Homegrown: Memories of food

Mareli and Bertus Basson at the launch of Bertus latest cookbook, Homegrown, at his Stellenbosch eatery, Spek en Bone.

While it is always exciting to get your hands on a new cookbook, it is even more rewarding to be able to listen to the back story about how the book came together.

When Bertus Basson launched his latest offering, Homegrown, at his newest eatery, Spek en Bone in Dorp Street, Stellenbosch recently, I was fortunate enough to be there.

We were regaled with tales of late nights, desperate deadlines, exhaustion, inspiration and sheer bloody determination by every member of the team to get the book done the way it ought to be done: to be a showcase for Bertus’ overwhelming love of food and cooking.

Food writer and photographer, Russel Wasserfall ramrodded the team, and it was he who nudged Bertus for long enough and gently enough to get him going with the project.

Art direction, styling and design were in the hands of Roxy Spears, whose genius at a much underestimated skill, Bertus will tell you, made the book the beguiling read that it is.

Russell contracted chef, photographer and food stylist, Claire Gunn, to take care of the visuals, and her skill at making virtually anything on a plate look like you could pick it up of the page and eat it, completes the picture.

But it was Bertus’ wife Mareli, who kept the team on the straight and narrow, managing the complex styling and shooting schedules, meetings and reviews, and who knew just when and how to chivvy the team when they wandered off at a tangent.

Most importantly, she gently kept Bertus’ nose to the grind stone in the early days, when he started to document the many recipes that appear in the book. “Even after a hard night of service,” he recounts, “Mareli would encourage me to do just the one recipe before we went to sleep. Without her, the book would never have gotten done.”

Bertus’ classic French cuisine roots notwithstanding – his training started at Michelin-starred Chez Bruce in London at the tender age of 19 – he is at heart a plaas seun, and as you page through the book, it becomes evident that so much of what he does with food is either memory-inspired, or memory-invoking.

Despite the numerous awards he has garnered over the years – eight top 10 Eat Out awards and a good many American Express awards – and his fine dining establishment, Overture, at Hidden Valley Wine Estate, the recipes which appear in the book are simple, compelling, rooted as they are in his Afrikaans cultural past, and his on-going journey in the cultural diversity of south African cuisine.

“I did this because I love how we cook, but also because what we cook and how we eat as south African is such a rich foundation of inspiration,” he says in the foreword to the book.

Perhaps the finest example is one of the dishes served that night at the book launch: Kos Kos Salad, which literally brought tears my eyes, because it transported me back to my youth, for my late mum often would make something similar for lunch when I arrived home from school.

Bertus’ mum, Hetta tells the story. “When Bertus was a little boy, and I couldn’t cook because I was busy, his dad would have to. The children would watch him in the kitchen, working away with a tin of pilchards in tomato sauce and salad ingredients, and eventually ask what he was making, ‘Kos,’ he would reply and when they asked him what sort of kos it was, he would look up and say ‘Kinders, dis kos kos’.”

And so Kos Kos Salad, a celebration of that old South African favourite, pilchards in tomato sauce served on a bed of fresh salad with soft blood eggs, and – Bertus’ twists – fresh mayonnaise and caper berries was born, and it endures to this day as a family favourite, three generations later. Simple, delicious, nutritious.

There’s much more in the book, organised as it is into recipes inspired by his childhood, contemporary recipes from his travels in and around South Africa, a section devoted to ingredient inspired recipes, and the food he cooks at home after an exhausting day or night of service.

The book is rounded out with an index and glossary, which makes it easy to navigate your way through the wide variety of recipes, each of which tells the story of its genesis.