A modest man

The recipe – Coq au vin

Grandpa Chrisjan never went to school. Well, that is not entirely true, so let me rephrase that. Grandpa Chrisjan went to school for just one day. After that, his father decided that he’d be better off herding sheep. So he never went back.

Herding sheep could not have been easy for a seven or eight year old boy back then. The world was still open and unproclaimed by wire and predator-proof, mash fences and to watch sheep graze and take them to water twice a day would sound like an exhilarating adventure to most young boys. Until you realize that you have to sleep out in the open veld for three or four nights at a time. With only a small bedroll for comfort and bread, dried out to serve as rusks, for food.

One night, as he was looking for a place to settle, he saw a cow’s skull moving across the footpath he was on. Only a few meters ahead from where he was.

In the dim light of a dark moon, it would have been easy for the human eye to play tricks with the mind of a scared little boy.

Yet, the moon was full and the skull shone bright. It was no optical trick or illusion.

The donkey he was leading bucked, kicked, ran away braying into the night. Leaving Grandpa Chrisjan alone with the walking skull.

He was petrified. Incapacitated with fear. Maybe he was cold, shivering and numb.

Yet, as is often the case with young boys, curiosity slowly got the better of his fears. He took a few steps toward the skull and reached down for a reasonable sized rock.

He pelted the skull. Missed. Another rock. Missed. Yet another miss, and another. Fury replaced fear as rocks rained onto the skull. His small body became a blur of motion, as he bent down to find another rock, get up straight, take aim and let fly. Over and over and over again. Until one found the target.

With a dull thud the rock hit a protruding edge of the skull. It spun and then, as if in slow motion, tilted over.

The skull became real. It was no longer a ghost or extraterrestrial messenger. It was just a dried-out cow’s skull. A piece of bone stripped and bleached by the sun.

It got quiet except for the fading bray of an anxious donkey somewhere far-off in the night.

Grandpa Chrisjan smiled as he gently removed the small tortoise from the brain cavity of the dead beast. He stroked its boney shell, and put it down underneath a raisin bush in full bloom. Then he rolled out his bed. This was as good a place to rest as the next.

Many, many years later Grandpa Chrisjan moved to town. Tried as he may, he could never leave his early life behind.

He seldom slept inside and we spent many hours watching the stars. Looking for satellites as they passed over southern Namibia.

He kept chicken in his backyard and watered his fig and citrus trees with spiritual dedication.

Every so often, for lunch, he baked a whole sheep’s head in a hole he dug that morning. And we’d sit down on low riempie stoele and eat the meat that he’d cut with his carefully sharpened pocket-knife. The real treats would be the brains that he’d scoop from the cavity with a small spoon and the tongue that he carefully peeled.

Once a month we’d slaughter a few chicken. And the unlaid eggs and giblets would be set aside, just for us, as endorsement of the bond between grandfather and grandson.

I often watched him drift into his afternoon nap, thinking about that little tortoise and fate that brought it to that skull. Just how did it happen? But, I am afraid, after so many decades, the answer is still out there with the braying donkey.

I never had the opportunity to cook for Grandpa Chrisjan, but if I had, I would have made him this classic French dish Coq au vin or, if you like, ‘rooster braised in wine’ using one of his back-yard roosters.

If you are lucky (or modest) enough to have to slaughter your own chicken to make this, add the giblets. Use only the best wine you can afford. Serve this with pureed potatoes to which you have added a few handfuls of flavourful cheese and some garlic. And while you are at it, endorse a friendship or two.


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