An old English proverb rings true: “A boiled stew is a soiled stew”
In the 1980’s, a wave of retro cooking hit South Africa. In the mind of the average South African, this is going back to our pioneer day roots. In reality, it is an entirely new culture altogether.
Today, curries, seafood and all sorts of stews are prepared, typically in 3-legged cast iron pots over open fires. There are recipe books and many competitions are held. Of course, there is nothing wrong with that.
The historical potjie was also known as togkos or transport food, made by togryers or transporters using ox wagons. Grandpa on my mother’s side was a ‘civil engineer’ who built many dams across the country and this also necessitated transporting logistical needs and construction equipment.
A horse rider or two would travel in advance of the slow convoy and pick a campsite for the night. A pot of food would be prepared in a way more or less as described below. Note there never is a recipe for traditional potjiekos or pot food. Instead, the method defines the dinner!
A pot would be heated on a thick layer of glowing embers. Hot coals, with little or no flames, is a signature of a traditional potjie. Meat would be braised, even roasted, in the heated pot.
The fat flowing from the meat itself would serve as lubrication as, usually, no oil or fat was used. The meat, once browned thoroughly, would be removed and placed on the upturned lid alongside the pot. Usually, lamb was used, sometimes beef or wild game, but pork was uncommon.
The hardest veggies would then go in first, resting at the bottom. Green beans usually formed the basis of such a pot, also waterblommetjies in season. Layer upon layer of available vegetables, if available, were added. Salt or basic seasoning, added to taste. Seasoning traditionally was limited to basel, nutmeg, rosemary, if any. Food prepared this way does not really need added taste.
The braised meat would go on top, sometimes on a thin layer of cabbage leaves. The lid would be replaced and the food baked from the top by placing a few hot coals, from a separate wood fire, on top. Three to five large ones would suffice, as too many may scorch the meat. At the bottom, two smaller hot embers may suffice in spreading heat evenly.
While pitching the night camp, collecting wood, fetching water or perhaps some hunting, the advance team would slowly bake the caserole without adding water and, most importantly, no stirring in the pot.
As you can imagine, unlike the modern potjie, this method easily requires five to nine hours to produce a succulent, tasty meal. As the food is cooked very slowly, there occurs a great fusion of flavours.
Veggies was in short supply and dried fruit was used instead – peaches, apricots, prunes, raisins, pears were the norm.
Small quantities of wine were used sometimes, but not generally.
The meat at the top would allow some of its juices to flow down through the food below.
Remember, it is about traditional method, not about a recipe. You add what you have, yet preparing it slowly is the secret here. You can always make a nice stew much faster, add soup powders, Aromat or other artificial flavours but will that be true to the Awethentiq® togkos potjie?