Cradock charm on menu
Foodies descend on historic Karoo town for delightful annual festival, writes Louise Liebenberg
About 2000 hungry and curious visitors from every corner of the province and beyond descended on the farming town of Cradock last weekend for the Karoo Food Festival, an annual event that has become an important addition to the Eastern Cape tourism offering.
Don’t be fooled by the apparently unassuming and laid-back nature of this Great Fish River town and its inhabitants: Cradock has no shortage of dedicated movers and shakers who have toiled tirelessly for decades to position the town in what they consider its rightful place – at the centre of the Karoo Heartland region.
Cradock’s famous Tuishuise and Victoria Manor – a charming row of rustic, historically significant Karoo houses and a stately old hotel restored over many years by the Antrobus family – are still very much at the centre of everything that happens here, though many others have also joined the cause.
The popular Karoo Food Festival which takes places over several days around Freedom Day – a significant theme in Cradock’s turbulent history – is one local event that has seen residents from all communities pull together.
Established in 2013 by Lisa Antobus-Ker, Melina Smit and Robyn Muller, the programme traditionally includes a food market, cookery classes, demonstrations and themed dinners.
The power of word-of-mouth and consistent effort on the part of the organisers and all involved has seen it grow from barely a hundred visitors five years ago to nearly 2000 this year.
In 2016, it was also a proud runner-up in the national Best Domestic Event Contributing to Tourism Growth category of the prestigious Sports and Tourism Exchange Awards.
Far from being a Tuishuise and Victoria Manor show, however, the festival has taken on a life of its own and spilled over into venues across town, most notably The Palms, a large and leafy oasis in Dundas Street, where the majority of stalls, demos and outdoor events are concentrated.
With Cradock less than three hours’ drive from Port Elizabeth, last weekend provided the perfect opportunity for me and my food and fun-loving partner in crime, Salvelio, to re-discover the town by checking out the festival for the first time.
Many out-of-towners like ourselves had the same idea and cleverly combined their culinary capers with a trip to the world-class Mountain Zebra National Park outside town.
We stayed in Out of Africa, one of the quaint Tuishuise in Market Street, and were thrilled to discover many of the familiar faces from our last visit a good few years ago were still around.
It was as if time had stood still: There to meet us at the door once more was that wonderful Cradock and Victoria Manor ambassador, Amos Nteta, his broad smile as genuine as ever.
In one of the sumptuous red velvet chairs at the entrance sat Sandra Antrobus, enormously inspiring matriarch of the Antrobus family. Always-on-the-go daughter Lisa and her husband, former Everest climber David Ker – a thoroughly delightful pair – were also on their posts and ready to roll out another fine festival, while Gibson Munemo at the front desk checked us in with the same witty repartee we remembered so well from our last visit.
But Cradock 2018 also provided a chance for the two of us to make loads of new friends – from renowned travel writers Chris and Julienne du Toit and the unstoppable, coffee-loving Smits, Frans and Melina; to the influential but refreshingly down-to-earth Adamis and friendly farmers Freddie and Michelle van Zyl.
We even got to reconnect with Cathy Knox, Bedford’s fabulous food garden fundi and a great collaborator of the Karoo Food Festival.
We piled into Cradock-style cocktails and canapes ingeniously incorporating ingredients from the area (Karoo Brew); the best bone marrow we’ve ever tasted, drizzled with lemon and a scattering of zest and capers (Victoria Manor) and, at The Palms, enough pancakes to last us until Shrove Tuesday next year.
Don’t wait for next year’s food festival to visit: There’s the Schreiner Karoo Writers’ Festival from July 19-21; the Etienne van Heerden Festival from September 20-23; the Fish River Canoe Marathon from October 4-6 and, last but not least, the Cradock Show from October 26-28.
For more festival information call Amy, 083-257-8601, and for accommodation bookings contact email@example.com
Their brews have brought a buzz
The Smits of Cradock are a crazy clan by their own admission.
Dad Frans is an attorney in town; he also owns a gym and cafe, and is obsessed with brewing of any kind, whether coffee, beer or bold ideas.
Mum Melina is a madcap Stellenbosch University drama graduate now working for the Department of Education.
She recently discovered the wonders of kombucha – a fermented and slightly fizzy, sweet tea said to have numerous health benefits – and since then has been spending her days frantically trying to keep an ever-expanding colony of scobys alive.
A scoby, she explains, is the alien-like “home” of the bacteria and yeast that transform a boring batch of tea into tangy, refreshing kombucha.
Melina did a presentation on the mysteries of the scoby (an acronym for “symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast”) at last weekend’s Karoo Food Festival, where she had visitors in hysterics with her take on these weird life forms for which she now appears to feel wholly responsible.
Melina, it turns out, is also a co-founder of the annual food festival, and this year again roped in the entire Smit family to do their bit.
Teenage sons Pieter-Ben and Hendrey took turns giving foot scrubs to help raise funds for an upcoming drama tour. They also joined other young baristas in the making (this is another of Melina and Frans’s projects) at the Karoo Brew coffee station, where aromatic cuppas were produced non-stop but with no shortage of dedication and skill.
Karoo Brew is the Smits’ cafe in Durban Street, next door to Frans’s office at Nolte Smit Attorneys. The family transformed the run-down old building into a classy but comfy space now popular with locals and visitors alike.
It was here that a fun Cocktails & Canapes evening was held on the first night of the festival. Guests dived into baked brie with nuts and honey; lamb koftas with tsatsiki; springbok carpaccio on chive mousse crumpets; and beef fillet focaccia with pesto – not to mention some delicious drinks like a Renosterbos gin and tonic with fresh pomegranate and a to-die-for espresso martini.
New projects for town’s writers
They’re the dedicated pair of journos who’ve introduced many a city slicker to the pleasures of the South African platteland through the pages of three successful books on the Karoo and numerous articles for the likes of Country Life magazine.
It has been more than a decade since freelance writers Julienne du Toit and Chris Marais traded in their hectic, big-city lives in Jozi for a change of pace in a comparatively quiet and unpretentious Eastern Cape town.
“We chose to live in Cradock because of the people in this town: hardy, authentic, mostly friendly and blessed with a special sense of humour,” Chris and Jules say.
“In its own way, Cradock is also a beautiful town in a remarkable mountain setting and, for us at Karoo Space, the perfect geographical springboard for our regular travels into the semi-desert interior of South Africa.”
Following their move here in 2007, the two award-winning journalists became independent publishers. Now, along with countless other “semigrants”, they present the case for relocating to the countryside in a new book, Moving to the Platteland, which is due for release later this year.
“If you ever wanted to swap the urban rush for a fuller life with wide open spaces and more hours in the day, then Moving to the Platteland should be your faithful companion,” they reckon.
The full title of the book is Moving to the Platteland – Life in Small Town South Africa and it will be launched at the end of July at the Schreiner Karoo Writers’ Festival in Cradock.
While researching it Chris and Jules not only drew on their own experiences but on those of many of the city-turned-country dwellers they have interviewed over the years.
Some of the fascinating characters they have encountered now also feature in a slide-show themed Creative Karoo. Whether in Cradock or Calvinia, Clarens or the Tankwa Karoo, Chris and Jules find interesting and engaging personalities and faithfully document their remarkable stories.
The slide-show was screened at last weekend’s Karoo Food Festival and the responses were so encouraging they are now planning to take it on the road to coincide with the launch of the new book.
“We’ve got a gig with our band, Ginger’s Fault (which includes another Karoo author, Antony Osler, on bass, his brother Maeder on harmonica and Ginger Seipp, the banjo maestro from Cape Town) at the Williston Winter Festival at the end of August,” Chris says.
“And then, sometime early in September, we’ll begin our launch trip down to Cape Town, starting with Prince Albert. But more on that closer to the time.”
- The couple’s current stock of books is available in print and e-book formats on their website at www.karoospace.co.za. Look out for Karoo Keepsakes, Karoo Keepsakes II, Road Tripper – Eastern Cape Karoo, Shorelines, Coast to Coast, The Journey Man – A South African Reporter’s Story and, later this year, Moving to the Platteland.
In sync with the seasons
The smell of cinnamon on a milktart or succulent lamb slow-roasting in the Aga... these are the kind of food memories the Karoo is famous for evoking.
Born and raised in De Aar and living in Cradock since 2001, Heyla Meyer not only relives these delicious memories daily but creates them for tourists from around the globe in the kitchens at Victoria Manor.
The hotel’s head chef and her sous chef, Valerie Smith, gave visitors to last weekend’s Karoo Food Festival a demonstration on how to prepare traditional Karoo lamb or venison shanks – always a favourite in the area.
“The shank was the part of the animal that people discarded. It was not a good enough cut and was usually given to the dogs or the poor. Now we serve it to kings,” Heyla chuckles. And that, in some, ways, is the essence of Karoo cooking, she says: Taking simple but good-quality food and making it tasty without overwhelming it with “lots of finicky things”.
“Often our main ingredients are salt, pepper, a bit of coriander, garlic and onions. We use what we have in season and we preserve a lot, because the Karoo is harsh. It is very pretty now – autumn is the best time in the Karoo – but it can be cold and dry, or terribly hot.”
Heyla is renowned for her preserves – a skill inherited from her late grandmother. Visitors got to taste her delicious cucumber pickle, makataan (wild melon) jam and she even shared some tips and tricks for preserving green figs.
“We use the first yield from the tree in October. The old people used to say that after the 15th of October you don’t do green figs, because they become hollow. But the weather is so deurmekaar now that the 15th of October could now be the 15th of September or November!
“Then, with a little bit of luck, you learn when the second lot of figs will be ready so you can also make preserves out of them.”
Karoo folk are slow roasting, slow cooking people, Heyla says. “We are rustig in our kitchens.
“We do everything slowly, so how can you eat slow-cooked food in a rush?”