This is my 24th article in the Mercury Food and Wine supplement.
As I stood at the stove tending my faithful cast iron pot, filled with Chuck and Bobs Toulouse sausage, cannellini beans and plenty of garlic, my thoughts started to turn on all things food and farm.
My ideal kitchen is of the traditional farmhouse variety, complete with hearth and chimney, wood stove and enormous yellowwood table. Cast iron and copper pots dominate. The shelves are filled with preserves and tubs of brewing ale and ginger beer stand on the counters. The room is filled with the aroma of herbs and olive wood smoke. The ingredients for all the hearty,flavourful meals are freshly harvested and gathered from the farm.
I have to stop myself at this point. This is culinary heaven for me and yes, it is achievable. After all I have the fortune to be living and working on an organic farm. But for most in this country, merely getting hold of the most basic foodstuffs is difficult. I use the term foodstuffs because what is usually available for the less fortunate is not even real food.
A recent report by Pacsa, a Pietermaritzburg based NGO, highlighted the fact that prices for basic foodstuffs have risen to a level out of reach of the monthly incomes of most.
The basic foodstuffs included in this survey are exactly that, stuff. Most items are highly refined and high in sugars and trans fats. This is leading to serious health problems of which diabetes seems to be one of the most significant.
Standing in my kitchen, another thought came to me. Most of the hearty, flavourful, and certainly nutritious meals that come out of this room were once the basic dishes of poor country folk. They were certainly not the dishes of royalty and the elite until enterprising chefs introduced them to society.
My sausage and beans is one such dish. It is one of those dishes that satisfies both body and soul and yet had humble origins as a peasant dish from the French countryside. Traditional country folk had what I would call ‘food wisdom’. They knew what the countryside had to offer in food. They cultivated and husbanded their crop varieties and animal breeds. They saved seeds to pass on to other generations. The craft and skill of farming, and of preserving and preparing food was also taught and passed down.
I had the pleasure of meeting fellow columnist Mpume Mqwebu here at Broadleaze. I was struck by her passion for food and especially for her interest in reviving local African culinary traditions. Surely here is the key. If local chefs and farmers can work together with local traditional communities we might be able to turn the tide.
There is a wealth of traditional knowledge out there. We need to conserve that knowledge and learn from it. Farmers need to learn and to teach so that we may cultivate and grow the right food. Creative and passionate chefs such as Mpume need to take this traditional food lore to new heights and make us all proud of what has sprung from our local soils.
Maybe then we can create a climate in which a traditional African food culture can take pride of place. And if that pride can encourage communities to produce good food, then that will be a job well done.