We all grew up with stories of witches and druids and ancient rituals taking place around big, black cauldrons. They were immortalised in fairytales, the plays of Shakespeare and the writings of Chaucer. And today the Harry Potter books. But they also played an essential role in the kitchens of mediaeval Europe. Whether over indoor hearths or outdoor fires, a team of gnarled, old women – if we use the picture created by our epic period dramas – would spend hours stirring the meal of the day in a big, black cauldron.
Most of the old-world cauldrons or cooking pots were made of cast-iron with round bellies and were suspended over the fire or hearth. As all of the heat came from the fire beneath the pot, the only way to regulate the cooking heat was to change its height. This limited the type of meal that could be prepared and the cooks of the day had to make do with simple fare. But everything evolves and the cast-iron cooking pot was no exception.
When the early settlers and missionaries left the old world countries to colonise the new world they brought their cooking pots with them. They would prove to be invaluable. When the Dutch landed at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652 they too arrived with their cast-iron cooking pots. As these intrepid explorers ventured into the heartland of Africa, they had no choice but to cook on a fire in the open bush. There were no more kitchen hearths and no way to suspend the pots. So how did they overcome the problem of keeping a round bellied pot from falling over?
In a moment of genius someone, somewhere adapted the pot and gave it a slightly domed lid and three legs – three legs that could stand practically anywhere in lieu of suspending the pot. This evolved design allowed for coals to be placed on top of the lid so that food could be cooked from both above and below if required. When this portable, three-legged, cast-iron pot arrived in South Africa it became known as the potjie – pronounced poy-key – pot or Dutch oven. These potjie pots retained heat well and could be left simmering over a few embers and also to bake fresh, crusty bread. Any food that was cooked in a potjie was known as potjiekos – pronounced poy-key-kos – and literally translated means ‘pot food’. The potjie and potjiekos have become part of South Africa’s cooking heritage.
As the Dutch continued their expeditions into the interior, the tribal Africans traded animal hides and other commodities for these practical potjie pots. These slowly replaced the clay pots that they used for cooking. Amongst the African tribal cultures these pots became known as putu or porridge pots and were used for cooking everything from maize meal porridge to game meat to fat mopani worms using any fuel source available – even animal dung! As a result, the potjie is used extensively in Africa today by almost all cultures.
The Black Pot Family
In South Africa, they have a whole family of potjie pots to choose from. They come in a range of sizes from mini (holding 0.35l) to the giant number 25 (holding 70.5l). The choice is almost overwhelming. And to make it worse, you can now choose from a range of three-legged potjies, platkpotkies (basically potjies with their legs cut off) and bake potjies (which look like casserole dishes, but funnily enough are used for baking bread known as pot bread). These cast-iron pots last a lifetime and many are handed down from one generation to the next.
We have three different potjie pots – one of each design to cover all eventualities. We find that the evening meal is often the highlight of the day and the potjie pot adds to the evening ambience by becoming the focal point of conversation and interest around the fire. At least if our conversation isn’t up to scratch, we can win you over with mouth-watering dishes from the big, black pot!
Cooking with the Black Pot
Invariably no two potjie recipes ever taste the same. The pores in the cast iron retain the flavours of past potjie adventures and blend seamlessly with each new culinary masterpiece. In South Africa, a traditional potjie dish is built in layers with the meat and hard vegetables at the bottom and the softer vegetables at the top. Cooking in the potjie is expected to be a long, drawn-out, social affair sometimes taking up to four hours – depending on your choice of ingredients – before the perfect pot food is ready to be enjoyed.
The experts say that you must never stir a potjie while cooking! This is because the potjie’s round belly allows the heat to be evenly distributed around the pot ensuring even cooking while its heavy, domed lid prevents any moisture escaping. Unsurprisingly this cooking technique takes practice and a lot of self-control to master. Luckily there is an alternative!
Although the potjie is the perfect pot to accompany you on your travels, we personally found that cooking layered meals, however delicious, was impractical for us when we were on the road. Often we would get to our camp late having been distracted by a herd of elephants or a nocturnal creature emerging for its nightly rounds or even a particularly beautiful sunset. Making camp would be our first priority. That done we would just want to cook something quick, easy and delicious while sitting around the fire enjoying the night sounds.
We’re not claiming to have re-invented potjie cooking. That isn’t the case at all. Instead we’ve just adapted it to suit our needs and today we use it as a brilliant, quick cooking wok with a lid! We still adhere to the fundamental principals of potjie cooking though. We cook on an open fire using everyday ingredients to produce delicious and nutritious one-pot meals. We have studied and learnt the quirks of its moisture retaining, even heat distributing cooking method. We just cook over hot coals, sometimes even burning wood, and we stir our black pot as often as we need to.
We still make layered meals in our potjie when time allows and even bake our own pot bread. In short, you will never be disappointed with the variety of delectable – and sometimes strange – dishes that you will enjoy with us.