of the Stone Ruins – From Antiquity to the Pô

iii. The Salt Bush

The reason I started with salt is that without salt, meat curing is not possible.  Salt is the most basic ingredient.  There are early accounts of shipwrecks along the Natal coast where the Zulu people gave the survivors meat that was salted, smoked and dried.  Those are three of the most basic ingredients in meat processing.  One of the techniques I use to discover the exact methods of processing is to continually interview the oldest members of communities I come across to discover the food processing techniques that were handed down to them by their forefathers and the results are promising.   I have already discovered that they used ground nuts to extend meat dishes and the exact makeup of one such a product (dish).

Looking at the size of the cities that existed in Southern Africa gives support to this line of research.  Such sophisticated communities would have had equally well developed culinary traditions and, like the ruins we see today, to discover exactly what this was, take effort and focus to unearth and reconstruct.  I had the privilege to discuss the line of thinking with a former minister of Defence of Nigeria.  He excitedly confirmed to me that this is not only true in Southern Africa, but in West Africa also, and I would guess, the entire continent. He himself comes from a very small village in the north of Nigeria and he gave me excellent examples of what his mother told him about old food processing techniques. I believe he is correct when he told me that the soul of the land is tied to the food they prepared and this is lost as a result of Westernisation.   

I offer my experience at the Suikerbosrand as one shining example of such a city.

A massive Tswana City on Suikerbosrand

Last weekend I did a 12km hike at the Suikerbosrand Nature reserve 60km outside Johannesburg, past Heidelberg on the way to Durban.  I was browsing the web for interesting information on the area and learned of a massive Tswana city which was located here.  I made contact with Talfrein Harris whos friend, Stephen Banhegyi, worked on the site for his master’s thesis.  They could not take me out to the site this weekend, but I was back early this morning to see what I can find.

As I hiked up a path this morning, I suddenly realized that I was on the edge of many of the stone structures.

From my reading on the web, I learned that the city was massive!  10km long and 2km wide. By comparison, Mesopotamia was only 2km in diameter. Friday evenings I am watching on Discovery how new technology, called Lidar is used to see through the vegetation using laser lights which helps researchers to recreate the world of the Maya civilization.     The exact same technology is being used at the site on the Suikerbosrand.

There were many large Tswane cities scattered along the northern parts of South Africa until the 1820’s when they collapsed in the Difeqane Civil wars.  Archeologists use the building style to estimate its creation around the late 1400’s AD the city is believed to have been abandoned around the second half of the 1800s with between 750 and 850 homesteads in the city.

The ancient homesteads at Suikerbosrand are shown against an aerial photograph from 1961. The two rectangles show the footprint of the LiDAR imagery. Karim Sadr

As I moved up the hill and was suddenly right in the middle stone walls.  I was thrilled and the best thing about it all is that I have a little insight into how they ate their meat.  Yesterday I discovered a quote by Lichtenstein that confirms the practice of Southern African tribes who used ash as salt.  It is in reference to Tswana people in the northern Cape area, and he wrote about them that “salt proper, they have none; instead of it, they make use of natron, or the ash of a certain salt succulent plant: their favourite mode of dressing their meat is to roast it in the ashes.” (Lichtenstein, 1803)  We will return to his reference to natron which certainly does not refer to natron from the Natron valley in Egypt.  The primary interest is his reference to salt from ash. I have been researching salt and the ancient people of South Africa for years and I know how they cooked their meat!

My intention is to recreate it as closely as possible.  In Johannesburg, I joined the only company in South Africa who allows me and the amazing team working with me to te recreate these legendary dishes.  The intention is not just to do that but to recreate local dished with local ingredients, inspired by the greatest fermented, cured, and smoked products.  We want to make hams and salamis and bacon according to many years of German and Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Danish and English traditions, but marry it with the richness of the South African cultures and we want to incorporate into it, the arts of cooking from Africa!  Besides processed meat, we want to celebrate great South African cattle breeds by making traditional Afrikaans and South African dishes from the best meat created by many years of evolution and careful breeding, right here in our own land.

The section I am starting today is intended to house our research projects and feature our best creations.  There will be old favourates like biltong, droe wors, bacon, and salami, but this will only be the start.  We intend creating legendary hams and other cured and fermented products with local flavours and using our local climate to do most of the work.

Legendary!!  Insanely legendary!!

Photos from the cite.  The first and last photos are recreations from the Lidar project.

Further reading

Artisan Curing and Traditional Meat Dishes