Well, another not-particularly-summery Sunday in London has passed – but at least it stayed dry and the sun did shine at intervals, so it was possible for us to do a proper barbecue for IMBB6! As I said at the time when the date was announced, I was positively thrilled to discover that the theme chosen by the crew at Too Many Chefs for the July edition of Is My Blog Burning? was barbecues and grilling. At last – a quintessentially South African cooking activity and one with which my husband could join in!
Let me start by explaining that South Africans do not barbecue – they BRAAI (say “bry”, to rhyme with eye)! This is short for the Afrikaans word “braaivleis” (say “bry-flays”) which literally means a meat-grill – see here and here for some definitions and explanations. Incidentally, the word braai can mean a number of things: it can be a verb as in “please braai my steak for me”; a noun referring to the barbecue structure as in “I’m going to do my chicken on the braai”; or a noun referring to the entire social occasion as in “We are having a braai on Sunday”. But the South African braai goes way beyond linguistics or a simple cooking method – it has been elevated to the status of a social and cultural institution! (Few South Africans will forget the 1970s advertising slogan of “braaivleis, rugby, sunny skies and Chevrolet” used to sum up the quintessential white South African lifestyle…) Formerly the preserve of white and mainly Afrikaans South Africans, the braai today crosses all cultural and socio-economic barriers and is universally loved – and given the South African climate, it is an activity that we indulge in all year round, with gusto.
Traditionally, the braai was the cooking method of the Dutch pioneers, or Voortrekkers, who travelled inland from the Cape Colony into the unknown wilderness and had no choice but to shoot fresh meat and cook it on open fires. So today, there are still braai puritans who insist that to be a “proper” braai, the meat has to be cooked on an open wood fire (doringhout or rooikrans will do nicely). The making of this fire is usually a skill passed down from father to son – how to pile the wood, where to put the newspaper or kindling and of course, how to tell when the fire is ready for cooking, which usually involves counting how long you can leave your hand above the coals before yanking it away in pain (I’m told anything below about 8 seconds is too hot). And woe betide anyone who casts aspersions on a man’s ability to make a good braai fire – this is tantamount to questioning his manhood… The fire is traditionally started hours before any cooking is due to be done, using about 10 times more wood than is, strictly speaking, necessary. This is the “kuiervuur” (literally “socialising fire”) which is built purely as a backdrop against which the braaiers can stand and chat about rugby (or braaing techniques!) until the requisite amount of Castle Lager has been consumed!
These braai puritans also have fixed ideas on the type of structure to be used for a braai and will pooh-pooh the idea of Weber charcoal grills or fancy grills as “for sissies”. The Real Braaier has been known to make a fire in an old wheelbarrow or in an old washing machine drum – the drum’s little holes provide the correct degree of protection and ventilation! There are also traditional conventions as to what can go on a braai. Traditionally, braai food consisted of lamb or pork chops, beef steaks of some description, boerewors (literally “farmers sausage – see my previous posts here and here) and marinated pork spare ribs if one was feeling adventurous. Fish might be permissible in the Western Cape but chicken was for sissies. The braai was essentially a protein-fest – vegetables were confined to the odd whole potato or onion, wrapped in foil and tossed into the coals, to emerge steaming and delicious when they yield to a sharp poke with a knife. My father (who was born in 1922 and qualifies as a braai traditionalist in my book!) also always insists on white bread spread with apricot jam to accompany his braaivleis – but more usual traditional side dishes include potato salad, roosterkoek (rolls done on the grill – I may post the recipe in a subsequent post) or mealie pap and ‘train smash’ (again, you will have to wait for a subsequent post to hear all about that!). And the golden rule of the traditional braai is this: while the women may congregate in the kitchen and make side dishes and conversation, it is the men who prepare the meat and do the braaing. They huddle around the fire comparing braai tongs (really, they do!!), marinades and braai technique, and all shake their heads sadly when someone deviates from the braai norm by, say, putting their meat on the fire too early/late/at the wrong angle. Hmm… the mingled smell of smoke and testosterone. Witness the wild beauty of these gorillas in the smoke.
OK, so some South Africans have moved forward since the days of the Voortrekkers, and one often encounters very progressive and innovative braaiers these days (my husband, luckily for me, being amongst them!). Modern braaiers will quite happily use a Weber or other commercially available grill – although gas grills are still seen as not the Real Thing. They are also quite happy to braai on charcoal briquettes as opposed to wood (although for a kuiervuur, wood is still the material of choice!). Their repertoire of dishes has also been considerably extended and in addition to the traditional braai fare, these days you will often encounter marinated chicken portions, a whole fillet of beef, spatchcocked chicken, leg of lamb marinated in yoghurt and garlic, whole fish, and various types of sosaties – it all depends on the culinary ambition of the braaier. As appetisers, we can now enjoy chicken sundowners (sadly, a South African innovation that has not travelled) – chicken wings laid out straight and then skewered lengthwise to keep them straight before being marinated, braaied and eaten off the stick while congregated around the fire. We have also discovered the potential of braaied vegetables – who can resist a half a stuffed butternut squash, wrapped in foil and cooked amongst the coals? And of course, the salads have now extended way beyond the traditional potato salad (but don’t you dare invite me to a braai and NOT serve potato salad!). Some things, of course, have not changed. The Castle Lager still flows freely (it can also be used in an emergency to douse flames caused by dripping fat – but this is generally seen as a shameful waste of a good beer and a jug of water should be at hand for such emergencies) and the kuiervuur remains popular, especially at winter braais. The women are generally seen outside the kitchen at modern braais, sipping on their Sauvignon Blanc (or Bacardi Breezer, depending on the average age of the party!). But to whatever extent women have gained social equality in the New South Africa, one constant remains – the men do the braaing!! To deny them this would be to deny them their manhood. And besides, it is one of the few times a red-blooded South African man will volunteer to cook…
So against this background, you can imagine my excitement about this IMBB topic – and you can imagine how pleased I was when we were invited to a South African braai by friends of ours on the 18th! We trekked clear across London to join Donald and Christelle (see pic below!) and a dozen other South Africans for a proper braai, surrounded by our countrymen.
At the risk of offending everyone, I just have to say a few words about nationality and braaing ability. In South Africa, every little boy grows up learning to braai. The first food you eat NOT made my grownups is usually on a school or university weekend away when some teenage boy chars his first lamb chop – so you could say braaing is in our blood and if I say so myself, damn, we’re good at it. Here in London, when we are invited to a barbecue (i.e not an exclusively South African gathering!), it is almost always the South African men that gravitate towards the fire and end up doing all the cooking of meat, while the Aussies and Kiwis make lots of suggestions from the sidelines (but don’t actually DO anything ;-)) and the Brits nervously clutch their mobile phones, wondering whether the smoke levels warrant a call to the fire brigade. But to be fair, the Brits don’t really stand a chance in the barbecue/braai stakes – and it stems from a traumatic childhood introduction. I mean, Nick and I nearly laughed our heads off the first time we saw a “disposable BBQ” in the supermarket here – a foil roasting pan filled with (useless) lumpwood charcoal and a single firelighter, covered with a flimsy grid. The idea is that you tuck this item under your arm, head out into the glorious English countryside and just toss in a match to start your BBQ and within minutes, you’ll be grilling. In reality, however, these disposables lead to two very unhappy consequences. Firstly, the lumpwood charcoal burns at 451 degrees Fahrenheit (ho ho ho) for about 10 minutes and then the lumps disintegrate and the temperature drops to nil. This means that anything you cook on it will be black as coal on the outside and bloody on the inside, and leads to Brits trying to cook over open flames as opposed to glowing coals long after they have abandoned disposables. The second consequence is that, because of the tiny available grid area, you end up cooking tiny things, like pork sausages and hamburger patties and nothing else! So your average British barbecue combines undercooked food with processed meats and the end result is just horrid. Oh yes, and summer only lasts about a week, so there is hardly any time to practice and get really good. (There are notable exceptions to this rule, but few can argue that the British are not naturally inclined to be barbecue greats!)
But enough wrecking of international relations – on with IMBB6! Nick very kindly agreed to help me make our signature braai dish – a whole stuffed beef fillet – far from traditional, but a sure-fire BBQ show stopper. The recipe comes from the rather marvellous South African Kettle Braai Cookbook and requires a Weber charcoal grill (or similar kettle BBQ) and an indirect fire. This is an idea pioneered by Weber and is discussed in most cookbooks featuring Weber recipes, but in case you don’t possess such a book, here’s how. Make a fire using 16 charcoal briquettes and light them all in a pile on one side of the barbecue kettle. Once the briquettes have had time to ash over (about 40 minutes), transfer half of them to the other side of the barbecue. Position a foil drip tray between the two piles to keep them apart. Place the grill on the barbecue and voila, you are ready to cook. What the recipe does not require, but which we often add, are hickory chips soaked in water for about 30 minutes and then sprinkled on the coals before cooking commences. This gives the meat a lovely smoky flavour that I can highly recommend – but it’s not essential by any means. So without further ado, here is my recipe for IMBB6 – pictures to follow when our hosts e-mail them to me!
Oh and one last thing – the question you’ve all been dying to ask: how did it turn out?? Well, there were some teething troubles because everyone else had brought chops and chicken and boerewors and were so fascinated by our parcel of fillet that they kept opening the Weber to look at it. This made the heat dissipate and the meat just did not want to sear (as it should) on the outside or cook on the inside. In the end it stayed on at a very moderate heat for over an hour (and it was only a tiny 1/2 kg fillet!) and was removed with great trepidation. But once Nick started carving we realised it was just perfect – just pink around the centre and as tender as can be. You could probably have eaten it using only a fork!
Here are 2 pics – one when the fillet came off the grill (note lack of searing – see above!) and one after it had been cut. Clearly I have some way to go on the food stylist learning curve… but at least you get the general idea!
1.5kg (3lb) beef fillet, trimmed
Salt & black pepper
2 Tbsp melted butter (I substituted olive oil)
For the stuffing:
100g canned smoked oysters (I have also substituted smoked mussels in the past to good effect)
3 Tbsp fresh breadcrumbs
3 Tbsp fresh parsley, chopped
½ tsp dried thyme (I also added ½ tsp rosemary)
Salt & black pepper
2 Tbsp melted butter
1 small onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped (not called for in the original recipe, but I like it!)
2 Tbsp dry sherry
3 Tbsp sour cream
1. Make the stuffing first. Melt the butter (or heat the oil) & sautée the onion and garlic. Combine the oysters, breadcrumbs, parsley, thyme, salt & pepper. Add the onion, garlic (together with the oil/butter in the pan), sour cream and sherry and mix well.
2. Make an incision to create a pocket down one side of the fillet leaving, the 2 ends closed if possible. Alternatively, use a sharpening steel to make a hole down the middle of the fillet. Stuff the meat.
3. Using a needle and thread, sew up the opening if the meat has been cut and tie with string to keep in shape. Season lightly and brush with melted butter.
4. Prepare an indirect fire and fit a foil drip tray between the coals. Place meat in a roast holder (we didn’t have one – not really necessary) and position it on the grid over the drip pan.
5. Cover the kettle and cook for 25-30 minutes, depending on the degree of rareness required. Cover with foil ans allow to rest for 5-10 minutes before carving.