Boerewors is popular from the tshisa nyama shop to the agricultural fair; the boerie, as it is colloquially known, is our autochthonous fast food.
From Nairobi to New York, wherever South Africans have gone boerewors has followed. It has even made its way into the Oxford English Dictionary.
We know it’s meant to be one of our national trademarks; the television programme MasterChef South Africa devoted episode 14 to the wors; we hold the Guinness World Record for braaing the longest boerewors (it was 514.5m); we talk of the boerewors curtain and boerewors westerns, and there is no end to its use for sexual innuendo. But what makes it boerewors; when does sausage become boerewors?
According to C Louis Leipoldt, writing in 1942, the closest relative to our boerewors could be found south of the Ardour River in France, where the sausage is made with goat’s meat, flavoured with spices, and improved with sweet Jurançon wine. Crucially, it contains cubes of pork (about 7mm in dimension) that allow it to be grilled over the coals without drying out.
By 1951, Leipoldt laments that boerewors “is now a thing of the past, although it often appears on the table — a travesty of what it should be and a disgrace … Ichabod — three times Ichabod!”
He complained that boerewors had become stuffed with far too many breadcrumbs and made from poor-quality meat deemed not fit for anything else. There should never be gristle, sinews or membranes in boerewors.
For Leipoldt, the essential ingredients for filling the casings are minced beef and mutton with little squares of pork, equal parts vinegar and wine, some brandy, coriander, pepper, a pinch of ground ginger, sage rubbed in, bruised rosemary, and a suspicion of garlic. To this can be added mace, cloves, nutmeg, fennel, thyme, and even mint.
Before grinding machines, the meat was pounded and then finely chopped — a time-consuming task that, remarks Leipoldt, requires a strong arm.
The completed product should have a blotchy pink complexion. Another hallmark is that it comes in a long, continuous coil and is cooked uncut. Once made, it is best left to mature for a few days. (Voortrekkers hanging their wors for longer produced droëwors, a staple of the Great Trek. Of course, they typically used a mix of lean and fat game instead of beef and pork.)
Most old recipe books, such as Hildagonda Duckitt’s 19th-century collection, simplify the recipe, but generally accord with Leipoldt. Victory, the South African Women’s Auxiliary Services cookery book, has it down to beef and pork in a 10:2 ratio, coriander, vinegar, cloves, salt and pepper, and tail fat. Then again, there was a war on.
Later recipes sometimes add Worcestershire sauce. There are regional varieties too, with Grabouw favouring pork meat, and Karoo wors using mostly lamb.
Ideally, wrote Leipoldt, boerewors should be grilled “over a rhinoceros-bush fire”. Don’t do that today; renosterbos is endangered. If a braai is not possible, it can be fried in a cast-iron pan, but add as little oil or fat as possible. When cooked it should be crispy, almost crackling outside, and still juicy inside. Whatever you do, never prick it with a fork while braaing.
Lannice Snyman (Rainbow Cuisine; 1998) believes boerewors probably originated with the German settlers, who knew most about sausages. Others claim it comes from the Limburg Dutch verse worst, a pork sausage.
Clearly, boerewors has had its ups and downs. At one stage, butcheries were killing boerewors with garlic and MSG, and selling peri-peri boerewors, cheese boerewors, and all kinds of corruptions.
But boerewors seems to have recovered and become a source of pride, even in supermarkets. Rather bizarrely, late in 2012, Checkers had its Championship Boerewors branded by British celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay.
Now boerewors has gone gourmet. Just in time for the summer season, a new restaurant, Gourmet Boerie, opened its doors.
Located on a busy corner across the road from McDonald’s, it is a casual, airy place, redolent of the braai yard, with long bleached wooden tables, floor-to-ceiling glass doors that open on to the street, and long facebrick counters, perhaps anticipating queues for takeaways and boerewors braaipacks.
In the first weeks of business, one ordered at the counter, but now there are waiters. Locals have responded well, and young and old from all walks of life mix here.
The menu is simple. You choose your boerewors type — traditional, lamb, chicken, beef or ostrich; your bread roll variety — white, whole-grain or 70% rye; and a style. Best-sellers are the Mexicano boerie (tomato salsa, sour cream, guacamole, jalapeño chilli) and the Hang-over (bacon, caramelised pineapple, avocado, cheese sauce). There are boeries with chakalaka, mushroom sauce, gorgonzola, even tzatziki.
I tried the Pure Sophistication with sweet caramelised onions, creamy goat’s cheese, roast cherry tomatoes, basil pesto and good-quality rocket. Boeries are served wrapped in paper on a wooden paddle; all come with shoestring chips. It’s rather odd not to have the alluring smell of grilling wors wafting about one as with the boerewors-roll street vendors. Backstage, here the wors is first steamed, then put on a medium-high grill. Mine was beautifully juicy, but with only the tiniest seam of singeing.
And with boerewors goes beer; on tap are craft beers: Darling Slow, Devil’s Peak and Jack Black.
It is early days for Gourmet Boerie and the concept has unexpected potential.
Gourmet Boerie, Shop No 5, Buitenkloof Studios, 8 Kloof Street, Gardens, Cape Town Tel: 021 424 4208
This article first appeared in the Mail & Guardian on 25 January 2013.