PICTURES: Theana Breugem (thefoodphotographer.co.za/).
DIANE DE BEER
From the time I first heard that power chef Rachel Botes was going to do her masters in the origins and originality of the South African milk tart, I knew that she would be stretching the limits of this local sweet thing to places where none of us could imagine.
Now with her master’s degree (Cum Laude) in hand, she has done exactly that. I also knew that her approach and research would be complicated and worth getting your teeth into. Her aim was to also use the milk tart as an artefact of food culture to enable a better understanding of food as a vehicle for identity, food as memory as well as a form of communication.
Just allow your mind to linger a little on that and the of scope of what she was hoping to achieve boggles the mind.
Botes stated her intent right from the start as she approached her research from a historical point of view, with the Department of Historical and Heritage Studies (Faculty of Humanities, University of Pretoria) her place of departure.
She notes that the milk tart is often perceived as something that’s derived from Afrikaners’ tradition and culture. This, however, isn’t entirely founded. “…milk tart has been adopted, adapted and subsumed by women of different cultures and backgrounds into South African heritage,” which is good news for our South African cuisine heritage … and something most of us have suspected anyway. With our history and diversity, nothing simply happens simply.
She further notes (and that’s more good news) that it has been given the nod widely and indigenized to such an extent that it is now considered a national treasure regardless of background. We even have a National Milk Tart Day, for heaven’s sake!
At the heart of investigating the much loved milk tart lie questions of identity, belonging and heritage – all arising at the intersection of food culture and history.
She quickly discovered that recipe books would be her best source of information – that and food writing. These were generally done by women and thus became the diaries, the memory bank and a gendered food archive that reflects as a particular identity marker within the South African context.
As we know, women are not well considered or documented in the past (look at writers like Hilary Mantel, who are taking new points of view just to introduce everyone into their writing) but what has emerged has exciting consequences. “Whole classes of documents which were previously held in low esteem, including household inventories as an index of kinship, obligations and ties” come into play, for example, argues historian Raphael Samuel.
She also deals with the problematic racial classifications of our past, the national identity of food, with examples of every nation borrowing freely – as renowned South African author Louis Leipoldt states, “often with unblushing audacity” – which leads to the term “indigenization”, meaning something becomes distinctive to a particular people or place.
Many argued that women’s handwritten books and published guides or recipe books, as well as those of servants, will not be found in history books. Their history, especially in the domestic domain, was not regarded as important enough to be formally. But that is what turns this into something so much more than simply the origins of the milk tart.
Penelope Hetherington, for example, explains that women’s history was ignored in the documentation of national history at least until 1960! That’s yesterday!
Keeping all this in mind, even though enslaved people shaped South African cuisine in many unexpected ways, it was never formally recorded and thus has to be found in the pages of the recipe books of the time.
As Botes reviews the research she has done on the milk tart, she encapsulates some of what food means (with a smile) in the following quotation in Hastings Beck’s book Meet the Cape Food: “During the war a general who is, in the grand phrase of Izaak Walton, now with God, visited a school in the Cape, somewhat suspect of subversive activities. On his return he declared, ‘There is absolutely nothing wrong with that school. Why! They entertained me with milk tart!’
This, explained the author, was the significance of milk tart, which he describes as more than a pastry. ‘It is a gesture, like the breaking of bread or the offering of salt in other times and places. When judges go to circuit or Important Persons open bazaars, they must be served milk tart. To fail to do so would be a social solecism if not an actual affront.’
Another quotation that appeals was that of Charlene, Princess of Monaco, who announces in You Magazine, “I want to take milk tart and mealiepap to the rest of the world.”
Botes also reports that milk tart was often served during the Mbeki presidency, but she reminds us that he certainly was not the only South African head of state to do so. The Rand Daily Mail of 6 January 1975 announced that “melktert and eclairs for tea…” were served at formal talks between Prime Minister John Vorster and Britain’s Foreign Secretary James Callaghan.
Milk tart was also a conciliatory symbol when former President Nelson Mandela went to the Afrikaner enclave of Orania in August 1995 to visit Mrs Betsie Verwoerd.
She notes that as indicated by philosopher Martin Versveld, it is evident that the cuisines of the world came together at the tip of Africa. In most cases, she suggests, it was not a willing or voluntary convergence and therefor the process to reach the fusion of these cuisines must have been troublesome.
It is apparent to her from many of the recipes discussed in her dissertation that custard tarts were introduced and adopted in the early colonial era by the people doing the cooking, either on their own or under instruction. It is also clear from the recipes she investigated (and these are all included) that a basic milk tart recipe evolved over time, but that each baker had her own secret milk tart success, be it in method, the pastry, the preparation of the filling or its flavouring.
She highlights that the role and influence of all the women from diverse cultures is undeniable in this process and most often not acknowledged. Most importantly, she adds, considering the milk tart as an artefact, it becomes clear that the archive was not only silent about women in history, but also about their day-to-day activities – whether it was baking a milk tart or recording a recipe for the family collection.
It’s a tough one to capture everything of interest in a column like this, but being a fly on the wall during these studies, I always knew that Rachel Botes could publish the definitive milk tart book once her studies were completed.
Here’s holding thumbs that it will see the light of day!
And some examples from the earliest, then earliest local and then a local favourite:
“Tyropatinam” (Milk and egg sweet)
Origin: Roman, 1st-3rd century CE
Estimate the amount of milk necessary for this dish and sweeten it with honey to taste; to a pint of fluid take 5 eggs; for half a pint. Dissolve 3 eggs in milk and beat well to incorporate thoroughly, strain through a colander into an earthen dish and cook on a slow fire [in hot water bath oven]. When congealed sprinkle with pepper and serve.
Apicius, 2009, De Re Coquinaria, translated and edited by J.D. Vehling and published digitally as Project Guttenberg’s Cooking and Dining in Imperial Rome, E-book 29728, Recipe 301, no page no. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/29728/, access: March 2020.
The earliest local milk tart recipe found for this study was in a handwritten manuscript identified as Keuke boek van mijn De Weduwe Blanckenberg gebore Zeeman Den 15 October 1819 (Kitchen book of mine, the widow Blanckenberg born Zeeman The 15[th] October 1819)
Recipe 49 is for a Room taart (Cream tart) that is made with eggs and sweet cream or good milk. A little flour is added to stiffen the mixture. It is left to cool before the mixture is poured into a tart base and baked until cooked. It is finally sprinkled with sugar. This recipe is similar to that of a milk tart, except for the fact that no butter is added to the filling and it is not flavoured in any other way. Recipe 75, for Melk taart (Milk tart), is briefer and makes no reference to the method, crust or flavourings. It simply reads “6 eyeren, 2 lepels meel en een bottelmelk” (6 eggs, 2 spoons of flour and a bottle milk).
And then perhaps to bake …and one of the Botes favourites
The Zola Milk Tart
Origin: South Africa, 2017
60 g butter, at room temperature
¼ cup (50g) castor sugar
1 cup (140g) cake flour
1 tsp (5ml) baking powder
A pinch of salt
- Pre-heat the oven to 180° Celsius. Grease a 23 cm tart tin.
- Cream the butter and castor sugar together.
- Add the egg and stir to combine.
- Add the flour, baking powder and salt and mix into a stiff dough.
- Press the dough onto the base and sides of the tart tin.
- Prick the base of the pastry all over with a fork.
- Blind bake for 30 minutes or until golden and crispy.
2 ¼ cups (565ml) milk
1 cinnamon stick
½ cup (100g) sugar
1 tbsp plus 1 tsp (20ml) cake flour
1 tbsp plus 1 tsp (20ml) corn flour
1 tsp (5ml) vanilla essence
20 g butter
1 tsp (5ml) ground cinnamon
- In a saucepan set over moderate heat, add the milk and cinnamon stick and bring to a boil. Remove the cinnamon stick.
- Whisk together the egg, sugar, flour, corn flour, and vanilla essence
- While whisking continuously, slowly add the hot milk to the flour mixture.
- Return the mixture to the saucepan and set over moderate heat. Whisk until the mixture has thickened.
- Add the butter and stir through.
- Pour the filling into the prepared pastry crust.
- Sprinkle with the cinnamon.
- Allow to cool completely before refrigerating.
M. Loewenstein, ‘The Zola Milk Tart’, Woman and Home Magazine, 24 February 2017, pp. 3-4. https://www.womanandhomemagazine.co.za/recipes/zola-milk-tart, access: October 2020.