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.