The Braai


SAVEUR - - Season To Taste - BY MARK BYRNE Pho­to­graphs by CROOKES & JACK­SON

First, a co­in­ci­dence: 1.8 mil­lion years ago, about 500 miles up from the south­ern­most tip of Africa, in a wide­mouthed cave dug into an eroded hill­side, Homo erec­tus dis­cov­ered bar­be­cue. He’d been an ape, not all that long ago. But his teeth had shrunk as his brain grew; he was now hav­ing trou­ble chew­ing raw meat. He had re­cently lit his first fire. One day, Homo erec­tus threw a car­cass onto the flame. The burn­ing meat grew ten­der. He bit in and lived to see an­other sun­rise.

That cave is called Won­der­w­erk, the Afrikaans word for “mir­a­cle,” and it hap­pens to be lo­cated within the bor­ders of South Africa, a coun­try pos­i­tively ob­sessed with grilling meat. Is it a co­in­ci­dence that meat was first grilled on what would be­come South African land? Yes, prob­a­bly. But it’s the type of co­in­ci­dence you dwell on—there’s more to it than a coun­try’s ephemeral bor­ders and a random cave. There’s a deeper truth here. If you stare at it long enough, you could learn some­thing about the way the world works.

Icame to Cape Town to eat. And if you’re here to eat, you must braai. The sim­plest way to un­der­stand braai is to call it bar­be­cue. That’s a lin­guis­tic as well as cul­tural trans­la­tion— it’s both cui­sine and pas­time. As with the word bar­be­cue, you can throw a braai and braai a steak. Its us­age is fluid, and om­nipresent.

“We have 11 of­fi­cial lan­guages in South Africa,” Jan Scannell tells me, “and braai is a rec­og­nized word in every sin­gle one.”

A decade or so ago Scannell chris­tened him­self “Jan Braai” and em­barked on a na­tional cru­sade to re­brand Septem­ber 24, the coun­try’s Her­itage Day, as Braai Day—akin to of­fi­cially declar­ing Thanks­giv­ing to be Turkey Day. As im­prob­a­ble as it sounds, it worked.

This is not sim­ply a feat of mar­ket­ing. Many South Africans al­ready braaied on Septem­ber 24 (and most other week­ends through­out the year; Cape Town’s cli­mate is per­fect to the de­gree that res­i­dents re­ally only com­plain about wind). The re­nam­ing was a kind of metonymic trans­fer of en­ergy, from the idea to the way the idea was cel­e­brated. It was also, more im­por­tantly, an at­tempt to draw out what lit­tle com­mon ground was shared in a frac­tured coun­try that still bears the scars of apartheid.

Per­haps that’s putting too much pres­sure on a day, a name, and a style of cook­ing. No hol­i­day could prop­erly salve a coun­try’s racial ten­sion. But it’s worth giv­ing credit to the com­mon ground. South Africans—the na­tive tribes, the colonial im­mi­grants, and the de­scen­dants of the Asian slave trade—all braai. Some­where be­tween 15 and 20 mil­lion South Africans braai on Braai Day. That’s nearly half the pop­u­la­tion.

“It’s a great equal­izer in South African so­ci­ety,” Scannell says. “The wealth­i­est peo­ple braai with proper wooden fires and the poor­est peo­ple braai with proper wooden fires. It’s a way of pre­par­ing food, but it’s also a so­cial gath­er­ing.”

In back­yards and on pa­tios; in the sub­urbs and deep in the bush; atop shin­ing new grills and on beds of thorn­brush: To braai is to gather with friends, of­ten on long, lazy af­ter­noons, and grill meat, of­ten over wood. Lamb is pop­u­lar. Chicken piri-piri—a rem­nant of Por­tuguese colo­nial­ism now so thor­oughly in­te­grated into South African cul­ture that it’s spawned a ca­sual din­ing em­pire called Nando’s—is com­mon, too. There are steaks of all cuts, side dishes re­liant on abun­dant corn, an in­ge­nious vari­a­tion of the grilled cheese, and sausage—lots of sausage. The sausage—here called boerewors, or “farmer sausage”—is worth dwelling on. In this one sausage, Scannell says, you can find African meat (of­ten beef, some­times pork and lamb, too), a fond­ness for sausage-mak­ing left over from French and Por­tuguese sea­far­ers, and spices (co­rian­der, cumin, and nut­meg), car­ried by slaves from the East.

In other words, boerewors is a bit like Cape Town it­self: chock-full of her­itage and very de­li­cious.

Any­one who’s ever been to Cape Town will tell you it’s among the most pic­turesque cities in the world—a horse­shoe of low sprawl built around a jut­ting peak, brack­eted on one side by the fran­tic, blue South Atlantic, and

on the other by the vast false hori­zon of Table Moun­tain. Any­one who’s been to Cape Town in the last few years will tell you an­other thing: It’s a good time to be hun­gry here. A net­work of young, tal­ented chefs has be­gun to fan out through the city. There are high-end tast­ing menus and low­brow street­food ge­niuses. There are hip­ster burger joints with nou­veau Sloppy Joes and a crois­sant-sling­ing bak­ery ob­sessed with egg sand­wiches. There are wood­fired pizza places and bright, loud sand­wich joints, and menu­less tapas spots tucked be­hind cook­ware shops.

And, of course, there are braais. In Gugulethu, one of the vast town­ships that abut the city, Mzoli’s Place of­fers tourists and lo­cals alike a kind of daily braai party, with loud mu­sic, big grills, and abun­dant beer. About half an hour from the cen­ter of Cape Town, the open-air es­tab­lish­ment is presided over by Mzoli Ng­cawuzele, who opened the butch­ery stall in 2003. It’s since grown into a bona-fide des­ti­na­tion—more a dance club with a grill as its back­drop— one of the few town­ship lo­ca­tions in­cluded in Western guide­books. The re­la­tion­ship here is com­pli­cated: African town­ships, these mas­sive, end­less grids of two-room ce­ment houses and steel-sided shacks, are a crash course on the lin­ger­ing ef­fects of in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized racism and eco­nomic strat­i­fi­ca­tion. That tourists tend to ar­rive and leave via Uber with­out so much as ven­tur­ing off the block is proof of ei­ther safe or clois­tered trav­el­ing, de­pend­ing on whom you ask.

You can see a braai in its nat­u­ral habi­tat with­out leav­ing the city cen­ter. You must go be­hind the houses, into the back­yards of the peo­ple who live here. And once you’re here, stand­ing over a pile of burn­ing wood, it helps to know a good butcher.

Out to the Wood­stock neigh­bor­hood, a 10-minute drive due east from the city cen­ter, in an old in­dus­trial cor­ri­dor now con­verted into a string of trendy stores, restau­rants, and lofts, there is a retro­fit­ted garage called Frankie Fen­ner Meat Mer­chants. Here, Andy Fen­ner, one of the city’s pre­em­i­nent pur­vey­ors of meat, has reimag­ined a butcher shop as a con­tem­po­rary art gallery—all slick and white in­side, its hang­ing car­casses per­fectly framed in­side a meat locker be­hind a square of glass. Fen­ner fetishizes provenance above all else, sourc­ing his cuts mostly from farms he’s per­son­ally vis­ited, like a fa­ther-son cat­tle oper­a­tion called Lang­side, near the city of Queen­stown in the Eastern Cape.

“My beef farm­ers are hard­core, grass-fed purists,” he says. (Fen­ner scru­ti­nizes the di­ets of the an­i­mals he buys like some peo­ple do their own chil­dren’s.) When it comes to lamb, he buys only Ka­roo, a re­gional vari­a­tion prized in South Africa for its dis­tinct herbal fla­vor. What Fen­ner can­not sell in the shop or to other restau­rants, he brings to Ash, a res­tau­rant where he is a part­ner. Ash’s head chef Ash Heeger de­vises her menu par­tially based on what is avail­able at Fen­ner’s butch­ery—a smaller-foot­print ap­proach to cut­ting up an­i­mals. “We strug­gled to find ways to use pig

heads,” Fen­ner says. “We would make guan­ciale or a fro­mage de tête every now and then, but we couldn’t sell them fast enough. The heads kept pil­ing up.” Ash now fea­tures a pig’s head scrum­pet (nuggets of breaded and fried ter­rine) that is, ac­cord­ing to Fen­ner, the res­tau­rant’s most pop­u­lar dish.

All of this is to say, for both restau­ra­teurs and ev­ery­day Capeto­ni­ans, Fen­ner is the pre­ferred mid­dle­man for good meat. As it hap­pens, he is also known to throw a hell of a braai.

Fen­ner and his wife, Ni­cole, live in a small, old Vic­to­rian house in Tam­boer­skloof, a hill­side com­mu­nity of unim­peach­able quaint­ness just off Bree Street, one of the city’s main drink­ing and din­ing drags. From Fen­ner’s porch—ac­tu­ally, from ev­ery­where in Tam­boer­skloof—the view is dom­i­nated by Lion’s Head, the moun­tain ris­ing just be­hind it. But even with that back­drop, the fo­cal point of Fen­ner’s home is in­doors, in his kitchen, a wide, open room that spreads across the back of the house, all con­crete floors and brick walls, with big arched win­dows fram­ing two sides.

The Fen­ners had spent the day pre­par­ing, and as their friends ar­rived, they be­gan cook­ing in earnest. The room filled just as the af­ter­noon turned into evening. Three ram­bunc­tious dogs (two of Fen­ner’s, one be­long­ing to a friend) raced through

the din­ing room, crash­ing into legs as they worked the cor­ners. We drank beer at first, then switched to gin and ton­ics, then a suc­ces­sion of wines. Leav­ing guests thirsty is a car­di­nal sin of proper braaing. The Fen­ners chopped and cooked, send­ing waves of food into the group. The first was a plat­ter of quar­tered grilled cheese sand­wiches, called braaibrood­jie, pre­pared over the open flame and served as a kind of amuse. (A pro­posal: Make all grilled cheese sand­wiches this way.) The sec­ond: those fa­mous boerewors, cased by Fen­ner him­self, served in bite-size morsels with spicy chakalaka, a local pep­per rel­ish. The ap­pe­tiz­ers slowed to a halt as the Fen­ners plated the main cour­ses: Ka­roo-raised lamb rump, as deeply herbal as promised, cooked just a shade north of rare; egg salad, touched with spice; samp and beans, a min­i­mal­ist’s vi­sion of chili, just white beans and de­hulled corn ker­nels, stewed in smoked lard un­til soft; and mielies, more corn (corn is big here), this time

The word braai is rec­og­nized in each of South Africa’s 11 of­fi­cial lan­guages. It can be used as a noun (“throw a braai”) or a verb (“braai a steak”).

Above: Samp and beans, a beloved dish of dried, hominy-like corn and beans (see page 50 for recipe). Right: Andy and Ni­cole Fen­ner prep­ping in their kitchen for a back­yard braai.

Grilled lamb sir­loin served with a vi­brant, lemony salsa verde (see page 51 for recipe). Op­po­site, from top: Braaibrood­jie, grilled cheese with sweet and sour chut­ney (see page 49 for recipe); Heeger braais for an au­di­ence.

Andy Fen­ner (third from right) and his butcher team out­side Frankie Fen­ner Meat Mer­chants in the Wood­stock neigh­bor­hood.

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