Cradock - I've been a customer at food markets for years, but finally I’ve had an opportunity to cross the floor and become One Of Them.
One of those people who smile a lot, stand in the sun a lot, wear some kind of headgear, maybe a bandana, maybe a beanie, and tempt passersby with tiny morsels of what they’re trying to sell.
It’s a hit-and-miss thing. The guy selling olive oils and vinegars may spend the day watching the people traipse by, munching goodies they’ve bought at the stall next door and the one opposite. The purveyor of charcuterie may do a brisk trade and be silently resented.
And where do you draw the line once your market becomes a success? The Neighbourgoods Market in Salt River is a glorious melange of wildly disparate food and stalls, yet (last time I looked) it was too confined for its popularity – it needed a venue twice the size. When you offset the appeal of the event against the frustration of pushing and shoving and ducking and diving to get from one stall to the next, all this at a snail’s pace, for some of us the appeal is killed.
The third annual Karoo Food Festival in Cradock is an event which is growing apace and wholly deserves to become a key attraction on the national food festival circuit.
There are olive festivals, cherry festivals and quite possibly guava and naartjie festivals somewhere beyond a dusty plain, but this one celebrates the food of the entire Karoo, in a town that is reachable from many corners of this vast platteland terrain.
Having been in town for five or so months we were welcomed into the fold of this third outing.
It happens in the grounds of a sprawling old high school, which makes sense when you realise that the proximity of classrooms means extension cords can be trailed out of them and across to the open ground where a marquee shades the participants below. It also means lots of parking space, and home economics students who help carry trestle tables and stand in at your stall if you need to disappear for a while.
We’d booked a 2x2m space and arrived with a large two-plate gas range, a small wooden table, a microwave, two folding chairs, a tall wrought-iron candelabra, a framed portrait of Olive Schreiner, a massive cooler box and a collapsible shelf stack. A 2m trestle table was provided. Once all this was arranged around the 2x2m area, you can imagine how much there was left for the two of us to push past each other while trying to sell some things and cook other things.
Somehow we squeezed everything in; Olive’s picture hung from the candelabra, bottles of olives, tapenade and quince jelly on the shelf, which was on the table, the mike on the wooden table to one side, the gas range to my right on the other. Our vintage cash register stood at one end of the table, adorned on one side with a small poster advertising that the Silver Creek Mountain Band will be playing at our bistro on Good Friday evening.
Platters of pre-cooked lamb pies were laid out alongside bowls of olives and tapenade for people to taste. The serviettes and plastic knives, forks and spoons filled the cradle of a chunky copper scale from another era. This normally stands on a cabinet in the restaurant, just as the Schreiner portrait had been borrowed from a wall in the smaller dining room.
Things were slow to get going. By midday on the Friday we were muttering darkly about whether it had been worth the effort. But at noon things picked up and the pies started moving. I’d also made ‘Karoo koftes’, my invention of little venison meatballs in a spicy tomato sauce, which bubbled away in a great pot on the gas range. The aromas started to draw people in, and the till got to do some work.
By Saturday morning, things were cooking. I’d decided on a whim to bring along several dozen little springbok skewers and my orange Le Creuset skillet. I fired up the range, poured a little olive oil in the skillet and soon the aromas were wafting about the market. People started coming over, and I spent the rest of the day constantly cooking and turning sosaties. Whenever I’d make five or six, they’d suddenly be sold and I’d need to race to get more ready. They sold out by 2pm.
And they’re a treat, both to cook and to eat. I’d never cooked them before that morning, but now they’re on the menu in the bistro. And so easy to cook. I’d got them from Derek Carstens, who owns Taste of the Karoo and who’d been urging me for weeks to try them. But you can improvise by buying whatever venison loin you can find, or beef, cutting them into cubes and skewering them. I kept it simple. Hot oil, pop them in, and once they’re turned for the first time sprinkle over salt, black pepper and a dusting of ground cumin. That’s all. Turn every now and then until they’re medium rare, the optimum degree for both flavour and tenderness. They were wonderful.
Back at the restaurant, I’m offering them with a lightly toasted sesame bun, and a good dollop of quality mayonnaise mixed with German mustard. It’s a perfect match, and now I plan to put the gas range on the front stoep when the town is busy and cook springbok sosaties and venison wors in the street, hoping to tempt passersby.
As for all the paraphernalia, next time we’ll keep it simple. Just the produce and those aromas of what you’re cooking seems to be what people really want.
Oh, and we’ve mentioned that 2mx2m doesn’t quite quite cut it.