Let’s face it – Namibians love meat. Many of us eat it nearly everyday, and we eat a lot of it in any one sitting. Mutton, lamb, veal, beef and venison can almost be considered staples, and chicken … well some would argue it’s really only a vegetable.
We eat pork too but that is mainly the result of our colonial heritage. What I do find perplexing though, is the fact that although pork dishes such as eisbein, schnitzel and kassler are now part of the greater Namibian cuisine, we have never really established ourselves as a nation of pig farmers.
In fact, most farmers would not even consider keeping pigs for household consumption, let alone farm them for commercial purposes. As a result, most people would only eat pork in a restaurant.
I’d be very interested to learn the exact number of Namibians who do not have direct access to farms and their produce. Be it through family, friends or acquaintances, I am sure a very large percentage of Namibians have the opportunity to buy their meat from a source who they know personally.
And that puts us in a very special position. In a world where the distance between the pasture and plate is getting ever bigger, we are very privileged, although we might not see it that way. We are taking it for granted and I fear that we might move in the same direction as the rest of the world.
Even in Namibia, we are often too busy or ignorant to stay involved with our food. We have allowed crucial traditional butchering and meat processing skills to die with the older generations, and rely ever more on ‘specialists’ to prepare or add value to our meat.
I have stopped counting the number of people who, this winter alone, complained about the quality of the ‘droeë wors’ or ‘biltong’ they had ordered from some butcher or meat processor. I suppose that’s what happens when you put your meat’s fate in the hands of others. I was brought up believing quality starts and ends at home.
I cannot recall the number of animals we have processed at home. Or the volume of homemade sausage made only with the very basic of equipment. All I know, it is several tons of pure joy.
Here’s a short account of my relationship with mutton straight from the pastures of southern Namibia not far from the town where I was born.
I know this place like the back of my hand. I have been coming here since the 1970’s when mom’s brother bought this farm.
If you leave the house and walk for about 50 meters, then turn right at the gate, you’ll find the chicken pens and come sunset, all twenty or thirty hens and roosters will return to their pens to be fed and to sleep safely for the night. At sunrise, their gates will be opened and they roam freely for the day.
A little bit further on is an old and large Acacia eriolobatree where the karakul lambs are slaughtered during the winter months. Under its shade rest the remains of a very old red Land Cruiser pick-up truck that once was the farm’s main means of transport. In its pre-farm life it was the shiny fire truck of a small mining town along the South African west coast.
If you stand still here only for a few minutes, you’ll hear the cranking sound of the windmill drawing sweet water from the depths of the earth into a large stone reservoir. This is the rhythmic mantra of life, the sound that puts everyone at ease.
As kids we used to swim in this reservoir when the summer heat was at its midday peak and all the adults had retreated to the cooler rooms at the back of the house. We had to share the water with a number of aquatic bugs, most notorious of all, the whirligig beetles. One bite by these little black predators and you’d wish you rather took a nap in a hornets’ nest.
Right here, we’ll turn right again, follow the narrow little path all along the fence, until we get to the citrus orchard – oranges, naartjies and something that might have been Clementines or Mandarins. Just before leaving the farm, we’ll stop here again to pick some to take home.
Come late afternoon we’ll take the pick-up and drive to the pastures. Here we’ll gather the sheep earmarked for slaughter and we’ll pick the ones we want. Every man has to catch his own by bending down, rushing in and grabbing the quarry by the hind leg.
This is easy enough if you understand the linguistic code used to talk about and identify the appropriate animal. “Horingsman” (usually the name for a species of snake) here refers to a sheep with horns. “Poenskop” (usually reference to a hairless person) refers to sheep without horns. “Swawelstert” refers to a specific way one or both ears have been cut to mark the animal.
Back home the folk will get ready for the slaughter. A big pot of water will be boiled to scrape the heads and trotters. The women under guidance of the elderly Mina, will use old-fashioned razor blades to do this. Lucas, Johannes and the rest of the men will do the skinning. All throughout we’ll talk and joke. About everything even the politics of the day. Just before dark the skinned carcasses will be transferred to the cooling room from where they will be loaded onto the car and taken back home.
The meat on my plate is not just meat. It smells of citrus grove and carries the mantra of the windmill. It embodies the spirit of humans that have touched it. And for that I am truly grateful.
This recipe celebrates the meat and the people who produce it. It is really easy to make and requires more time than ingredients. Just the way it should be.