The evolution of 'braaivleis man'

DAVID BULLARD discovers that food cooked al fresco need not have the consistency of the sole of a hiking boot

UNLESS they are very lucky or have a valid excuse such as vegetarianism, the first-time visitor to South Africa will almost certainly be subjected to the ritualistic cremation of dead animals fondly known as the "braaivleis".

Not to be confused with the Aussie "barbie" or the more British or American Bar-B-Q, the braaivleis is a uniquely South African phenomenon.

Although men and women arrive together, they traditionally separate into two groups at a braai. The men make the fire and cook the meat while the women traditionally ferry the beers to the men, arrange the salads and look after the children. In the 20th century it's the closest a man can get to his "hunter gatherer" Neanderthal roots.

The boerewors goes on first and immediately catches fire making it look like a giant, fat-spitting, Catherine wheel. Beer or water is poured over the coals to douse the flames which results in a pall of pungent smoke - all part of the enjoyment of outdoor entertaining apparently. Once the wors has been suitably charred and served, the other meat can be thrown on the grid and ruined. No matter how much attention the men devote to turning and basting the meat or rearranging the coals, the first law of braais is that the meat will always burn. The second law is that, regardless of which way the wind is blowing or where you stand, the smoke will follow you and get in your eyes.

The problem with our national pastime is that visitors who have experienced it think it is the only way South Africans eat. I visited London some years ago and went to friends for dinner. They had rushed off to Harrods that morning and bought a tiny Japanese Bar-B-Q set in my honour, intending to cook lamb chops on it. We spent three gloomy hours in a tiny garden in Putney trying to light the fire before we finally gave up and opted for takeaway pizzas.

Having passed through the various evolutionary stages of "braaivleis man", I finally attended one of Shirley Guy's Weber cookery demonstrations because I needed to be convinced that food cooked al fresco didn't necessarily have to be carcinogenic or have the consistency of the sole of a hiking boot.

Shirley Guy runs The Dough Hook, a cookery school in Bedfordview. As well as offering all sorts of foodie cookery courses (including some for men only), writing for a variety of publications on culinary matters and trotting off to exotic locations to check out the local cuisine, she is also the undisputed African queen of the Weber kettle braai; that strange looking three-legged creature that now graces the patios of discerning South African homes.

The first thing you learn is how to call your Weber by its correct name. Despite the spelling, it is pronounced "webber"; in musical parlance, more Andrew Lloyd than Carl Maria Von. Although there are some cheap imitations on the market, the genuine article from the US will set you back about R800. There is also a much flashier gas version for people who don't like to get their hands dirty.

Once you have the basic kettle you can acquire any number of Weber designer accessories such as meat racks, braai tongs and even a little plastic mac so that your Weber can go out in the rain.

Before you can actually cook anything, you have to know how to assemble and light your Weber. It is a good idea to read the instruction manual. Although it's not a particularly complex piece of engineering, one new owner lit the fire in the ash tray under the kettle and wondered why he was eating raw fish two hours later.

One very good reason to attend one of Shirley Guy's Weber demonstrations is that you get to eat a great lunch afterwards. This is undoubtedly why they prove very popular with companies looking for a novel way to entertain. They are an alternative to the more mundane sort of corporate entertainment, particularly as husbands and wives can both attend.

Another good reason is that you will learn how to use a Weber to produce a great meal without very much effort on your part.

Looking rather like a percussionist surrounded by smoking tympani, Shirley dashed around chopping this and seasoning that and, by some miracle of timing which has so far eluded me, managed to produce about 10 different dishes by lunchtime. These included fish in newspaper, lamb cooked to perfection and delicious Italian bread.

My only complaint is that the the only thing the Weber doesn't do is clean itself.

Article by: David Bullard - www.btimes.co.za