Sunday lunch with The Three Tannies – proper ‘Boerekos’


Threetannies I have never been a great fan of the “go travelling to find yourself” brigade.  The way I see it, it you can’t find yourself in your hometown, surrounded by the people who made you who you are, why would you find yourself in Bali?  That said, living abroad for an extended period of time is an intriguing experience.  Fabulous in many ways, hard in many ways, but definitely intriguing.  For one thing, you open yourself up to new experiences and broaden your horizon, sometimes without even knowing it,  and it’s only when you spend time back in your hometown or with friends from home that you realise that you have changed in subtle ways.

For me, obviously, the greatest broadening of horizons has been in terms of food.  As I have said before, a well-known store in my hometown used to sell bok choi labelled as savoy cabbage and nobody was any the wiser.  And then you come over to the UK and learn the difference and you have a giggle at how provincial things were (I must stress that the shop in question no longer does this!!).  Or you go out to dinner at a restaurant back home and service which you found perfectly adequate before, now seems annoying and amateurish.  Or you roll your eyes in horror at the thought of serving traditional Afrikaner boerekos (literally, farmer’s food) at a fancy dinner party and serve up a truffle risotto with caprese on the side, and a chocolate fondant pudding instead.

But the other side of the coin is that you eventually start feeling rootless.  You are surrounded by people who are not your countrymen, who don’t speak the language you spoke as a child, who can’t understand your jokes and recoil in horror when you mention that you love eating dried raw beef (biltong).  Mostly, this doesn’t bother me.  There’s still a certain romance attached to the concept of being a “citizen of the world” and it is a liberating feeling to know that you can live anywhere you choose to, not only where your birth determines.

But lately I have been pondering the question of roots more and more.  Last year we attended a (yet-to-be-blogged!) wedding in Mexico and I remember watching some of the guests at the afterparty the following day at the bride’s house.  The people I was watching were largely the middle-aged friends of the bride’s parents – men wearing Stetsons and cowboy boots without a trace of irony, women helping to make mole and tortillas in the kitchen to the same recipe as their great-grandmothers, and everyone singing along with gusto to all the traditional songs that the mariachi band played.  They seemed to me so rooted in their country and culture, and so sure of their place in the world – and so proud of it all.  Nobody thought the mariachi songs were uncool, or contemplated serving anything other than traditional Mexican food, and I felt an enormous wave of envy wash over me.

In South Africa (as well as in this country) there is a tendency to look down on traditional food, music and passtimes.  Morris dancing?  A standing joke – rather like jukskei in South Africa.  And your average urban dweller has also relegated things like sokkiejol, boeremusiek, lang-arm and boeresport to the dark cupboard under the stairs reserved for the terminally uncool.  And sadly, the same goes for much of the food that used to be the staple diet of many an Afrikaans family.  (The notable exceptions are of course the braai and the potjiekos!). South Africans are such an outward-looking nation and are always eager to adopt whatever looks exotic from abroad, but this means we are forgetting the foods we grew up with.  How many people under the age of 30 do you know who have actually made their own souskluitjies?  Or (in this country) Bakewell pudding (present company of food bloggers excluded…)?

These are the thoughts that went through my mind on Sunday when we were invited round to Donald’s place for a late lunch.  Forget the “Three Tenors” – our hosts were to be “The Three Tannies” – that is to say Christelle’s mom Tannie Joan (far right) and her two aunts, Tannie Vonkie (middle) and Tannie Naomi (far left).  (Tannie is a wonderful Afrikaans word, literally translated as “Aunty”, which can be used to address every older woman, even ones that aren’t your aunt.  It’s less formal than Mrs So-and-so, but more respectful than using their first names.)  But a tannie is also a very particular type of Afrikaans woman:  of a certain age, adept at cooking and sewing, and great at clucking over family and friends like a mother hen.  Exactly the kind of person that you’d want to have inviting you to Sunday lunch then!

The Tannies promised proper boerekos and my goodness, that’s what we got.  In Afrikaans, there is an expression, or rather a phrase, to list all the things you should traditionally find on a plate of boerekos, namely: “vleis, rys, aartappels en pampoen” (meat, rice, potatoes and pumpkin).  And although this is more a figure of speech than an exhaustive list, indicating that there must be meat, starch (lots of!) and vegetables, the tannies took it literally.  After much talking and laughing in the the kitchen, savouring the delicious smells wafting through the house, with Tannie Joan on meat detail, Tannie Naomi on vegetable detail and Tannie Vonkie on washing-up detail, lunch was finally served.  Each plate included roast chicken, roast leg of lamb, fluffy white rice to soak up the lamb gravy, crispy roast potatoes, pumpkin fritters with a sweet syrup, and boereboontjies (crushed green beans).  There were no foams, granitas, tians or cappuccinos; there was no fancy plating with drizzles of balsamic reduction; there were no clever combinations of texture or fusion foods.  But sitting in the lounge and eating my boerekos off my lap, surrounded by these lovely Tannies and their bubbling laughter, I had one of the most deeply satisfying meals I have had in years. On that plate were the echoes of an entire childhood of Sunday lunches, the loving touch of a thousand Afrikaans mothers just like mine, and the taste of home.  One mouthful is all it took to find myself – and I find myself undeniably, irrevocably South African.  Thank you Tannie Joan, Tannie Naomi and Tannie Vonkie.

If we do not honour our past, we lose our future; if we destroy our roots we cannot grow.” (Friedensreich Hundertwasser)

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  1. says

    I’m glad to hear that you’ve got some nice South African friends in London to hang out with, Jeanne! I’ve certainly enjoyed socialising in Estonian/with Estonians occasionally here in Edinburgh (have just had a fab night with three fellow nationals – a meal at my place first, followed with a stand up comedy gig). Living abroad for such a long time has made me definitely much more aware of my Estonian roots than I ever was before. Although being a citizen of the world, I’m also an Estonian, first and foremost..
    And yes, I proudly cook Estonian food, be it pearl barley porridge or whipped semolina cream:) Hope to read more about South African dishes over here soon!

  2. says

    Hi Jeanne,
    I can relate in so many ways to this post. For me, I’ve found this rootlessness to be generational. As both my parents are expats in Australia, I feel that I personally don’t have any solid roots in Australia and have travelled, looking for these original roots. One of the reasons I’ve settled in the UK was because my father’s family is here and I’m becoming closer to them. By doing this, I can see where a lot of my ‘learned behaviours’ have come from, and in turn makes me feel a lot more comfortable and like ‘myself’. Thanks for this post :)

  3. says

    Also being and expat I too know how important it is to honour your roots. Since the “Scottish Mafia” has members in every corner of the globe you can usually be guarenteed that you will run into a few members and here in Switzerland is no different. The Scottish contingent here in Basel is high.
    I’m really proud of my Scottish/Irish heritage and cook Scottish food when I need that little taste of home, just like mum/gran used to make.
    It’s funny though people always say this but I have also found it to be true that Expats tend to honour the “old traditions” a bit more than those in our Homeland. A good example was that I attended my first proper “Burns Supper” (Robert/Rabbie Burns is Scotland’s national poet)only last year and had my first taste of Haggis (I really didn’t like it).
    I’m very proud of my Nation and proud of being Scottish!

  4. says

    Hi Pille
    Sadly, the Three Tannies were just visiting… but I do have a lot of lovely South African friends here in London – it does make it easeir to cope with being so far from home! And it is true – living abroad makes you take a much closer look at your roots and you do tend to be more aware of them – which is one of the many good things about living abroad.
    Dear Bonnie
    Glad you enjoyed the post! If you look at the food blogging community, a startling number of us are living and blogging from some country other than where we were born (I’m sure there’s a thesis lurking in there somewhere… ;-)) And it’s interesting that you say for you the rootlessness is a generational thing. I wonder how many generations it takes to put down roots?
    Dear Pam
    I think the thing with expats is that when you live in your country of birth, you take a lot of stuff for granted – and as I said, South Aficans in particular have always had a fascination with all things foreign & imported, reasoning that it *must* be better than our local stuff/culture/food/traditions. I think leaving the country for a length of ime gives you a brand new appreciation for things you overlooked before – I know that after I came home in 2001 after a year in the UK marvelling at their flowers, I came home and suddenly fell totally and completely in love with the bougainvillas that grow everywhere and that I’d never actually looked at before. Funny old world 😉
    Hi Rob
    Thanks – glad you enjoyed it! And weren’t you supposed to lead a game of jukskei at Henley this year, dressed in a safari suit with a comb in your sock while the potjiekos bubbled gently away?? As some sort of cultural outreach programme?? :p

  5. Lyn says

    Oh my Jeanne… This post is most tempting – could certainly do with all the above mentioned foods. For me, there’s still nothing like a traditional Sunday lunch in SA.

  6. Daniel Ludik says

    Is ‘n goeie ding dat ek skryf en nie praat nie; ek kwyl te veel van die Tannies se kos! I am a monk in an Anglican Order stationed at our house near Grahamstown, but I am currently on an extended visit (six months already!)to our Motherhouse in upstate New York. I found your site because I typed in “skaapvleis” just to read a recipe and hopefully to see a picture of a proper skaaptjop! Too much turkey here for this lad from Namibia!
    I can only concur with you; the longer I am here, the more African I become. Strange but good.
    A blessed Easter and thank you for this blog.

  7. Corrie says

    Once a South African, always a South African! We are in the USA for the last 18 months and let me tell you the thing, except for the children, grandchildren, family and friends, that we miss the most is BOEREKOS!
    I make fudge, koeksisters, melktert, souskluitjies and malva pudding on a regular basis, I also cook some tomato jam, fig jam and apricot jam and a steak and kidney pie every now and then is awesome! I try to make at least once every 2 weeks some Boerekos for dinner, boere boontjies or pampoen, rice with gravy, potatoes and meat (oxtail now and again), just like the old days! Out of the country for such a long time makes one appreciate all those things we always took for granted.
    Proud South African!
    Corrie van Rensburg

  8. Pieter Labuschagne says

    Hi Jeanne,
    A delightful read ! We are now 18 months in NZ and crave South African food again. Even making a fire for a braai requires Firemaster’ permission and believe me, not easily obtained. SASC is planning a potjiekos competition in Porirua and I struggle a bit to explain to people what Boerekos is all about. Can you assist or point me to a summarised, but well explained resource. We all start to explain but an hour later we realise that we lost our audience !!!
    Great work and do more !