• The Tenuous Purpose

    This Blog is built - not, as some might expect, on a flimsy whim but on a strong and single minded principle.

    That principle concerns Biscuits and their position in the world.

    We are really very keen on biscuits.
    As are many of you out there.
    We think.

    We wish to create an archive of Arrowroot, a backlog of Bourbons and a catalogue of Chocolate Fingers. Anybody can contribute an entry - or dispute somebody else's - provided they are not dull.
    Even Americans who perhaps don't really have the heritage of biscuitry that we are fortunate to have here.

    Or maybe they do and we are unaware of the full glory of the cookie.

    We realise that this whole subject is admirably and concisely dealt with by that excellent and unbeatable website A Nice Cup of Tea and a Sit Down. Our feeble efforts will be as the kicking of a gadfly in the face of their wisdom and experience but we hope that we may have a small contribution to make.

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    James Alexander-Sinclair of Blackpitts
    Gardener, Blogger, Journalist, Lecturer etc, etc. Much of his life is spent loafing around other people’s gardens issuing directives and generally cluttering up the place. However, like the great Mr Kipling, he does (occasionally) make exceptionally good gardens. (Although even Mr Kipling messed up a bit with the Carrot and Walnut Mini Classics.)

    Mark Diacono of Otter Farm
    He does sterling work growing many inappropriate plants in Devon. He dedicates a great deal of time and effort nurturing a plethora of plants that are (mostly) totally unsuited to our climate. His is a life of such extreme eccentric dedication that to start a Blog about Biscuits seems perfectly normal. He treads gently in the footsteps of people like the great William Buckland,a professor of Geology who claimed that he could tell location by tasting the local topsoil.

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Big, Blobby Biscuits

magwenyasI just found out the hard way that McVities Lite Digestives are lousy dunkers. One minute I had a cup of nice, strong, sweet English Breakfast and a whole biccie all to myself, and the next I had a cup full of silt and 1/3 of a broken biscuit. I stomped and shouted a bit.

See, here at the tip of Africa, we like our dunkers to be robust. We like to dip  dried-out rusks, heavy-duty digestives that have the same consistency as a disc of sawdust and what we like to call crunchies (ANZAC biscuits to those of you from even further south than us)  into sweet tea, or milky coffee. It’s our version of dipping a piece of baguette or croissant into a cup of café au lait.

We also like them deep-fried whenever possible. In that respect, at least, I suppose we’re like the Scots.  The traditional koeksuster, the three-stranded death-bomb made by generations of Afrikaans women – deep fried dough plaited and then soaked in syrup is well-known. I prefer the Malay version, made by South Africans whose ancestors were brought here as slaves from Malaysia and India. This dough has yeast in it as well as whole shards of cinnamon, mixed spice and cardamom, and after it’s deep fried, it’s simmered in a syrup of sugar, water and naartjie (mandarin) peel and then rolled in coconut.

In South Africa, everything is divided by ethnicity. We like to know what belongs to whom. So Afrikaaners have one type koeksusters, and Malay and Inidan South Africans have another. White people of English extraction have ordinary biscuits, and we won’t talk about those because they are lousy dunkers. Black South Africans have the magwenya. Less classy than the koeksuster, but just as toothsome it too is a deep-fried, artery-clogging marvel, and is usually bought by commuters on their way to work. On any given morning, outside train and bus stations and minibus taxi ranks you’ll see women sitting with big plastic buckets, and you can bet your bottom dollar that in those buckets are magwenyas. The size of a golf-ball, they’re made from flour, yeast, salt, sugar and water, and deep fried. Sometimes people roll them in icing sugar, which turns them into a kind of doughnut.  You can buy a packet of 6 for about R5 (about 50p), and they are, without a doubt, the most delicious thing you will ever dip into your coffee. Not fancy coffee, mind you, but cheap instant coffee, made milky and sweet. They’re also good with old-fashioned ginger beer – the really strong stuff that burns the back of your throat and makes your eyes water.

None of these are particularly subtle things to eat with tea. You can’t really serve a koeksuster or a magwenya on a doily or expect people to sit them down on the edge of a nice porcelain plate. They’re best eaten right out of the bag, and you need to dip them into big mugs of tea or coffee. They’ll suck up the beverage and hold onto it, so there is no fear of disintegration or crumbs at the bottom of the cup. They give a satisfying squish when you bite into them, and the dough goes nicely chewy.

I don’t think it’s wise to eat them more than once or twice a year, for health reasons, but if you’re not squeamish about your arteries, then you can look forward to a real treat. It also helps if you don’t mind having a slick of oil across the top of your cup.

Rebecca Kahn

7 Responses

  1. Brilliantly said Rebecca, I do miss the treats back home. That said, I have found some delicious goodies here in the UK… There are loads of wonderful bakers here and I often wander down to farmers markets on the weekends to taste what’s on offer. As for arteries…well, I should be sponsored by No Fear!

  2. I need to go to South Africa immediately.

  3. If those are biscuits then I hate to think what South African Fried Lardy Doughballs look like.

  4. they used to say geography was the subject that brought all the others together…i think, biscuiteers, we are on our way to demonstrating that biscuits maketh man

  5. Are you sure these are biscuits? They look more like potatoes to me and they aren’t good for dunking, unless roasted and dipped in gravy, of course.

  6. I just quizzed an Afrikaans colleague on the joys of koeksusters, her initial reaction was a look of disgust, then I realised I had lost something in translation!!!

    Once she sussed what I was going on about her face dropped and she went into homesick reminisce mode

    “Ohhh koeksusters, I miss them so much”,

    They must be good, if I was half way round the world the talk of Dorset Knobs wouldn’t make me homesick!!

  7. Fascintating stuff Rebecca, I’m sure there’s a Phd waiting to be written on this topic.

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