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Having spent a couple of months loitering around Reuben Riffel’s braai working (read: “eating”) with him on his new book, Tudor Caradoc-Davies can safely say (bias included) that Riffel is the top source for raising your boerewors game.
Reuben Riffel’s rise to gourmet heights was tough. It’s not like he grew up with a silver spoon in his mouth and Gourmet mags in the reading rack.
He’s come a long way from his humble roots in Groendal on the outskirts of Fransch-hoek, where he used to poach trout and shoot doves for makeshift braais with his mates. Later, he climbed the ranks from waiter to junior kitchen skivvy, then hit the UK and rapidly rose to the upper echelons of South Africa’s cuisine kings.
These career influences have come through in his approach to braaing – with left-field dishes like braai cassoulet or braaidue (fondue). They’re a taste of the French culinary training he received at the Chamonix wine estate overlooking Franschhoek. This is mixed in with simple South African traditions like denningvleis, the Cape Malay take on pulled meat; or nods to iconic African flavours like the peri peri spiciness of Sao Tome, Angola and Mozambique.
Add to that a veritable ark of beasts (rabbit or duck on the braai, squire?), cuts (discover the wonder of a thick cut pork shoulder chop) and techniques (think oak-plank smoked salmon to salt-crusted) and you start to see braaing through the eyes of a man who understands the possibilities of flesh and fire differently. So focus now. It’s time to learn from the best, so you can be the tong-wielding master of your own braai destiny. Here’s what I learned fire-side with Reuben Riffel.
BRAAI IS A FLAVOUR UNTO ITS OWN
“A braai is a heat source, with added flavour elements,” says Riffel. So think about it like an oven or your stove, but with an extra smoky punch. “Don’t let yourself get hung up over the usual repertoire of chops, wors and perhaps a crazy left-field rasher. Experiment with different beasts, cuts and organs. Mix it up and surprise yourself with the possibilities.”
TIN FOIL BOATS ARE NOT JUST GREAT HATS
Riffel experiments a lot with cuts, like sheep’s tails for example. If put directly over coals, fatty lamb tails will burn, but if you make a double-sheet-thick boat with tin foil and allow the sheep’s tails to render down in spices or marinade, they’ll be perfect. Finish them off over direct heat and turn a delicious, (yet cholestrol-heavy) skaap bomb into a somewhat healthier treat that’s avoided the full scorching. (You can use this technique with any meat that combines fast-burning fat with a thicker section of meat.)
BEFRIEND YOUR BUTCHER
Get to know a real butcher, not a meat merchant. You want a guy who actually handles the meat, who can find you the cuts you want, at reasonable prices. Save his number, and call on him when you have a recipe planned for next weekend’s braai.
LOCAL REALLY IS LEKKER…ER
“The US gets way too much credit for ‘BBQ’ innovation, when in fact many similar techniques have been around in South Africa for just as long,” says Riffel. “Take the Deep South’s fascination with ‘pulled’ meat. (Pulled pork, pulled chicken – you’ve probably had the stuff – slow cooked and forked apart, it’s a great way to treat meat.) But at home we have the old Cape Malay dish of denningvleis, our own version of pulled meat.”
BURGERS ROCK WITHOUT ROLLS
One of Riffel’s recipes is the “bugger-the-bun” ostrich burger – it uses slices of eggplant instead of a stodgy roll. Worth remembering if you’re avoiding carbs.
Reuben believes in reincarnation. Well, reinvention to be precise. Techniques and ingredients are age-old and what you come up with will probably have been done before, but that doesn’t matter. He wants you to become an expropriation expert. So take his braai dishes – like “Reuben the Impaler’s Braai Offal Skewers with Sticky Port” – and adopt them as your own. Gradually you will try a dish from memory without the recipe and it becomes Reuben-inspired. Then the next time you try it, it’ll be called “Joe the Impaler’s Braai Offal Swizzle Sticks With Jeripigo Jam”. All he asks is that you pour out a little beer in a silent nod to his assistance.
ANYTHING CAN BE BRAAIED
Conventional farm animals and a few of their less-conventional cuts aside, Riffel is adamant that pretty much anything can be braaied well. From duck to salmon-wrapped oysters (aka the marine skilpaadjie) and plank-smoked salmon, gigantic salt-encrusted fish to braai budgies (guinea fowl, quail and pigeon) – the message is, “Put your braai through its paces.” Did we mention oak-smoked chocolate mousse on the braai? Yes, you can be that guy.
Now try out some of Reuben’s mouthwatering braai dishes: