Biltong for Breakfast

by Tess Paterson
Tess Paterson - Angora goats, Karoo

On a mohair farm near Burgersdorp, vetkoek, biltong and breath-taking scenery steal the show

Words and photographs Tess Paterson

It’s seven in the morning and we’re huddled over the gas stove at Vetkraal. Annalet Roberts dishes up vast plates of krummelpap, adds homemade wors, fresh vetkoek and grated Stormberg cheese. The coffee is like treacle, brewed in a thermos and poured through a sieve – the way breakfast’s been done around here for generations.

Outside, the dun mountains are saddled with frost. A thin pale light breaks fleetingly over the horizon. It’s the morning of the hunt and seven biltong-jagters are preparing to brace the cold, haring after some of the best game meat in the country. I glance at Robert, a Capetonian in Ralph Lauren who’s here for the first time. He’s deliberating over the wors, and I just know he’s wrestling with the idea of decades of artery-clogging breakfasts. “Move over pawpaw and muesli,” he says quietly, “this is the real thing.”

One look at that barren, lunar beauty and I’m transported back to Christmas braais and red meat breakfasts

Not far from the Eastern Cape town of Burgersdorp, Vetkraal is reached by a dirt road that meanders through wall-to-wall Karoo. As landscapes go it’s vast and rugged, an eons-old sea bed that evolved to sprout windmills and Angora goats and fragrant bushes. We’ve spent countless memorable holidays here, catching glimpses of a town with a complex history, bound by an indomitable community spirit. One look at that barren, lunar beauty and I’m transported back to family and Christmas braais and, well, red meat breakfasts.

The Roberts family have farmed Angoras here for over two decades. Together with their two grown sons and five dogs, they live in a stone house with a big stoep and a back yard with views of forever. Each winter, friends and relatives descend en masse with biltong in mind, part of a multi-million rand industry that brings welcome revenue to the game-rich areas of a desperately poor province.

She’s the only woman I know who can reduce a springbok carcass to meticulously cling-wrapped pieces while fixing a leaking tap

Personally, the thought of seven houseguests checking in for a week would fill me with a deep, tic-inducing dread. Annalet, however, treats these invasions as a happy, everyday occurrence. She tends to smile a lot, and is armed with an irrepressible enthusiasm for high energy pursuits like cycling, squash and whipping up hearty meals for small armies. She’s the only woman I know who can reduce a springbok carcass to meticulously cut and cling-wrapped pieces while fixing a leaking tap. Needless to say she’s a scratch golfer and I’ve known her to launch into the splits at dinner parties.

The troops will begin tracking on foot at Oom Andries’ farm, heading after springbok and mountain reedbuck. The proceedings will be overseen by Wienie, a sixth-generation Burgersdorp sheep farmer and Oom Andries’ neighbour. Wienie remembers a time when just two farmers in the area had naturally occurring game on their lands. Now, as he says, there’s barely a farm without springbok, and the numbers have to be managed. Surrounded by that vast, Karoo-scented stillness, they’ll shoot solely for the pot.

Like a scene from a modern-day Bonanza, they disappear in a cloud of brown dust and diesel

From the icy stoep we watch the guys load up. Piet journeyed from Pretoria with a whale-sized cooler box hitched to his Hardbody. He supplies a few select butcheries with venison and has prepared for the annual ritual of carrying dinner down a mountain by dressing completely in camouflage. It’s a look that’s part John Varty, part Fidel Castro, and I’m not surprised to learn that he’s been hunting since the age of seven. “It’s all about getting back to nature,” he says. Walking through the open veld, sitting round the fire afterwards, I feel as though I’m part of the natural cycle.” Still smooth and unruffled despite all the vetkoek, Robert starts the engine. Like a scene from a modern-day Bonanza, they disappear in a cloud of brown dust and diesel.

Annalet and I head into town. An attractive, many-churched dorp it’s got a backdrop of sandy mountains and the kind of shops that stock leather recliners and petticoats and tins of Zambuk under the same roof. As always I buy a hunk of pepper cheddar at the Stormberg Cheese Factory, and we pop into Spar for Christopher’s copy of Farmer’s Weekly. Unlike the gridlocked mayhem of Joburg, Burgersdorp is small enough to navigate on foot. But, as Annalet explains, the obligatory kuiering and total absence of haste is why the short walk from the co-op to the Dutch Reformed Church may take a good hour.

There are now two similar statues in Burger Square – the headless, prodigal original and its more together replica

If it wasn’t for the missing head, the elegant marble statue on the town square would be quite a looker. “Damaged and Removed by the Enemy of the Afrikaner” is the delightfully unambiguous inscription, and the story goes something like this: It was erected in 1893 as the Taal Monument, to mark the acceptance of the Dutch language into the Cape Parliament. But British troops made off with it during the Anglo Boer War, and the statue lay buried and sans head for 38 years. After the war, The British government agreed to replace the pilfered statue with a replica, which they did in 1907. As a result, there are now two similar statues in Burger Square – the headless, prodigal original that was unearthed in King William’s Town, and the more together replica, which gained national monument status in 1937.

Two blocks down we head to the cosy interior of Hagen Huis. Like many small town coffee shops, the service is what you might call rustig. “Of course everyone knows everyone,” says Annalet. “You’d have a hard time keeping something scandalous hushed up.” But, as she says, there’s so much more that comes with that. “The minute there’s a crisis, an illness, the whole town stands behind you. Whether it’s a prayer or a cooked meal left at your door, nobody is ever left to battle on their own.”

It’s during the long but enjoyable wait for sustenance that lawn-bowls ace Lettie Venter fills me in on some of the local legends. Like the farmer who would make his monthly banking trip into town on horseback. Not content to tether his steed outside, he’d ride straight through the doors, up to the counter and conduct his business from the saddle. “Of course security was less of an issue back then,” says Lettie.

Then there was Oom Balthus who had a Victorian bath on his front veranda. It wasn’t planted with rosemary as you might expect, but was used for, well, bathing. As visitors approached the house, Oom Balthus would shout out a greeting, naked and splashing right there on the stoep.

Lettie came to Burgersdorp as a teacher in the 50s, an era before TV and restaurants, and I’m delighted to learn that she actually had a meat safe. “We’d have wonderful house parties and endless socials,” she recalls. “It was a bustling farm town, far busier than it is now, and unemployment was unheard of. Now most of the young people are moving away, there’s just not enough industry to keep them here.”

Much later we all return to Vetkraal, the hunters wind-burned and happy. We settle in to supper around the yellowwood table, tuck into a lamb potjie that’s been simmering gently for a day. Talk ranges from the art of tracking (several springbok in the whale cooler for Piet) to a lengthy discourse on the merits of small-town life. “Like a time warp,” says Robert, not untruthfully.

Christopher sees it differently – a pace determined by rains and drought and the cycles of lambing and shearing. For me it’s about the extraordinary peace that comes from standing in the vast Karoo veld, with nothing but open sky and the sound of the wind. It could also be the familiarity of biltong sandwiches and the gentle acknowledgement that comes from a town that watched you grow up.

This story was originally published in Good Taste Magazine.

You may also like

1 comment

Claire Raubenheimer (Forbes) December 2021 - 7:41 am

A beautifully written article that describes it so well. I grew up on a neiboring farm in Burgersdorp and know Annalet and Chris very well. Lovely people. Whenever I return to my old stomping ground, I marvel at the very blue skies with the starkness of the dry flaxen veld and brown mountains in the backgroud. Such a stunning part of our country that I was privileged to grow up in.


Leave a Comment

error: © Tess Paterson | All rights reserved