Hunter-gatherer of knowledge: Renata Coetzee died in June, but left a huge legacy of research into the lives of our South African ancestors for others to benefit from and build on. Picture: SUPPLIED
Hunter-gatherer of knowledge: Renata Coetzee died in June, but left a huge legacy of research into the lives of our South African ancestors for others to benefit from and build on. Picture: SUPPLIED

Through her lifetime of research and writing books, Renata Coetzee, who died in June 2018, built national and international awareness of the culinary heritage of various cultural groups in SA.

So it is apt that her latest book, Food Culture of the First Humans on Planet Earth — A Feast From Nature, is being relaunched with a second impression to bring it to the attention of a wider public.

One of the celebrations will be a dinner in Tshwane on Mandela Day, July 18, to celebrate the influence of the culinary and cultural history of the first people on contemporary South African cuisine. The book will be relaunched at the Market Theatre on July 17.

In collaboration with the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Food Security, consultant Truida Prekel and African Sun Media, the University of Pretoria’s department of consumer and food sciences will present a four-course dinner with recipes inspired by Coetzee’s decades of research on indigenous food.

Going traditional: One of Renata Coetzee’s recipes is for porcupine skin braai. Picture: SUPPLIED
Going traditional: One of Renata Coetzee’s recipes is for porcupine skin braai. Picture: SUPPLIED

The menu is:

A sundowner in the form of a honeybush and aloe cooler;

A first course, Nature’s Salad, of morogo puree, spekboom gel, pelargonium sand, lemon foam, pickled papkuil shoots, compressed aloe buds, and an array of flowers;

A second course, Forager’s Pride, of dune spinach soup with deep-fried warthog biltong;

A third course, Rocky Waters, of Tilapia, buttered ice leaf, sea fennel and oyster-leaf puree and bokkoms dust;

A main course, Exploring Burrows, of porcupine and waterblommetjies served with "ystervark-se-mielie" (porcupine’s cob), roast uintjies, crickets and rice and glace de viande;

The meal will end on a sweet note with a sunset tea party of buchu panna cotta served with pickled t’samma, rooibos and gooseberry syrup, arum lily crumble and acacia sweets.

This remarkable woman was obsessed with and specifically studied our roots in many different forms with the food culture of different groups as her resource. Her aim was to promote "nutritional authentic cultural cuisine" which she believed could play a huge role in our growing tourist industry.

Her major contribution is probably scientific, but she has always tried to engage ordinary people interested in food heritage with creative and stimulating documentation of various aspects of the South African – and particularly the Cape’s – culinary culture and lifestyles.

The book to be relaunched is based on research over 15 years which aimed to preserve the culinary heritage of the earliest humans and their descendants.

Her most important books in this field include South African Culinary Tradition/Spys en Drank — the food and food habits of the Cape between 1652 and 1800, featuring influences of Malay slaves, French, Dutch and German settlers (Struik, 1977) (Afrikaans and English both out of print); Funa — Food from Africa — the food and food habits of the different African ethnic groups (Butterworths, 1982) (which should be reprinted); Cost-conscious Creative Catering and recently Kukumakranka — KhoiKhoin Culture, customs and creative cooking which was a translation of the 2009 Afrikaans version dealing with food cultures in the early days.

The book to be relaunched is based on research over 15 years which aimed to preserve the culinary heritage of the earliest humans and their descendants.

She always believed that she had to understand local foods to promote healthy nutrition.

At one point in her career, she was catering for Anglo American’s gold division, providing 250000 meals a day for five years with the stress on the cultural preferences of workers. She was always intrigued by the palates of especially the San and the Khoi people, who had the oldest roots in SA.

She felt that through this experience she had been dealt an amazing hand which would just be silly to ignore.

The way that human brains had progressed and patterns had developed in the past, she argued, influenced the way people selected their food.

When the San and the Khoi people split, for example, their food choices developed differently. She realised that many of these choices were made for practical reasons. Some would not let go of traditions, but sometimes the changing environment determined new dining habits.

The San, for example, became hunter gatherers and the Khoi turned to smaller animals while also learning more about the veld and the plant life around them. This was all determined by the way their lifestyles changed, something which still influences and determines our eating patterns and choices.

Because of the way she studied, researched and publicised her hard-earned knowledge through her writing and TV programmes, and formal training, she empowered thousands of women over the years, by training them in the finer skills of entertaining guests and tourists with her cultural cuisine.

The latest version of this unique collector’s book on original food cultures, A Feast From Nature (R650), is a combination of the many decades of her knowledge as a nutritionist and food-culture expert with multidisciplinary research of more than 15 years — bringing together aspects of archaeology, palaeontology, botany, genetics, history, languages and culture in a unique way.

While scientifically sound, it is also beautifully illustrated and a true collector’s piece.

In 2015 she self-published the book, through Penstock Publishing. The first print run of 500 was soon sold out — mostly to friends, family and fans. The book was reprinted shortly before her death to make her unique work available to a wider audience.

Academics, researchers and food experts also stand to benefit from and build further on her research.

Prekel says: "Communities will benefit from further work to build understanding among various cultures and on the history of our first peoples. Indigenous plants with culinary and agricultural potential can be further developed for food production."

Her research included interviews with many elderly Khoi-Khoin women and men in various regions, about the details of their food sources and uses.

A special feature in the book is that, wherever possible, the Khoi and Afrikaans names of plants and animals are given, with English and scientific names added. About 250 fine photographs and more than 80 illustrations of edible indigenous plants — as well as maps and Khoi traditions — make the book a journey of discovery, bringing to life the linkages between evolution and culinary history over millennia.

"The book also offers valuable lessons in terms of the nutritional value of many indigenous foods, food security and sustainability.

The DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Food Security, hosted by the University of the Western Cape and the University of Pretoria, has supported the reprinting of the book. The body, together with the Agricultural Research Council, intend doing further research on indigenous food products identified in Coetzee’s extensive work on the various food cultures in SA.

Her legacy affects all our lives and will continue to do so. The book can be ordered from orders@africansunmedia. co.za or online at www.sun-e-shop.co.za

The book will be launched on Tuesday July 17 at 6pm with speakers Professor Himla Soodyall, 50:50 presenter Bertus Louw and Professor Julian May at the Market Photo Workshop Auditorium, Market Theatre. Contact: zamab@markettheatre.co.za.

The four-course dinner will be held at EAT@UP, Old Agricultural Building 2.9.1, University of Pretoria, Hatfield Campus. For more information contact kyla.balcou@gmail.com. Tickets are R300 per person.

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