Here’s a question: what’s the most indispensable item you can take with you on an overland journey? A spare tyre perhaps – it would be really stupid to venture beyond the confines of your suburb without one. Even so, it’s quite possible you won’t end up needing it.
Some might say good after-market suspension to get you over those tough bits, or a long-range fuel tank, or maybe a reliable GPS, or an electric tyre pump and compressor, or a dual-battery system. What about an on-board fridge to keep those all-important beers perfectly chilled? These are important items, but are they really essential? To make it into the overlander’s top five packing list, the item has to be both infallibly reliable and unbreakable.
So, how about an axe, a spade, a high-lift jack or a set of jerrycans? These are largely unbreakable and fairly essential tools. They have that tough, no-nonsense attitude and boast considerable longevity in the field to prove it. Any of these items would be in contention for a shot at top spot if it weren’t for the sage words of a famous opera tenor. Sure, he wasn’t exactly the quintessential 4×4 nut, but Luciano Pavarotti made a telling point when he wisely stated that one of the strange things about life is that we must all regularly stop whatever we are doing and devote out full attention to eating.
The King of the High Cs clearly took this mantra to heart more than most, but he was right: eating is an absolutely necessary daily act which we cannot ignore, so it makes sense that a reliable tool, which provides us overlanders with our daily mandatory sustenance, must be the most indispensable item we could pack into the vehicle. Enter then the unassuming three-legged cast iron pot that we South African’s affectionately call a potjie.
The potjie, as we all know, is a round cast iron pot, usually black and often with three stout cast iron legs attached to its base. The design is simple but supremely effective as the object can withstand decades of being placed in scalding fires, day in and day out without ever needing to be replaced or repaired. Furthermore, the tripod design of the legs allows the pot to remain upright among flaming logs and coals throughout the cooking process without worry that the pot may tip over and empty its contents into the fire. Three legs are more stable than four – just ask any wildlife or landscape photographer who has to balance their high-tech equipment on uneven ground. Admittedly, the humble potjie does face stiff competition from the almost equally humble and resilient braai grid. Braai grids also address our need to eat and like the potjie can spend most of their lives in the fire ensuring that our wors and chops get grilled just right. What pips the braai grid at the post is that the potjie is firstly marginally more indestructible, being of a robust material, so it doesn’t warp, bend and eventually break and it does not have to be positioned carefully balanced stones in the fire (unless the braai grid also has legs which some but not all do).
Secondly, the potjie is slightly more versatile in what food one can cook with it. Whereas the braai grid is good for select products only, you can cook anything in a potjie. One can literally chuck anything into the pot – meat, chicken, fish, veggies, rice, pasta, herbs, spices, sauces, brandy, sherry, beer and red wine – you name it, an entire hodgepodge of ingredients can go in, without requiring much effort from the cook. A basic potjie recipe goes like this: Grease potjie on inside, place on fire, layer ingredients of choice, replace lid, leave until cooked, remove lid and ingredients from the pot and eat – simple yet effective. However, the potjie can also produce some sumptuous haute cuisine that would even knock the vulgarity out of Gordon Ramsey.
Here’s one fine example: Boeuf Bourguignon. This is a dish which has found its way into French haute cuisine and made famous by Julia Child (think Meryl Streep in Julie & Julia). It’s a traditional French stew prepared with cubes of beef-chuck marinated in very good red wine and generally flavoured with garlic, carrots, onions, mushrooms, and herbs such as sage, bay leaves and rosemary. The key to this dish is the long immersion of the meat in red wine, which serves as the most sublime and tasty tenderiser. I tried this recipe on a two-week journey through Botswana.
I placed the meat in a series of zip-lock bags and divided a bottle of very good South African Pinotage into each bag then left them in the on-board fridge for two days before tossing the lot into the potjie along with all the other ingredients. It doesn’t sound like haute cuisine since the method of preparation is exactly the same as basic potjie preparation – chuck food in, place on fire, wait, eat – yet the taste is exquisite and my travelling companions were well impressed. As Julia Child remarked, Boeuf Bourguignon is “the most delicious meat dish concocted by man” and I reckon the potjie is the most ideal vessel to cook it in, especially since French purists of the recipe insist that the cooking vessel is coated heavily with lardons (cubes or strips of pure animal fat, preferably bacon) before cooking.
This is something potjiekos aficionados will concur with since every potjie needs to be well greased in fat both for the enhancement of flavour and to prevent the food from sticking to the sides. So it seems a simple African cooking design blends seamlessly with classic French haute cuisine. Yet interestingly, the potjie’s origins are not African at all. The humble pot and the method of cooking the blend of ingredients were invented during a celebratory mood on wet and muddy night in the Dutch town of Leiden way back in October 1574. In the five months preceding that date, Leiden had held out against an all-conquering Spanish army intent on bringing the Netherlands under Spanish yoke. Repeated attempts by the Dutch Prince of Orange to relieve the beleaguered town failed with great losses to the Dutch army. In a last-ditch attempt, the Prince ordered all the country’s protective dykes to be pulled down and most of the Dutch countryside was flooded in a few feet of seawater. As the Prince approached the besiegers in an armada of flat-bottomed boats, the Spanish, perhaps realising the futility of governing a now flooded and therefore utterly useless countryside, retreated south, sloshing waist deep through the water to higher ground in Belgium.
The Dutch rejoiced but were practically out of food and very hungry. As a celebration they hastily gathered together any food they could find – flesh from a variety of drowned animals both wild and domestic, any plant remotely edible, large quantities of herring brought in by the wash of the sea were somehow netted and, legend has it, some of the citizens raided the hastily abandoned camps of the retreating army and discovered barrels of potatoes, a vegetable unknown to the Dutch at the time and only “discovered” in the New World by the Spanish a few decades before. The ensemble of ingredients was thrown into large cauldrons that were previously used in the defence of the city primarily as great vats of boiling oil which were poured over the attackers attempting to scale the walls. These cauldrons were placed directly over open fires, the food was all cooked together and the people feasted and celebrated. The day became symbolic for the Dutch, and the dish – called a Hutspot (the English fittingly call it Hodgepodge) became, and remains, notable in traditional Dutch cuisine with potatoes still being the main ingredient.
Since then the dish became a national heritage and the Dutch began re-designing and perfecting the cast iron cauldrons, making them practical and more resourceful by casting them smaller and adding legs onto the base. The Dutch foundries became so adept at making these pots that the rest of the world soon began importing, then imitating, what became known as the “Dutch Oven”. The French refined the design and added enamel in what they call a cocotte, which today is still very much in use in most restaurants and homes – Le Creuset being the most recognised brand name and also the sort of vessel that Julia Child cooked her famous Boeuf Bourguignon.
The English borrowed the idea too in what they would eventually call a casserole dish, which first began as a cast iron flat-bottomed pot and then evolved into the Pyrex or ceramic dishes. As for the original Dutch round cauldron design, over the centuries since the siege of Leiden it followed the Dutch pioneers across the world, at one time with thousands of them making their way across the American West clanging conspicuously on the side of chuck-wagons. The pot was seen doing the same thing on the side of the wagons of the Voortrekkers where chunks of venison or wild fowl were unceremoniously tossed in and flavoured with an array of spices and sauces, the latter thanks to the penchant of the Malay cooks to add a bit more of a zing to the boring meat ’n potatoes of the Europeans. The potjie then became the favoured method of cooking by the Africans with whom the Voortrekkers had come into contact, and today almost every village in southern Africa has three-legged phutu pots on the open fire. Like the Voortrekkers and the American pioneers of yore, the modern overlander carries the potjie proudly.
Although it doesn’t clang about nearly as much as it did on the sides of ox wagons, one of the potjie’s only downsides is in its transportation. Most will testify that although supremely designed for cooking in an open fire, the pot is quite an unwieldy beast when it comes to transporting. The sooty exterior and the three legs don’t lend themselves to fit snugly into neatly structured rectangular spaces but with a little imagination there’s always a home for the overlander’s best friend (my choice is in the middle of the second spare tyre on the roofrack – the three legs slot neatly into the gaps in the rim). We can forgive one little drawback to what unarguably is the most indispensable of items and a fundamental icon of not only South African, but world heritage. Again, think about it: can you imagine a night in the wilderness, sitting under a starry sky, listening to the sounds of night-jars, warming your feet by an open fire without that obligatory little black pot? Didn’t think so.