Karoo Food. What is it? Why is it so sought-after and why is it so, so undeniably good?
Well, I guess it’s because it’s just that – it’s real good. And it’s always been this way. Going ‘back to basics’ is not a term that should be used to describe Karoo food, because Karoo food has always been basic. Karoo food is unpretentious, seasonal and simple.
Another thing Karoo Food is, is all-inclusive. There is no way you can only eat and appreciate the good cuts of meat and discard the rest. This is literally considered disrespectful. Blasphemy if you will, at least in my house.
Thankfully, head-to-tail eating has become rather fashionable lately. Something Veld to Fork author and true Karoo chef Gordon Wright knows all too well.
For 10 years, Gordon headed up his own gourmet Karoo eatery, Gordon's Restaurant, in the historic town of Graaff-Reinet, and now travels at leisure to host masterclasses on Karoo cooking and eating across the country.
“I dare say this fashionable food trend has been driven from the Karoo and caught on in the bigger cities only later on. It’s ironic, because trends typically filter down from the big cities to the klein dorpies, not visa versa,"says Gordon
But Karoo is the buzzword and everyone wants a piece of it.
Defining what exactly Karoo eating is, is a very difficult task as the practice doesn’t really fit any modern mold we’d like to force it on. You can’t rate a braai with friends on TripAdvisor, now can you…
And, as Gordon would tell you, the best restaurant in the Karoo is a braai in the veld. “Lighting a fire after a hunt and braaiing meat you know the exact origin of. That’s my favourite restaurant in the Karoo,” he says.
“People who live here don’t even have to think about whether they’re buying organic or free-range products, because there is nothing else your food can be. It’s a mindset and way of life more than it is a conscious decision. It’s the natural thing in the Karoo to know where your food comes from.
“And it gives you complete control,” he says. “Especially in regard to quality of meat.”
But knowing the secrets of Karoo food and eating comes with time. For Gordon it took 10 years to become an overnight success, he says. And still his book Veld to Fork, a canonical text and in-depth guide for the food of the Karoo, is but a sliver of what Karoo eating is all about.
So, how do you eat Karoo food – something that’s so hard to define?
And if you know no farmers or other folk of the Karoo but you want to get a taste of the good stuff, how do you go about getting a taste of the real thing?
There are a few ways to eat the Karoo.
Teach yourself Karoo food values and skills
Firstly, Chef Gordon’s Veld to Fork cooking schools and masterclasses would be the best start. He hosts hands-on classes in the area and says his next Karoo food masterclasses will focus on smoking your own hams, just in time for Christmas.
The next classes will be on 13 October, 22 October and 27 October, all hosted in Graaff-Reinet. Get more info here.
Not into smoking your own Christmas ham? There are other classes focused on making your own charcuterie too. Check out these snapshots from a recent charcuterie making course with Gordon:
Go somewhere trusted for a taste of the Karoo
Even though I'm actually a Cape Midland Karoo girl, I have to admit that the Northern Cape Karoo has the best lamb. There, I said it...
Some of the best lamb tripe I've eaten was in A Palhota Taverna in Williston. Don't be fooled by what this restaurant looks like from the road. Once you've taken the first bite from their most tender traditional lamb tripe, you'll go back again and again, as we have.
The Williston Mall, perhaps an oversell of the few quaint cafe, theatre and quirky shops in this outside eatery, is also well worth a visit for a scrumptious Karoo breakfast.
Sutherland is not only famous for SALT, the South African Large Telescope. The icy weather and barren Karoobossie landscape make for the most tender of lamb products, with that distinct Karoo flavour.
Added to this, lamb from this area is naturally free-range, hormone-free and 100% organic.
If you're after a first class Karoo meal, Cluster d'Hote is one of the best places in town to experience this. They serve the best lamb shank in town, and perhaps even in the country! Go early and have a sherry at the bar to warm you up before dinner.
Read more about Sutherland here: Snow, stars, serenity, Sutherland
De Camdeboo Restaurant is one of the few places to find fine dining in the Karoo, and we'd expect no less from the Rupert's recently revamped Drostdy Hotel.
De Camdeboo is a great showcase of the Karoo foodie experience, and the wine tasting centre at the Drostdy adds another gourmet element to fine Karoo eating.
Or if you’re looking for a more chilled vibe and social space to hang out with the locals, Polka Café is a great place to start the day with breakfast, and finish it with dinner and wine.
Read about the Ultimate Graaff-Reinet escape here
True Living in Cradock's main road belongs to my family - the Lombards. It's my favourite place to eat in the Karoo, naturally. But not only for sentimental reasons. I love it because 90% of everything served in the restaurant and deli is farm to table - sourced from our own farm or farmers in the community.
It's one of the places where you can experience the full circle of Karoo food, where you can trace back every bite to its origin.
Your foodie experience in Cradock is also not complete without a taste of Victoria Manor's traditional Karoo dinner served in the hotel’s beautiful dining room, Albert Restaurant, with its old-school bar.
Cradock hosts an annual Karoo Food Festival, teaching eager learners how to make traditional milktarts and other Karoo food classics. Next year's festival will take place in winter, so keep your eyes open for dates.
Everywhere in the Karoo
One thing you can be certain of anywhere in the Karoo, is that you'll find the country's best biltong and droëwors almost everywhere. Regardless of how small the town, you will always find a butcher selling top class beef, venison and lamb.
An absolute favourite is the Karoo Biltong butchery in Laingsburg, the perfect spot to top up biltong supplies on a long road trip on the N1.
De Wilge butchery in Cradock is another favourite, as well as Merino Butchery in both Graaff-Reinet and Beaufort West.
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