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Leefstyl | Lifestyle > Kos & Wyn | Food & Wine > Rubrieke | Columns > Paul Murray: Murray's Food Trails

The Drostdy Trail

Paul Murray - 2007-08-01

Travellers visiting the Karoo town of Graaff-Reinet enter the distant past. Seated in the antique chairs at the antique tables of the Drostdy Hotel’s majestic dining hall, which was once lit by 144 candles glowing incandescently from the brass candelabras hanging from the wooden ceiling, one can enjoy a style of dining that has not changed in 200 years! Broad-beamed floorboards of yellowwood add to the warm and welcoming feeling, inducing an at-home ambience.

The table is classic slow-food. Time-honoured recipes such as lamb served with sweet pumpkin and rice, topped with gravy capturing the hours-long-formed stock from the bottom of the pot, ensure that dining is as important as visiting the town’s valuable treasures in its many museums.

Desserts are of the classic old-style, hot-baked kind, with a homemade custard topping, and there is a wide range of fine wines to choose from to accompany, not far off from the choices made by the VOC and British Governors, Simon van der Stel and Lord Charles Somerset!

This is fossil country. Dr Robert Broom and the Rubidges and Kitchings searched the plains and hillsides of the surrounds of the town for clues to the cradle of man. Their discoveries proved that the pre-reptile, doglike dicynodont was suitable grub for the ferocious gorgonopson. It enjoyed it like we do a Sunday lunch.

The hunting season in the middle of winter, whilst the icy cold blows down from the mountains capped with snow, will ensure the diner of the very best in venison, such as kudu or wildebeest, topped with a generous portion of Graaff-Reinet quince jelly and a deep red cabernet.

The Drostdy was established at the time of Burchell’s peregrinations in the area early in the 19th century and the same for John Barrow. The majesty of the building did not escape their perceptive eye. The descriptive sentences penned in their travelogues do it ample justice, as do the descriptions of the fine dishes they partook of as guests of the leading farmers of the surrounding areas. Boiled mutton was a hot favourite, so different from what C Louis Leipoldt says was “the tasteless, stringy meat, served with caper sauce that is commonly dished up in restaurants”. He suggests the following if you want to go for the real thing, which he writes so passionately about in Leipoldt’s Food and Wine:

Trim a leg of mutton: wash it and wrap in a wet cloth. In a large saucepan, which you have filled with water and white wine, half and half, slice a handful of carrots, an onion, two shallots, a dozen cloves, a crushed chilli, half a dozen black peppercorns and a tablespoonful of coarse salt. Let it come to the boil and when properly bubbles, unwrap your mutton and plunge it into the pot; let it boil quickly for ten minutes; then draw the pot aside and allow it to boil gently till the meet is cooked to the bone. Take out the meat and put it in a dish in the oven, leaving the oven door open. Braise some young carrots in butter, whole, arrange them around the meat. Make a white sauce with flour, the water in which the mutton has been boiled and the yolk of an egg; salt and pepper it, and thin it with white wine and lemon juice. Pour over the mutton and serve. 

Burchell reminisces about the scrumptious boiled lamb, served with cucumber and milk, that was dished up at his host’s table. After-dinner stoepstories were a suitable way of ending a night of fine dining and fine conversation amid fine Karoo hospitality.

One such "storie" could easily have been that of Nathaniel Merriman, the footslogging bishop without a horse, who enjoyed the naartjies and biltong that he was offered as he traversed the Plains of Camdeboo between Pearston and Graaff-Reinet on his way back to his bishopric in Grahamstown. He meticulously entered in his diaries details of what he ate along the way, but the omission of what he was served by the farmer host in the dining room of the farm house is strange, to say the least.

Merriman remembers on one occasion being served sandwiches with meat on, delivered on horseback by a Khoi servant from a neighbouring farm while he was spanning out beside the dry Melkrivier. He was suitably reminded of the time the raven brought the prophet Elijah food from heaven, as he was seated beside a dried-up river, like Merriman. The difference is that on African soil the bishop had the added "disadvantage" of potentially sharing his meal with the local lion, or be eaten for dinner!

The Drostdy was there before the arrival of these travellers. Not much has changed about it. There is that friendly Karoo hospitality, so characteristic of Karoo towns. To add to it all, the clean Karoo air ensures a healthy appetite right from the start. The four-course breakfast - stewed fruit, cereal or porridge, English breakfast, hot toast and marmalade and freshly made coffee - will certainly ensure the traveller lasts till lunch-time when a hearty meal will be available either in the hotel’s Camdeboo Restaurant or in the main dining hall.

In between, the Pierneef Museum or the town’s selection of treasures, Salisbury Cathedral and the Hester Rupert Art Collection are all fine "excuses" to visit, and a fitting way to walk off the calories before being seated for dinner at one of the finest tables in the country for wholesome, rich, decadent, baroque food, slow-cooked in the tradition of the forefathers, and in the Drostdy way.

Food conoscentis Leipoldt writes of the way they used to prepare game in the olden days:

Our own Bonadian way of preparing a real "frayed" dish – as was the custom at harvest festivals, or when participants in a funeral procession had come from faraway farms and naturally had to be given something to eat – seems to me more appropriate for the plate of the connoisseur. I must concede, in all honesty, that it is a difficult dish to prepare (talking about venison). It is about as difficult as a making a first-class fish stew – called bouillabaisse by the French, which one used to be able to have at the White House in Strand Street (Cape Town) – which requires many different kinds of fish. And for a genuine frayed game stew you need at least three kinds of game.

His recipe for "frayed" game is therefore appropriate to present here:

Place a few pounds of the meat of any buck, preferably the soft strip off the back, in an iron pot; add a few doves, a Coqui francolin, a pheasant, and any other kind of game, winged or earthbound, that you can get hold of. If you can find some warthog, so much the better; if not, take a piece of lard, not too salty; cut it into little dice, and add it to the mixture. If you are using large game, with marrow in the bones, chop the bones open and there will be no reason to add any other fat. If you do not have game marrow, add a large lump of hard fat or butter.

Allow the mixture to steam slowly over the fire. And stir often so that it does not stick to the pot. No water is needed – the juice of the meat will be sufficient. Whether or not you add onions, spices, or even potatoes is a matter of personal preference. I do not consider it appropriate, but this is a matter of taste. The same goes for whether or not, later - when it is done and nicely "frayed" – you should add wine, vinegar or cream. Wine gives it a darker complexion, and we Bonades like our frayed stew to be light. Vinegar does not really do for the taste what the old transport riders maintained it did – I think their stews were always made of half-dry meat and were therefore not very tasty. About the cream, especially if sour, opinions are divided. I admit that it gives a strange, and to my taste, very pleasant tang to the game, but it seems to me rather like the gilding of the lily that the old playwright warned against.

Graaff-Reinetters will appreciate Leipoldt’s postscript:

Game stew, prepared in our old-fashioned "frayed" manner, requires no more than a deep plate and the appetite of a connoisseur. After more than 200 years, no one can argue, the Drostdy has certainly stood the "taste" of time!