South African chefs stir up 'old-style' cuisine

South African chefs stir up 'old-style' cuisine

SOUTH AFRICA - A vanguard of South African chefs are dusting off unfashionable cooking techniques used by 18th century Dutch settlers - like pickling, salting and smoking - to create a modern "sustainable" cuisine.

A lot of what chef Chris Erasmus works on at his upscale restaurant in the Cape winelands has not been in vogue, or even necessary, since fridges were first sold over a century ago.

But the former chemical engineering student is determined, with the help of a little scientific know-how, to resurrect a centuries-old way of approaching food that seems anathema to modern life.

Some of Erasmus's preparation methods, once essential to keep local produce edible through the winter, can take weeks, months or even a year to complete.

But they make the most of ingredients that do not need to be flown in from around the world.

"We are using old techniques with modern science," he said toying with a puffed-up, week-old vacuum pack of salted raspberries.

Inside the plastic pouch the blood-red berries are being pickled using heterolactic fermentation, a chemical process that converts glucose into lactic acid, preserving the fruit in the process.

To this age-old technique Erasmus adds salt and low oxygen levels, helping the process move along and preventing the build-up of bacteria we now know is harmful.

Once the fermentation is completed the berries can be dehydrated, stored and reconstituted with water whenever needed.

The end result is an ingredient that has little in common with the vinegar-tinged tastes commonly associated with pickling.

This is no throat-burning bar snack, soggy fast food garnish or bland central European stodge.

"It's got a beautifully savoury raspberry smell and it's got 10 times the flavour because of the fermentation," he said.

'They knew exactly what they were doing'

The groundwork for this new old cuisine may have come from the likes of Topsi Venter - a now-retired female chef who went from working on the South African Dried Fruit Board to opening restaurants that dug deep into the terroir to redefine local food.

But Erasmus - along with other like-minded South African chefs such as Margot Janse and Richard Carstens - stand at the confluence of many food movements that have grown over the last decade around the world.

They dip into the use-it-all ethic of head-to-tail butchering, the scientific adventurism of molecular gastronomy and the locavore drive for seasonal food sourced from nearby farms.

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