The Great South African Cookbook
01 January 1970
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Jenny Crwys–Williams : Old Mutual Live Wine edition, exclusive to Old Mutual Live, on mobile, on digital, on demand. When Bill Gates came to town recently for the Nelson Mandela lecture, there were big signs up saying: The Nelson Mandela Foundation is launching a cookbook.
The cookbook was called The Great South African Cookbook, the food we love from 67 of our finest cooks, chefs, bakers, farmers, foragers and local food heroes. Published by Quivertree that so far hasn’t put a foot wrong when it comes to food books, just a marvellous record. I’ve got the person on the line who is, well, just about everything. She is the food editor, she’s one of the artists, in fact Jules, why don’t we just say that you did the book?
Jules Mercer: Yes, I did the book insomuch as I coordinated an amazing group of people together for this book and the production of the book, yes.
JCW: So much more than that because you were involved in the production, you were dealing with all of the culinary legends that there are in South Africa. You were getting them, you were coordinating the photography. A wonderful job and acting as editor as well. So what was the upside of this and how did you get the job in the first place?
How the book came about
JM: Yes, well, Jenny, what an amazing experience. I think these kind of projects come along very few times in one’s career. So Quivertree rang me with the idea of the book and said would you be keen in project managing something like this.
As you said, it was mind-blowing, the idea of it, going around the country, interviewing and meeting and connecting with all these incredible people. From very well-known names to names that are not so well known. But amazing people, all doing incredible things with food. It was a dream, an absolute dream.
JCW: Listen, it’s got an intriguing cover and it is absolutely drop dead beautiful inside because it is so warm, it is so non-intimidating. It really is accessible to just about everyone. By using 67 cooks, there is no doubt that you’ve got a very broad range of food and loves and all the hates have been left out.
JM: Exactly. So the question that we asked everyone who contributed to the book was: What do you cook for the people you love, which is probably why that warmth comes across. That’s great, that’s what it’s meant to be. Some people will cook really cool, fancy dishes and then other people will say an omelette or scrambled eggs. It’s got this lovely mixture of very honest food.
JCW: It’s not everybody who is a trained chef, although there are enough of them. Luke Dale Roberts, of course, Ina Paarman, Dorah Sithole, Peter Goffe-Wood, I can go on and on, Siba, who is doing so brilliantly. Just all of those well-known names. But what I loved was when you took yourself off to Mpumalanga and there were people doing, certainly foodie things, but in a different way. Actually bringing them into this discourse with that very question, that everybody was asked.
A range of different experiences
JM: Yes, that was amazing. Experience-wise, are you referring to the Buleni Salt project?
JCW: Yes, I am.
JM: Yes, I mean that was phenomenal. That was one trip actually that I really felt I had absolutely no control over. I didn’t really have any option but to just go with it. We landed in the middle of nowhere and these women started talking to this tree, no one spoke English. We had an interpreter who kind of understood what we were there for, but didn’t really get the gist.
So yes, we just went with the flow and we did a little tour of this amazing salt harvesting project which is run by only women of a specific age and category within this community. They call it ‘lucky salt’ because it’s such a respected and holy place for the community and the villages. It’s sent all around the country and chefs, I think Margot in Franschhoek at Le Quartier, she uses it and raved about the quality of the salt, which is amazing.
JCW: I have not heard of Holi Cow, Yudhika Sujanani, just tell us a little bit about that.
JM: Yudhika, she’s just the most colourful personality and passionate about her heritage and her food and the Holi Cow cooking school in Four Ways, in Johannesburg. She came on board to bring this all to the book exactly. Her recipes and her food was, they were all incredible. We just spent a morning with her and I loved how she walked in and she was just, head to toe, she looked like an Indian princess with a lamb biryani.
JCW: I think that what the book succeeds at is illustrating the diversity of the South African population and the way we love each other’s foods. Getting to know them, in a sense, in a very real sense, is getting to know the country itself.
JM: Without a doubt and it’s a mighty challenge to try and cover the diversity. Because we are so lucky that we have so much of it. But I really feel it was a very good effort and I hope, as you say you agree, and I hope the people acknowledge that and see that. That we’ve tried to cover everything and everyone.
A journey crafted with love
JCW: If I look at it, 67 contributors, 150 recipes, 372 pages and a partridge in a pear tree. It’s got everything, but it is the beauty of the photography, the happiness of the people who are being photographed. There is nobody there looking ‘cheffie’ and important. This is just the food that you cook for people you love. Therefore, you are going to find it a lovely journey when you actually cook the food yourself.
JM: Exactly, it was a great couple of hours that we spent with everyone. The photographer, Trudy Murphy, it has to be said, her photography is pretty incredible. I think that’s what makes the book visually so appealing. But also just spending a couple of hours with these people, in their homes; where they’re relaxed, where they are cooking for people that they love. Be it their children or husbands or family and friends, really shows in the photography and in the book.
JCW: You did the food styling, am I correct?
JCW: You did the food styling for all the contributors, so that’s at least 67 dishes, at least. There were more, of course. It all looks as if it’s coming fresh off the table actually.
JM: Yes, it was quite an original, I don’t know if that’s the right word, but quite a unique way of food styling and slash, lazy. Because I arrived and they had cooked all the food, it was wonderful. I had the small job of making it look pretty for the images and the photographs.
Actually it was really, mostly, very easy because these people had made food with such love and it was in their homes. I used all the tools that we had around and props, it was all theirs. There was no studio and propping and styling, it was very raw and what we had to hand, which I really enjoyed.
Combining with the Nelson Mandela Foundation
JCW: Did you interface with the Nelson Mandela Foundation? How did this come about?
JM: So, the idea of the cookbook and to connect it with an amazing charity such as the Nelson Mandela Foundation came about through Quivertree, so not necessarily me. But it was an idea that kind of made such sense when you’re doing a book that encompasses the whole of the nation’s food heroes; to use this for a much higher benefit than just selling for a bit of profit here and there. For the money to go towards food sustainability within the foundation, was really an amazing and important part of it.
JCW: Yes, I see food and trees for Africa come into it, which makes perfect sense. The book, of course, and all of the profits from this book are going to go into really good projects, which again, I think is lovely. It did explain to me because I thought it was bizarre at the Bill Gates lecture, to have this cookbook. I just couldn’t understand what it was all about. But it was made plain to me and to everybody else at that lecture, I hope they sold well.
Here we go, with this book, with chefs of varying complexity in the food they cook, jostling shoulders and bringing joy. I think, joy and dignity in many ways, to an awful lot of people. Was there an occasion when you went along to photograph something or to talk to the chef or the cook or whatever, that kind of stands out in your mind because it was sheer joy?
JM: Gosh, so many people have asked me that question. It’s bizarre because every experience had such great moments. I think for me on a personal level, probably connecting with lesser known names was so fascinating. Understanding how food has transformed so many people’s lives.
If you look at a lady in Jo’burg, she started cooking pap on a corner with one pot. She now has this beautiful, massive restaurant on the same corner. The pot still has its place, sort of an icon as to how she got where she got and she’s now an incredibly successful businesswoman, through food. An important part of her community.
Then Richard Hake from a farm in KZN, he loves to preserve food heritage through seed and animals. He’s passionate about keeping the strains of seed and animals, that work with the land, which is also phenomenal. Then there’s Vera in the Free State, this lovely lady who has transformed her garage to produce jams that she sells all over the country. Really happy food stories.
JCW: If I didn’t know better, you know the Women’s Institute in Britain –
Levelling the playing field
JCW: They brought out a wonderful cookbook and I’m sure they’ve done lots of them. But the one that stuck in my mind was a vegetarian cookbook. I’m not particularly good with vegetarian recipes, a bit of cauliflower cheese will do me. But they came up, it’s the same simplicity.
Because you can have people living in the middle of London in very posh houses, but you’ve also got somebody living in a very modest farm, deep in the dales and they’re all contributing to the same book. But with equal space and equal joy and equal pride. I think that’s what this book has done. I cannot believe that it is not going to sell incredibly well, what do you think?
JM: I agree and I think what’s really cool about this book is that it’s got such longevity. It is the most awesome collection of people. I’ve already given away countless numbers as gifts, I think it’s one of the best gifts in South Africa that you can give to another South African or anyone in the world. I agree.
JCW: Yes, that of course comes into it, but I think the cover is very joyous and I think the contents are very joyous. I think cooking your way through this book and just reading through the book, I just got immense pleasure. Tucked up in bed, you know that very cold spell that we had a while ago. Just blankets and eiderdowns and goodness knows what else and just reading through this.
Adding wine to the occasion
The one thing that I wonder whether you wouldn’t contemplate doing or Quivertree wouldn’t contemplate doing is going through all of these recipes and possibly suggesting wine to go with them. Because there are winemakers in this book, I have to say. But they’re not really talking about wine and they’re not really cooking, it’s other people who are doing the cooking for them. I just thought it might be such a wonderful extension because people, when you learn about wine, you need guidance.
JM: I agree, this book was heavily focused on food and because of the link with the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the sensitivity towards alcohol in general, we thought it best to keep this focus on food. But wine is as important, as you say. I’ll pass it onto Quivertree and see what they say.
JCW: Anyway, because you were so intimately involved, before we end. Give us, I know you’re going to say: I can’t do that because you’re just being tactful, but is there a recipe in the book that your heart warms to?
JM: I think yes, one of those moments, especially the foodies, and all you do most days is think about taste and eating. But having fresh oysters actually in Saldana Bay, actually on a little floating raft, totally blew my mind away.
The taste of these oysters as you’ve pulled them up from the ropes and cracked it open, it was the most amazing moment, taste-wise, that I had. The connection you feel to the sea, especially with the taste of an oyster, was ridiculous. So just one of my very many, I have to say.
JCW: We knew you were going to say that, but that is just a lovely food experience and I thank you very much indeed for it. Thank you so much for chatting to us Jules and I hope you’ve wetted people’s appetites, I think you can –
JM: Thank you.
JCW: I just want to give the details of the book again, so that people know what we’re talking about and go out and at the very least have a look at it in your local bookstore. I promise you, with Christmas coming up, this is just the most marvellous gift, particularly for South Africans living abroad. But also for your next door neighbour, I think. Jules Mercer, thank you very much indeed.
JM: Jenny, thank you so much for having me and for your support on this great project, we really appreciate it.
JCW: Thank you very much, so, The Great South African Cookbook, the Food We Love from 67 of our finest cooks, chefs, bakers, farmers, foragers, and local food heroes. It’s a good bookstore near you, go and have a look. Thanks for listening. You can get this and all the previous podcasts on dogreatthings.co.za or sign up for the newsletter on Old Mutual Live Wine edition. On mobile, on digital, on demand.