Mrs. Emerentia and the Making of a Good Bredie

I have yet to meet a person who does not like a good bredie and with the winter soon upon us I cannot think of a better dish to combat the inevitable winter blues.

Most European countries have a version of a meat stew. The Irish have the “Irish stew”, the English have their “Lancaster hotpot”, the Dutch their “hutspot”, the Germans their “Eintopf” and the Hungarians their “goulash”.

Although our bredie is really just a stew, it would be blasphemous to call it that. For it would deny our dish its unique place in the food culture and traditions of early traditional Cape Cookery. It deserves to be put under a shiny light for it represents our unique cultural fusion of European, Oriental and African in a manner the common stew cannot do.

As C. Louis Leipoldt describes it: “What we may today call ‘Cape cookery’ is characterized, no by a wholly original intrinsically national quality, but by a subtle combination of various and diverse fashions in cooking, adapted and modified from many different countries, to which the use of certain locally-grown ingredients has given a peculiar tinge”.

So lets us visit Mrs. Emerentia in her Cape kitchen to see how our glorious bredie is made.

Mrs. Emerentia’s ancestors arrived as slaves from the Orient to the Dutch-owned Cape Colony sometime after the Dutch themselves arrived in 1652. Although she cannot remember exactly when and from where they arrived, chances are good that they would have made their way to the southern African tip prior to 1770 and that they came from the Indonesian Archipelago or Madagascar.

She is from a long line of excellent cooks. She knows, because her grandmother told her many wonderful stories about just how sought after her female Malay ancestors had been as cooks.

And just the other day Mrs. Mavis, her neighbour from across the street, rushed over to tell her that Mrs. Mavis’s grandson, who works at the library, read about this slave auction at which “there was spirited competition for Emerentia, who is an acknowledged artist of the pot”. Now, Mrs. Mavis was thinking … maybe there is a connection between our Mrs. Emerentia and that Mrs. Emerentia. “Nah, n mens wiettie, ma ek se vi djou vrou, dalk is djy daai ma se agte-kjind.”

Bredie is in our Mrs. Emerentia’s blood. After all, Sir Laurens van der Post himself stated that ‘bredie’ is a Malagasy word, brought here by the slaves all those centuries ago. But then again, Mrs. Emerentia already knew that from her grandmother’s proud stories.

Tomato Bredie

Mrs. Emerentia starts by washing the meat for the bredie. Only the best meat will do, and in line with tradition it has to be mutton and there has to be plenty of fat. So she gets all her meat from Mr. Kamaldien’s halaal butchery – up there -Mowbray’s way. For her bredies, he always gives her some fatty thick-rib mixed with cuts from the shoulder which is much leaner.

Next, Mrs. Emerentia selects the spices for our bredie. The historical irony of these precious items does not escape her. If it had not been for these exotic plants, her ancestors would not have been able to put their cultural imprint on the food of the new colony and there would have been no Cape Cookery. There would be no bobotie, sosaties, bredies and no denningvleis. And the world at the southern tip of Africa would have been much, much poorer for it.

On her shelf she has cinnamon, cassia, nutmeg, mace, allspice, cloves, black and white pepper, turmeric, dried chillies, saffron, coriander seeds and cardamom seeds.

Back in the old days, these items were not freely available to all. It was only the Cape housewives, who could convince the captains of ships sailing to Batavia to buy and bring back modest amounts of these spices, who had regular access to them. And it was the slave cooks who had the knowledge to employ them.

She selects some cardamom, dried chillies, cassia and cloves and moves over to the table where she removes the meat from the water and dries it carefully.

A few onions, potatoes, fresh ginger and garlic find their way to the table too. And the fresh tomatoes she got from Mr. Nackerdien will be just right for our bredie.

As always for her bredies, she uses her grandmother’s iron pot. For a bredie needs to simmer -slowly for hours- until the flavours are just right. And if you let it rest until tomorrow it will be even better. Or as Mrs. Mavis’s skollie-son would say, “da is dai bredie eers kak duidelik, ma se kjind!”

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