The quiet braai
Cooking on fire like my father did.
As a little girl I wanted to do everything my dad did. And he did a lot. He built the furniture for my bedroom, he varnished the picket fence in front of our house, he was forever fixing my mom’s little green Mini (which inevitably put him in a foul mood) and, on a Sunday, he braaied.
He involved me by filling an old paint tin with water and giving me a used paintbrush to ‘varnish’ the gate. Or by handing me twigs to break up kindling for the fire or an enamel bucket to collect ‘bolletjies’ for what we now call ‘dad’s bolletjie braai’.
There was a sense of freedom in walking along a windbreak looking for seed pods, broken off in a gale and lying at the base of the Spider gum trees. It felt like important work, because my dad had learned from my Opa, his father-in-law, that these ‘bolletjies’ make good coals.
The wooden house where we gathered was called ‘Four Winds’ and as the name suggests, completely windless days were few and far between. In early autumn, when the red candelabra flowers bloomed and the howl of the South-Easter had faded with summer, that was the best time to braai.
My dad would hold the back of his hand over the smouldering coal bed, listen closely for the intensity of the sizzle, and adjust the height of the grid accordingly. At lunch he and Opa would share a beer, pouring it between two repurposed German mustard glasses, but until then his focus was the braai.
The bolletjie braai was a chicken braai, seasoned only with salt and white pepper. Given the general proliferation of chicken-breast-packs our family must be an anomaly, because it was the white meat left over for Monday’s chicken-mayo sandwiches. And there was much debate over who got The Pope’s Nose on a roast.
Oma chose the thighs, fondly referred to as ‘the ties’ because her mother tongue was German, and I loved the wings, puffed up and crunchy in places but succulent inside. I took them in my hands, chewing on the wing tips in silent appreciation – a rare moment when my parents turned a blind eye to manners.
After lunch the adults retired for a nap and the afternoon stretched before me, long and quiet, barring the distant moan of a low wind. I was left to read or wander, alone with my daydreams, occasionally crouching down to study rock lichens or a lurid red-and-black locust that crossed my path.
The sound of a pot being filled with water to boil on the gas stove, and the tea cups with dahlias and foxgloves on the front clinking as they touched the saucers, signalled it was tea time. Our last moment of togethernes and enjoying the white noise of the ocean before we all helped pack up for the drive home.
I can still smell the smoke in the rosebud printed party dress I insisted on wearing, standing at my father’s side. Since then I have learned to hear the rate of sear for myself and feel it in the heat on my knuckles and come to realise braai benefits from quiet, because it is an intuitive art.
Perhaps the ritual of picking up those dried seed pods reinforced the importance of the fire as the foundation. The kind of wood selected and how it is arranged, will determine the burn and ultimately the heat source for cooking. I’m reluctant to braai on a fire someone else has built.
Forty years on, the braai has gotten higher, my dad’s shorts longer and my wardrobe choices more practical. It takes a certain energy he can’t always muster, not something I’d have imagined when watching him come close to silver in the Two Oceans Ultra. So these days he’s happier looking on while I braai. And we collect the bolletjies together.
For the secret(s) to keeping chicken breasts succulent when cooking over coals and the practical aspects of the bolletjie braai, click the link below.