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The great roosterkoek debate

Published Dec 10, 2014


Cradock - The walls in here used to be pink. The blackboard over there, between the copper pots and below the plates we took home after a Nederburg Auction lunch back in the day when it was the event of the year at the Cape, used to be on the wall behind me, emblazoned with the legend “Karoo tapas”, a charming and enticing concept put in place by our predecessors whose Schreiner Tea Room was a great success for 11 years.

The “tapas” was roosterkoek with a choice of fillings, and we had been told by so many people that it would be certain death to our business if we did not have roosterkoek – and lots of it – on the menu.

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One tiny snag here. Roosterkoek is not a part of my culture, and I was not sure I’d ever eaten it, let alone cooked it. I drew a mental comparison between what we are doing in Cradock and moving into a house that other people have just moved out of. You don’t necessarily share the same tastes in wall colours or furniture; you don’t have the same pictures or ornaments. You fill your new home with your own stuff, the things collected in the lifetime of a family and the places you’ve been and lived.

But in this town, the stuff is everywhere. On all the restaurant menus, in all of the shops. It’s Roosterkoekville RSA around here. And you do want to respect the community you have moved into, so we took these urgings seriously.

I would try to incorporate this into my cooking and my menus, even though it didn’t seem to fit. I visited supermarkets and eyed the stuff on the shelves. The roosterkoeke checked me out sheepishly (you get a lot of that in the deep Karoo). Six-packs of roosterkoek, already cooked. That was presumably what I needed to buy. So I consulted Those Who Knew. They suppressed laughs, and politely pointed out that it would not be the done thing to buy pre-cooked roosterkoek. You had to koek it yourself.

But how? Did I have to make this dough, which seemingly was a considerable process taking many hours. To recipes passed through many generations, of none of which my Yorkshire family was a part? Laughs were suppressed once more.

No, silly, my helpful Cradockers (Cradockians? Cradockoise? Cradocklish?) told me patiently. You buy bags of the raw dough at seven in the morning, from the bakery counter at the Spar or Shoprite, and you take it to your restaurant and cook it. Unlike the sweet Elanie, who at her own lovely restaurant in the town makes her own roosterkoek dough every Monday morning, using stoneground flour. She will always have one up on me in the roosterkoek department, this I know.

Saturday morning came and for the first time, we opened the door of the new Schreiner Bistro & Tea Room for business. We’d adapted the name (from Schreiner Tea Room) to make it clear that this was not only about tea and cake. And on the new blackboards – on the front stoep, the main dining room and in the garden at the back – there was no mention of any Karoo tapas. “I think,” said Di, ever sensible, “that you should write ‘roosterkoek’ on the blackboards’.”

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This was because at 7am I had gone to the bakery counter at the Spar and come back with two little bags of roosterkoek dough, for which I got change from 10 bucks. Cleonie, who had worked for the previous owners, had started her first day on our team by firing up the new gas stove I had put in the old kitchen fireplace, cut and shaped the dough, and cooked them on a hot griddle.

Midmorning, Elanie arrived with a spectacular vase of flowers picked from her own garden, as a welcome gesture. She and many other people here have been astonishingly welcoming of the Englishers from Cape Town. There is a flood of goodwill for us here.

Our first customers walked in, a trio from England. They responded with smiles and a pose when I asked them if I could take a picture of our first customers. Iced citrus tea, home-made lemonade and slices of pecan pie and orange syrup cake were ordered.

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“What’s roostercoke?” the man asked. We tried to answer authoritatively, like proper Cradockers, but I’m not sure he bought it.

Through the day, and the next day and the next, people came and went, ordering our kudu salad, our roast twee-tand (two-tooth) lamb, our prickly pear and Victorian rose geranium milkshakes. Out of the kitchen and into tummies went slices of Di’s rosemary bread, served with our biltong pate and our olive tapenade. But no roosterkoek.

For three days, Di packed up the day’s roosterkoek and sent it home with the staff. Could it be that by positioning ourselves as a bistro (and tea room) the word has got out clearly that this is our business now, that we have our own way of doing things, and that our lovely new community is okay with that?

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Or is it possible that wise locals have concluded that quite obviously the Capetonians with their strange city clothes and their amusing Afrikaans should not be trusted with a bag of roosterkoek dough?

We’re not sure yet. Maybe we’ll keep some in reserve. But we’re feeling a little more assertive now. And it could just be that roosterkoek’s days are numbered at the Schreiner Bistro & Tea Room.

Weekend Argus

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