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Cape Town - Common wisdom says if you want good food, you head off down to the Western Cape where they have all sorts of good wine, cheeses, fresh, organic food and some of the best chefs in the country. It doesn’t say head off to the Karoo where all you can see for miles is, well… long, straight, dry roads, ostriches and a bunch of sheep nibbling in the scrub.
But common wisdom would be wrong. While anyone with half a palate knows that Karoo lamb rates up there with the best meat anywhere, not everyone knows there is much more to the region than sheep.
The Karoo heartland is also home to great artisan beers, award-winning olive farms, sheep’s milk cheese and yoghurt and rare agave bud pickles.
It is also where you will find delicious Karoo honey (it’s not just the sheep who love the flowering shrubs of the Karoo), excellent goat’s milk cheeses, smoked kudu salami, pecan and walnuts, figs and pomegranates and any number of wonderful home-made preserves.
There is so much more than just hot horizons of nothing but windmills and tumbleweed.
Like any good self-drive safari, we consulted local “experts”, friends who live in Cradock, who pointed us in the direction of a couple of good “watering holes”, and with guidebooks and maps in hand, we sallied forth.
Who knew that currently, the only small-scale, commercial producer of sheep’s cheese in the country is in the Karoo heartland?
Beaconsfield Farm near Hofmeyer produces not just gouda, feta and halloumi, but also ricotta and pecorino-type sheep cheeses and yoghurt, all of which are preservative and colourant free.
Sheep’s milk has a wonderful, if rather bland taste, very similar to cow’s milk, but slightly sweeter.
So, before you go off pop thinking that sheep’s milk cheese is going to have a strong, distinctive taste much like goat cheese, best you taste it.
That is, if you can get your hands on it.
A short tour around the milking sheds and a breakfast of delicious yoghurt and fried halloumi on the dappled veranda of Beaconsfield Farm, there in the far recesses of the Karoo, and I became a serious convert of this healthy and tasty Karoo speciality.
A drive from Beaconsfield over the beautiful Lootsberg pass to Nieu-Bethesda ended with a late lunch at Sneeuberg Brewery and 2 Goats Deli.
This little artisan brewery, near a small herd of Ngunis, Jerseys and Holsteins, a flock of speckled Boer and snowy white Saanen goats, and an odd sculpture perched in a wheelbarrow, is off a rickety road against a beautiful mountain backdrop.
We settled into a delicious ploughman’s lunch of fresh homemade bread, smoked kudu salami, roast beetroot jam, some strong cheddar, gouda, and a selection of goat’s cheeses such as honey, olive oil and brandy, peppercorn and sweet chilli, and chive and nettle. This was accompanied by a lip-smacking Honey Ale made right there. Couple this with a late-afternoon visit to the strangely beautiful Owl House in Nieu-Bethesda, and you can hardly get more Karoo.
In true safari style, that night, after a delicious slap-up meal provided by the Karoo Lamb in Nieu-Bethesda, we sat around a fire in our pretty Aandster Guesthouse.
Tim and Lisa Murray’s family have farmed at Roodebloem for five generations. Like many Karoo farmers, they once farmed cattle, ostrich, and a few sheep. But as any good Karoo farmer knows, working in these harsh conditions takes creativity – especially when faced with the climate, the jackal, thieves and economics.
Happily for the Murrays, at some point in the 1600s, agave cactus was introduced in South Africa and planted in the Karoo. At another point, one of Tim’s more recent ancestorse thought, “Hey, why don’t we make tequila!”
They planted a whole lot more and set up a factory. The tequila boom ended, but Tim and his family being the creative farmers they are, developed the delicious Agave Bud Pickle made from the rare agave flower.
A word of warning: do not visit the Murrays over Christmas or New Year. This is agave flowering season when the buds are harvested, pickled and bottled. It takes about 10 days of intensive, hard slog over a hot stove to produce just 1 000 bottles of this unique and delicious Karoo speciality.
Another Karoo speciality is Trevor Burton’s famous smoked kudu salami. Trevor epitomises the spirit of the Karoo – once a bank manager, now producer of what many rate as the country’s best smoked kudu salami, made, true artisan style, in his garage in Graaff Reinet.
When you grow up in the Karoo, you learn about meat, and hunting, and working with game. During hunting season, you will invariably find Trevor’s cars parked outside and a couple of massive kudu hanging from the rafters in his garage. Let me hasten to say that his garage is cleaner than an operating theatre, and his kitchen is cleaner than that. Like any good artisan, he has developed his own recipe and his own style.
He also makes smoked biltong, and warthog wors. Yum!
Craig Rippon of Springvale Olives near Alicedale has just won his first award. His olive oil took the Gold in the “delicate Oils” category at a recent competition in Stellenbosch.
He is delighted, because setting up an olive farm in the middle of the Karoo is no easy task. His old family farm is the perfect combination of “Italy comes to the Karoo” with olive groves and old farm buildings converted to olive processing. Craig grows a variety of trees, mostly the Manzinilla and Mission varieties, and produces quality table olives, oil, pitted sundried olives, tapenade, stuffed olives and marinated olives.
We end of our Karoo Food Safari under a shady tree at the Andries Stockenström Guesthouse in Graaff Reinet, sipping wine and nibbling thinly sliced Parma ham and other delicious delicacies home-made by top chef and cookbook author, Gordon Wright who, together with his wife Rose, own the lovely guesthouse, famous for its outstanding food.
Who knew that sheep milk was so healthy? Sheep’s milk is apparently the closest you can get to human breast milk. It is nutritious, has a much higher percentage of solids than either cow or goat milk, contains up to twice as many of the minerals such as calcium, phosphorus and zinc, as well as all the important B group vitamins.
All this makes it ideal for growing children and nursing mothers, and even good for women in middle-age keen to maximise their calcium intake.
According to German research, this is because sheep milk has more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) than the milk from pigs, horses, goats, cattle, and humans. CLA is a cancer-fighting, fat-reducing fat.
The fat globules in sheep milk are smaller than the fat globules in cow’s milk, making sheep milk more easily digested. It is also not as high in saturated fatty acids as other milks. This is all good news, especially for the lactose intolerant who, if they stuck to sheep’s milk products, could happily eat cheese and yoghurt.
• All Natural, Fields Shopping Centre, Kloof, 031 764 6900
Food Jar, uMhlanga, Durban, 082 377 9499 or 031 563 3281
• EarthMother Organics, Bulwer Road - Sunday Tribune