Opinions

South African Taste

  • Posted on December 19, 2013

“In the act of tasting, when the bite or sip moves through the mouth into the body, culture and nature become one” is the blockbuster line jumps at you on page 6 of Amy Trubek’s 2008 book, Taste of Place: A Cultural Journey into Terroir. The book outlines how terroir and guot de terroir’s construction at the hands of a group of players with common vested interests in cuisine, the countryside, travel and recreation, in part led to their elevation as central concepts informing the national significance of French gastronomy and viticulture. Coded with a sense of place, of the soil, and belonging, terroir is meant to signal the purity of French food and wine as rooted in place. To take a sip of Bordeaux is not merely about indulging in the pleasure of subtleties of flavour, it is to “taste the earth: rock, grass, hillside, valley, plateau”, the very substance of place. Outlining terroir’s cultural power as a concept of identity rooted in place, Trubek shows how taste’s ambiguity, as a signifier of aesthetic distinction and the physiological act of sensory apprehension, avails it to such appropriations. In the guise of terroir, taste is not merely a useful social construction, an invented tradition made up of artificial flavours, but is instead meaningful in framing deeply emotive sentiments of “Frenchness” and French heritage.

Considering how important these concepts have become for helping to explain Frenchness, I wonder whether we could also explore the relationships between taste, sensibilities, place and heritage in contemporary South Africa? Can we try cook a post-apartheid potjie blending heritage and consumption? Can we step away from the braai for a moment and try discern South African taste?

One Sunday, around the end of September, I drove out to the Franschoek wine lands, just outside Cape Town, to meet some friends for lunch at Solms Delta. Planned as a welcome for European friends that had recently arrived, the outing was also a pleasant get-together of foreign post-grad students working on subjects South African. Solms Delta seemed perfect for such an occasion, having gained a reputation for producing excellent wine, quality cuisine, and it’s pioneering worker empowerment scheme. It also portrayed an emphasis on heritage as a fundamental element in its business practise. For example, there is a museum on the grounds relating the history of the farm and slave labour practise. With names like Cape Jazz, Vas Trap and Lang Arm, some of the wines produced on the estate paid homage to the dance and music traditions of the region. And the style of cuisine, described as celebrating everything ‘hiervandan’, from here, signalled a commitment to the diverse culinary history of the region, of identity rooted in place. Placing emphasis on particular expressions of local history and identity, Solms Delta clearly tapped into the register of heritage as provenance that the viticulture industry inherits from France, but adapted it in ways to reflect the prevailing values and historical sentiments appreciated in post-apartheid South Africa. This emphasis on local heritage suggested that lunch at Solms Delta would be a pleasant social occasion and an interesting learning experience.

We opted for the heritage menu, a special tasting menu that is described online as being composed of “the Veldkos of the indigenous Khoe and San who inhabited this region thousands of years ago; Cape ‘Malay’ cuisine (foods created by slaves of Indian, Indonesian and East African origin) and Boerekos (the cuisine that European settlers developed in the Cape)”. The heritage menu tried to honour their distinctive differences with 3 courses comprised of 3 different dishes from each culinary tradition. Indeed, as Solms Delta did not try and “re-invent these traditions”, they hoped guests would “experience them just as they would have been prepared in the past. In each of the three courses, you are given a taste of authentic Boerekos, Cape Malay and Veldkos dishes”. The menu could be read as an archive of Cape cuisine.

To reinforce the depth of tradition, a historical account of the cultural and historical significance of each dish was provided. So, for example, the description for one of the starters “the Waterblommetjie soup served with Khoe-khoen breads, flavoured with indigenous Khoe herbs”, claims that the “flowerbuds of Waterblomme, an indigenous plant found in Cape rivers and dams were harvested by the Khoe-khoen for many of their dishes”. And the delicious main course of “Venison pie, served with begrafnisrys, quince jelly and cooked dried peaches” was embellished with a historical vignette that explained, “Funerals were held at night in the 17th and 18th century. Everybody willing to follow the procession (and cry) was invited for a meal afterwards. Such meals frequently consisted of little more than begrafnis (funeral) rice. The Huguenots who settled in the Franschhoek valley in the late 17th century introduced fruit orchards, whereafter it became customary to serve fruit with meat dishes”. These short historical nuggets of ‘truth’ served as tropes validating the authentic quality of the food. A meal at Solms Delta was promoted as an almost literal journey into South Africa’s culinary past, something one could virtually taste. 

Everyone agreed the food was lekker. And not just because of the wonderful flavours. It also dished up rich servings of debate about tradition, authenticity, narrative and pleasure. For one, we noticed the consistent separation of the three traditions of cuisine, always these three separate portions on your plate, which seemed to replicate the sometimes contrived unity in diversity paradigm that has structured so much of post-apartheid life. The food was sincere, but I had imagined it to be more unusual. This did not bother others, who, for the most part, found it exciting. There was no fuss about the difference between claims and reality, or whether the Buchu Mould was really a just a panna cotta that did not taste of Buchu. The food registered as authentic in ways not confined to historical accuracy of tradition, however that may be construed. It was fun and enjoyable, finished en klaar.

At Solms Delta heritage is a means of interpreting the present through the past in ways that go beyond simple reductions that claim these are just glossy promotional narratives that plug apparently “bogus” histories, or that its just a commercial contrivance. It is playful and visceral, an attempt at recasting the past in ways that are deeply resonant for farm workers, who’s heritage is being recovered and publically affirmed, and guests who participate in that affirmation through practises of consumption. But it is also problematic. The economy of trade remains racialised, and farm workers continue with the real struggle against material injustice. The stylised heritage narratives accompanying the food also sometimes hark back to distasteful stereotypes that have their roots in the anthropological legacies of apartheid, legacies that unfortunately remain fashionably marketable. Heritage, just like post-apartheid life, is about material stuff like food and wine, and its production, distribution and consumption, the circuits of circulation that are complex and political. To explore the meaning of heritage and taste in South Africa means venturing into sites like Solms Delta where post-apartheid society is being made and remade, where the past is being vividly reconstituted, to find out how exactly nature and culture become one.

Duane Jethro is a South African PhD student in social and cultural anthropology at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

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