Myrna Robins

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Posted by on in Reviews

NOTE: This review was first submitted to the Argus newspaper in late August for possible use during Woman's month. It was published on the Life pages of Saturday Weekend Argus on September 19 as a heritage month contribution.

BITTER + SWEET: A Heritage Cookbook by Mietha Klaaste as told by Niël Stemmet, published by Human & Rousseau 2015.





Traditional country food meets a soul-stirring story of a rural woman, a domestic worker and nanny, who tells her life story to Stemmet in 29 chapters, reminiscences that start with her childhood on a farm near Robertson and finish as her charge, the adolescent son of her employers, leaves the Cape to head to a new life in the Transvaal.


Mietha Klaaste was also a keen and talented cook who regarded preparing meals a privilege rather than a chore. So it seems only right that between the events that coloured her humble life, she also shares her recipes, wonderful, honest fare where the simplicity of farm ingredients is never overshadowed by surplus ingredients or fancy garnishing.


A third element is Stemmet’s inclusion of carefully selected poems and excerpts that emphasise the content, physical and spiritual, of the preceding chapter. They come from diverse sources ranging from the Bible to Lewis Carroll, from Adam Small to Ingrid Jonker, from Antjie Krog to timeless nursery rhymes.


The food covers every occasion from breakfast to supper, including special occasions like tea parties and weddings. Breakfast highlight of baked sweetcorn offers a variation on rusks and porridge, while tea was likely to be Clanwilliam rooibos with condensed milk. To accompany it, over weekend, were scones or crumpets or delicious ginger biscuits. Weekday fare ranged from bully beef and rice when freat meat was not available, to warming bredies, served with snow white rice. Desserts were comforting and substantial, with buttermilk pud and melktert high on the favourites lists. Vegetables were always present, usually sweetened, and lightly spiced. One recipe I would have liked to have seen included in this collection is for a savoury dish using 'oukos', the buds of a Gasteria that folk in the Breede river valley used in place of waterblommetjies, which were not always easy to find.


Most of the recipes are illustrated with gentle colour photographs that are in harmony with the printed instructions.


Mietha’s childhood was happy, living in a house on the farm of her parents’ employers: her mother worked in the big farmhouse, her father was the foreman on the farm. It was the period in South African history when the apartheid laws were in full force, but this did not affect Mietha’s early days: this child of nature enjoyed school as much as she loved wandering along the banks of farm streams, looking for tadpoles and crabs.


There are also family stories that illustrate the hardship endured by those living further north, in arid Namaqualand, where real poverty invaded every aspect of life. Miethe longed to go there, and take them huge supplies of food to lighten their burden.


Life’s hard knocks started when Mietha was told she could not go to high school but had to start work for the farmer’s son Johan and his new wife Susan. Not long after this Susan gave birth to her first son Daniël, and, as his nanny, Mietha replaced her hurt about missing her education with a fierce love for this blue-eyed baby, a love that thrived and blossomed as she nurtured him from babyhood through to adolescence.


As a young teenager she was raped by a member of the employer’s family, an episode which affected her permanently, and resulted in attempted suicide. These low points were countered to some extent by a busy schedule of domestic duties, and always, the joy she felt when Daniël arrived home from school. He was a loner, as was she, he enjoyed nature, as she did and they both loved to cook and to eat, so the bonds between them were unusually strong.


This all came to an abrupt end when Daniël’s parents decided to move to Gauteng, or the Transvaal as it was then to look for more lucrative jobs. Mietha was told she could not join them, and was given a new radio, the furniture in her servant’s room and a box of chocolates as thanks for 16 years of dedicated service.


But, thanks to an innate strength, Mietha used the parting to return to school, going to evening classes, while working in a Robertson bakery during the day. She used the local library extensively, reading widely, listening to gramophone records, and studying recipes in cookbooks. She cooked them, first at home, then as the hotel cook at the Majestic hotel. She also entered – and usually won – competitions for jams and baked good at the local agricultural shows. She was, as she says, “known as a top-class cook.”


Of course a story like this ends with as many questions as answers, and we are left to ponder on many a subject even as we glance through Mietha’s method of roasting chickens which were sold in aid of funds for the local orphanage. This is a book that is probably best absorbed in Afrikaans, but Marietjie Delport is to be commended for a great translation. And all strength to Stemmet for choosing not to omit the parts that some readers would prefer not to find in a recipe collection!


In one of the weekend newspapers, Prue Leith is quoted as complaining that much of the culinary literature being published can be classed as ‘food porn’ – either featuring a celebrity of some kind, or consisting of numerous photographs of glamorous landscapes, such as Tuscany, with little or no real writing on the cuisines. Bitter+Sweet offers a striking contrast: Perhaps the publishers should forward her a copy.


Postscript: Niel has just told me that the publisher is going to forward Leith this book - I do hope she replies.




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Isn't this a great way to start the summer season in Cape Town? Alexander McCall Smith's delicious detective novels, starring the irresistible Mma Ramotswe who sorts out numerous problems from her No 1 Detective Ladies Agency in Botswana is about to be celebrated in a theatrical musical  on stage at Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel, with its premiere on  October 8.


Expect issues of morality, humour and love  intertwined in the cases of fake fathers, beauty pageants and muti, which our beloved Mma Ramotswe solves, whilst building up her business with her friend and secretary Mma Makutsi–as well as falling for the comforts of motor mechanic JLB Makatini. With the back drop of the Botswana bush, the local villages, the traditional people and the great animals that live beneath Africa’s vastness, the story is brought to theatrical life by award -winning director Nicholas Ellenbogen. The music score is composed by Scotsman Tom Cunningham and Cape Town’s very own Josh Hawks (of Freshlyground).

The show runs until mid-December 2015.

Cost: R250 Booking: Webticket

For further info contact Gabrielle Palmer, Public Relations Manager, Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel, ph: +27 21 483-1593 or e-mail:

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b2ap3_thumbnail_Bonellos-road-tripping-cover.jpgROAD TRIPPING WITH JUSTIN BONELLO by Justin Bonello and Helena Lombard. Published by Penguin Random House SA, 2015.


Hard to believe, but this is Bonello’s ninth title, and its nine years since he burst onto the local culinary scene with his first television show, Cooked, also the title of his first book. Helena Lombard joined the Cooked in Africa Film team in 2011, and has travelled with them, cooked and researched and written four of his subsequent titles.

The positive symbiosis between the popular TV series and these titles is a given, as the book reflects highlights of the journey undertaken. Along with photographs the content - in this case route and destinations. This does not detract from the book’s appeal, rather the opposite: both readers who have seen the filmed series of the braai contest and those who haven’t are likely to relish this gastronomic adventure across some of southern Africa’s little frequented parts.

The foreword offers a good idea of just what such an undertaking entails when it consists of a diverse group of more than 70 crew being on the road together for more than two months. They covered almost 9 000km on dirt roads, and endured long working hours to complete a 13-part reality TV series . Bonello offers would-be travellers a list of important items to pack and recommends planning the route in advance, while also staying flexible and finding the roads off the beaten track. In their case they started at Noordhoek, where Bonello lives, moved east to Witsand, then west to Paternoster before heading inland to the Cederberg. The mighty Orange river was a popular destination, then it was off to Namibia where they spent time in Luderitz, Sossusvlei and the Fish River canyon. The Tankwa Karoo was another isolated stop, followed by Oudtshoorn and the journey finished at a lodge on the Breede river.

Justin is not the only source of the recipes in this collection: a few were offered by members of the crew, who included a couple of top chefs, and some were the creations of top contestants in the series they were filming. The trip started with a fiery Durban fish and prawn curry, presumably made on the braai at Noordhoek, before a convoy of cars and trucks left for a lengthy nomadic lifestyle. The Breede river lodge at Witsand was their first stop so a recipe for fishhead soup is appropriate, followed by braaied brandy banana splits. With KWV as one of their (presumed) sponsors, cooks could jazz up their recipes with wine and brandy, and frequently did. Doughnuts, cooked in a flat-bottomed potjie over coals provided welcome padkos for the trip to Paternoster, where they camped at Tietiesbaai in wintry weather. One of the professional chefs on the team, Bertus Basson, produced whole braaied fish with pesto, tapenade and ash tomatoes, dished up with sauvignon blanc, which makes mouthwatering reading while Justin and others made the most of the region’s black mussels. In the Cederberg various potjies were prepared and the crew were warmed by spiced and spirited rooibos tea.

One of the most isolated destinations visited was the Diamond Diver Cottages at Noup near the Namaqua National Park, the name being self-explanatory. There some robust salads were on the menu and we learn about games they played after work was done and on the road.

The three team photographers provide some fantastic scenic shots , as well as many of the crew in action and great food images, all of which enhance the text hugely. The book designer must have had great fun in the production of this title, a colourful and appealing mix of mod and retro, that adds up to an invitation to get up and take the open road – along with a good store of ingredients and imagination.

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BAKING FOR PLEASURE & PROFIT by Christine Capendale. Published by Human & Rousseau, 2015.


Given the renaissance of home baking that has flourished since cupcakes became the flavour of the month, a spate of cookbooks devoted to the joys of producing delectable home-baked goodies has flowed from local and overseas publishers. Some of the earlier ones were both useful and enjoyable, but most of the recent titles I have received have been potboilers, to use a mixed metaphor.

However, Christine Capendale’s compilation is an exception – a well produced collection of sweet and savoury treats including confectionery, with recipes clearly set out and well illustrated,  each accompanied by tips under the heading ‘Sell more! ‘Capendale suggests eye-catching decorations and packaging to add eye candy to those wanting to market their goodies successfully.

In fact the book begins with a fund of information for those aiming to make money from their hobby, with details on everything from licences and permits to equipment and supplies. She tells us how to work out the cost of ingredients (with tables), to add in equipment and operating costs,marketing expenses, and  how to calculate selling prices. General baking tips follow and, by the time one reaches the first recipe – for red velvet cake – one feels that the benefits of a whole cooking course have been presented by a teacher eager to share her passion and expertise.

So, its unsurprising to learn that Capendale ran successful cookery classes in Langebaan, where she still spends some of her time, and has a food studio in Pretoria where she teaches and writes about cooking.

The recipes start with cakes, go on to tea breads, cupcakes and biscuits. Bars and squares fill another chapter, while the following, Sweet Treats, presents a range of confectionery, which always sells well. Traditional bakes includes classics like milk tart and mosbolletjies, and there are plenty of sweet tarts and pies to try as wwell. Breads, rusks and muffin and savoury quiches and bites are also given their share of space.

The oh-so-trendy macaroons, white and dark chocolate and raspberry or coconut – are there for the more experienced baker to attempt – and threaded onto coloured ribbon and dangled en masse -  make for irresistible displays.

Well indexed, with beautiful images by photographer Myburgh du Plessis, the R250 price of this title is certain to inspire a whole bunch of keen bakers to make their passion pay! And when the present cult of home baking is replaced by some other pastime, this collection will continue to pay its way. The Afrikaans version is called Bak vir Pret and Profyt.

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EMPIRE, WAR & CRICKET IN South Africa: Logan of Matjiesfontein, by Dean Allen. Published by Zebra Press, 2015.


Appropriately dedicated to the late David Rawdon and the people of Matiesfontein, this multi-faceted book combines a biography of James Logan, founder of that fascinating Victorian pile alongside the railway line in the Karoo, with the story of cricket’s origins in South Africa. As the events take place in the last decade of the 19th century and the first of the 20th  - thus encompassing the Anglo-Boer War and developments that led to the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910 – this is also a political history of the country during turbulent times.

James Logan was a particularly successful example of an entrepreneur who left his native Scotland intent on making his fortune in farflung parts of the British Empire, holding aloft, as Andre Odendaal states in the foreword, “the flag of fair play, civilisation and empire.” Together with better-known contemporaries like Cecil John Rhodes, Logan became prosperous at a period when Britain expanded her empire to the point when she occupied nearly a quarter of the world’s areas.

And then there was cricket, a game the British believed expressed a distinctively English morality, which developed in South Africa with Logan as one of its most enthusiastic patrons.

A son of a railwayman from a working class background, Logan arrived at South Africa in 1877. He got a job as a porter at Cape Town station, just as the railway infrstructure was expanding. Through hard work and diligence he was promoted rapidly and often – from station master to superintendent of the railway between Hex River and Prince Albert. Happily married to Emma Haylett, his fortune was founded when he took over as caterer for railway station refreshments, laying the foundation of his business empire which stretched eventually to Bulawayo from Cape Town.

In 1883 he bought about 7 700 acres of land around a little railway siding not far from Touws River, went on to acquire neighbouring farms and set about   building Matjiesfontein . The finished village was an impressive achievement that also became a fashionable health resort.

Logan entered politics in 1888 , winning a seat in the Cape legislative assembly six years later and by 1890 was being compared to his friend and political ally Cecil John Rhodes. Logan entertained on a grand scale, associated with dignitaries, politicians and sportsmen , which all helped his transformation from railway worker to Victorian aristocrat. His promotion and funding of cricket tours also went down well. He also built up his own estate Tweedside, a neighbouring farm where he hosted guests, making sure that these events were given coverage in the Cape Town newspapers. During the Anglo-Boer war Logan offered Matjiesfontein as a centre for the British forces. Logan was, like Rhodes, a man of his time, but his influence and fortune waned after his retirement from politics and he died at Matjiesfontein in 1920.

The book is based on a PhD that Dean Allen completed seven years ago, and publication was made possible by the Rupert Foundation. Wonderful old photographs enhance the text throughout . Tighter editing would have eliminated frequent repetition, but the parallel stories of Matjiesfontein, Logan, politics and cricket are timely and well told. It’s a pity that David Rawdon did not live to see this title: His wish that Matjiesfontein be preserved and its future assured is well supported by this story. As Liz McGrath who took over after Rawdon’s death has also since died, it is a question that needs to be answered.

Myrna Robins

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