Diverse and indigenous cuisine brought by the many ethnic people to St. Maarten from all over the world piques our interest. To this end, we are on a quest to find where it comes from, if it is used for celebrations, if it is exotic to some but everyday food to others. Anything to do with keeping the body and soul nourished with that, which is produced from good old terra firma, is what makes the world go around.
“Mustard with mutton is a sign of a glutton,
Mustard with beef is a sign of a thief!”
Seriously, adults back in the day left us youngsters so befuddled. This was said to us children at every meal we had mustard put on the table. So why is mustard put on the table then, if we are not supposed to eat it with the meat being served? And besides mustard, good old English mustard went well with all meat in our books. We were told mustard was meant for pork so we added to the rhyme – “mustard with pork makes you a dork!”
It is spring again, according to our gardens. Just take time to look outside and notice the gentle spring buds appearing on the shrubs and trees; and there is fruit starting to develop on the tomato bushes. This is also the time that lambs make an appearance as Easter is around the corner. Among the popular Easter symbols, the lamb is by far the most significant of the great Easter feast. The lamb is said to symbolize Jesus, as it embodies purity and goodness, but also represents sacrifice.
Sheep, in general, had a lot of meaning to me during my pre-teen years as my father worked at the “head-office” in the wool trade. This meant our visits to him happened in a very austere office in a building that had high windows over-looking Table Bay where the cargo ships were berthed. He had a large desk in his office and three very uncomfortable wooden chairs with leather seats in which we had to sit quietly while a tea tray was brought in. My mother would gently peel off her gloves and lay them neatly on the desk then proceed to pour the tea for us who were waiting, very impatiently, to be allowed to be free.
By free, I mean run wild through the attached warehouse where bales of wool were stacked to the ceiling waiting to be shipped to exotic places around the world. We would climb the bales, jumping from one to another; the smell of sheep all pervading.
Of course, we would also get hold of some of the wool, which was very oily to the touch and rub it, feel it, smell it; it was a delightful experience and would make me hanker for the days I could join my father on his “field” trips out to the sheep farms. We would do trips up the Weskus (West Coast) through the Karoo (Big and Little) and around the Western Cape region. The countryside is as diverse as can be.
Being the eldest, I was allowed to go; and I hold these days with him close in my memories. We would set out before the sun rose and would drive for mile upon mile through vast tracks of flat scrubland where all one could see was beige scrub – the occasional windmill and sheep, so many sheep. I loved the pit stops out there. Nothing to be seen for miles around, the wind always seemed quite fresh, you could hear it blowing and the sound of the baaa-ing of the sheep – not another sound! After a good slukk of water from the canvas water-bag that hung over the fender as we drove (the water gets remarkable cool like this), we were off again.
We would arrive at a farm and be shown into the “front parlour” for some liquid refreshment, usually tea. We then would head out to the sheds to look at the sheep and feel the wool and stand around discussing the merits of – well, who knows, it was all in Afrikaans anyway. There was always much “guffawing” (belly laughing), obviously some serious jokes between the men folk.
In the meantime, I would be off to keep myself busy, especially if it was sheep shearing time. I loved watching the men at work. They would grab a sheep – a huge, fat, woolly sheep that was surprisingly clean after grazing those dusty farms – and swing it around onto its butt in one deft movement, with all four legs sticking straight out. The men would then start at the head and shave the sheep down and around the body leaving a bright, white and much skinnier sheep to scamper off out into the veld again.
Depending on how many farms we had to visit, we would either move on or stop for lunch with the farmer and family; a tipple of whiskey for my dad (one for the road, as they said) and then we were off. The car we had back then (if I remember correctly) was a green Opel, no seat belts, no airco, no nothing as we have today.
The heat was oppressive and the windows had to be kept open so the dust would envelope us as we drove on dirt roads to all the farms. It was not long before my dad used his Jag for these trips. This car had a heater, but there was no air-cooling system in those days. Our trips then took place in the cooler months and I did not get to see much shearing after that, but we did go to auctions.
Oh boy, were these auctions amazing! Crowds of all ages would gather at the large auction sites. These were usually near a grove of tall trees (often eucalyptus) and the sounds from the cicadas, sheep and people all talking in mostly Afrikaans was from another world. I loved listening to the auctioneer rattle off the prices for the sheep – how fast their tongues would move, no matter how we tried to copy them, we could never master the technique.
We would get something to eat from one of the stands that dotted the field. The food often included mutton or lamb; my favourite was a vetkoek filled with a lamb biryani/curry/stew; it was sloppy and messy to eat. My mother would haul out her box of tissues and clean our frock fronts – my dad called her “old mother Kleenex” (the tissue brand of those days).
It was at these auctions that my dad would be given a side of mutton, a leg and/or shoulder of lamb and whatever else the farmer thought to offer. It was after these trips – every single trip – that my dad and mum would laugh and laugh as they related one of the Afrikaans farmers telling my dad (incorrectly, let it be said) – “skaap, die skaap, jy weet, in English it is one sheep and two sheeps!”
Both my parents were fluent in Afrikaans, the farmer was telling them how weird a language English is!
Vetkoek – a dough ball, deep-fried, crispy on the outside, soft and chewy on the inside. Vetkoek = Fat Cake – a bit like the word sheep in that it can be used as both singular and plural. Vetkoek originated with the Dutch settlers, back in the 17th Century. These are so similar to Johnny Cakes! This is from my favourite Cape Malay chef – Fatima Sydow
7 cups cake flour
10grms instant yeast
1 tsp baking powder (optional)
1 TBL butter
1 TBL sugar
1½ tsp salt
2 cups lukewarm water
Mix all together and knead for at least 10 mins – you can use a food mixer of course.
Allow to rise 1 hour.
Make small golf-ball size shapes (or a little bigger, no hard and fast rule).
Deep fry, drain on paper towel.
Fill with a dry-ish curry or even cheese and chutney or jam.
Minced Lamb Curry – a good curry can never be rushed, cook this low and slow!
500 grams lamb mince (or chicken or beef)
3 TBL vegetable oil/ghee
1 onion, diced small
1 cinnamon stick
1 bay leaf
1 star aniseed
1 black elachie (cardamom)
1 tsp each grated ginger / grated garlic
1 TBL Kashmiri chilli powder or to taste
½ tsp ground fennel seeds
½ tsp turmeric
1 tsp garam masala
2 roma tomatoes grated
1 sprig curry leaf
¼ cup water only if required
Heat oil – add cinnamon, bay leaf, star aniseed and black cardamom.
After 2 or 3 minutes, add curry leaf and onion, and sauté until translucent.
Add ginger/garlic – sauté.
Add chilli powder, turmeric, fennel, garam masala and cook until it forms a paste.
Add a few drops of water.
Add minced meat – cook, stirring 10 minutes on low.
Season with salt.
Turn heat down and simmer 5 minutes.
Add grated tomatoes – simmer for 10 minutes.
Add ¼ cup water if you feel the curry is drying out too much.
Top with lemon zest.
Variation: Add a handful green peas when you add the tomato.
Mutton Pie – use short or puff pastry
500g mutton, diced
1 onion, diced
1 tsp grated ginger
5ml curry powder
2 potatoes, peeled, diced
2 carrots, scraped, diced
125ml apricot juice
75ml tomato purée
Salt, black pepper to taste
Heat oil, brown meat - drain on paper towel.
Fry onion in oil until tender.
Sprinkle in spices.
Add potatoes, carrots – fry 1- 2 minutes.
Add meat, pour over apricot juice.
Simmer 15 minutes, add tomato purée.
Cover, simmer slowly until meat is tender.
Cool then chill.
Preheat oven 375° F.
Roll out dough – line oiled muffin tins.
Spoon in some filling.
Top with pastry circles.
Press down lightly to seal, chill 15 minutes.
Brush with beaten egg and milk.
Bake 20-25 minutes.