With apartheid now four years in its grave, things are, however, slowly changing, as well they might. Any country that is that fertile, that warm and well-endowed with the wherewithal for food production, has little excuse not to emerge at some point with a first-class cuisine.
At the moment, there is the faintest hint of what might happen once South Africa begins to settle down and to develop, with a handful of restaurants combining local produce with Malay, Afrikaans and black traditions. One such is in the middle of a private game reserve, an unlikely savannah setting of red soil and thorny trees and bushes under an inhospitable sun.
Makalali is set in 60,000 acres on the edge of the Kruger National Park, a five-hour drive from Johannesburg. It has a population of lions, hippos, rhinos, elephants, giraffes, baboons and poisonous snakes. I had always imagined game reserves as being a bit like Girl Guides for grown-ups, with uncomfortable tents, sleeping bags and Brown Owl being bossy. So I was pleasantly surprised by the five-star comfort of Makalali, a, re- created African village designed by an Italian called Silvio Rech. It's a kitsch blend of The Flintstones, Philippe Starck and Gaudi, and it's no surprise that Disney is interested.
Individual huts have gradated thatched roofs stuck with animal skulls, and inside there is a bed draped with mosquito netting, with a lot of beaten zinc carved with a relief of animals that casts gloomy shadows. It is, however, not a theme park, and at night you are escorted the few yards from the dining room to your bedroom in case you get eaten by a lion on the way.
The owner, Charles Smith (young, handsome, single, billionaire), who was absent on our visit, has set out to create a camp with more serious food than is normal in such places, and has installed a Young Afrikaans chef, Liesel Roos. Given the location, any chef would have his or her work cut out and one of Roos's first tasks was to reclaim a patch of land on which to grow fruit and vegetables. Against the odds, she has successfully cultivated a vegetable garden, a small, ordered enclave in the chaos of jungle.
The gardener, Paul Shickone, must be the only person there interested in rewriting the conservation laws in favour of culling. His greatest problem is monkeys clever enough to tell which of the wires on the fence are electrified and which are not - and when they do get in, they go for only the youngest and most tender produce.
So far, Shickone is cultivating sweet peppers and Little Gem squashes, beetroot, fennel, lettuce, banana and pawpaw trees and guavas. There are also a handful of local vegetables such as mdumbis, a cross between a potato and a sweet potato. I was interested, also, that the locals eat courgette leaves cooked with tomato, garlic and marula nuts, which are long and squiggly and not unlike walnuts. All the salads and greens we ate had been picked earlier in the day. One lunchtime, a colourful array of salads - mango, papaya, avocados and spinach with a cumin seed dressing, beetroot with horseradish and squid with peanuts - was set out on a large banana leaf.
Roos cooks various dishes that take inspiration from local specialities, none of which I can pronounce. Potjie is a stew of lamb or beef, the meat layered with potato and spices, cooked for about six hours. In particular, though, I liked her baking, the first taste of which comes at 5.30am. Rusks are the Afrikaans equivalent of cantuccini, delicious dipped into the local herbal tea, rooibos, meaning red bush, which has hints of hibiscus and rosehip. Next up are some substantial muffins known as "tummy crisis", which you eat with coffee laced with amarula cream on the morning game drive soon after the sun's up, which is as good a way as any to start the day. She also bakes all her own breads and especially good cakes. This said, self-sufficiency at Makalali isn't so much a lifestyle decision as a need. It is also the best possible starting point for creating good food.
Makalali Monkey Bread, makes one 30cm loaf
This gives full rein to the Afrikaaners' love of butter and sugar, and is inspired by Roos's grandmother, who ran a hotel. Eaten warm from the oven, it's a wickedly rich, yeasted cake covered with a sweet and buttery sauce - rivalling lardy cake - and is called Monkey Bread because of the manner in which it is eaten: you pull it apart with your fingers, much as a monkey might do.
125g unsalted butter, melted
125ml warm milk
3 tbsp warm water
1 large egg and 2 egg yolks
500g plain flour, sifted
1 sachet dry yeast
1 tsp sea salt
100g golden caster sugar
25g unsalted butter
50g light brown sugar
3 tbsp currants, soaked in boiling water for 15 minutes
Whisk together the melted butter, the milk, water, eggs and yolks. Combine the flour, yeast, salt and golden caster sugar in a large bowl. Gradually add the liquid and work to a smooth dough. Turn this out on to a floured work surface and knead by hand for 10 minutes until the dough is glossy and smooth, sprinkling with a little more flour if necessary. Form the dough into a ball and place in a buttered bowl, turning it to coat it in the butter. Cover loosely with plastic wrap or a tea towel and place in a warm, draught-free place for several hours until it doubles in volume.
Punch the dough down. Place the butter, sugar and currants for the topping in a small saucepan and heat together. Pour this into a bowl. Pinch off pieces of dough and shape into golf balls, roll them in the butter-sugar mixture, allowing the currants to stick, and arrange in the base of the loaf tin. Once you have kneaded up all the dough, pour the remaining topping over, cover loosely with foil and leave to rise for another couple of hours.
Heat the oven to 180C (fan oven)/190C (electric oven)/375F/gas mark 5, and bake with the foil in place for 60-70 minutes until risen and golden. The top should sound hollow when tapped, and all the butter will have been absorbed. Turn the cake out of its tin and eat just as it is, cool, about 45-60 minutes out of the oven. It can at a pinch be reheated for about 20 minutes in the oven, wrapped in foil,
Cape Brandy Pudding, serves 6
This is a traditional South African pudding, a sticky date-and-walnut cake eaten with lots of cream. I'm not quite sure where the brandy comes into it, although a splash in the cream wouldn't go amiss.
250g chopped dates
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
125g unsalted butter, softened
200g light muscovado sugar
2 large eggs
240g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
12 tsp sea salt
1 tsp ground cinnamon
12 tsp ground ginger
14 tsp ground nutmeg
75g chopped walnuts
1 tsp finely grated orange zest
icing sugar, creme fraiche
Place the dates and water in a small saucepan, bring to the boil, then remove from the heat. Stir in the bicarbonate of soda, which will foam up, and allow to cool.
Heat the oven to 170C (fan oven)/180C (electric oven)/350F/Gas 4, and butter a 20cm cake tin with a removable base. Whisk the butter in a food processor or electric mixer and slowly add the sugar. Beat in the eggs. Sift together the flour, baking powder, salt and spices. Combine the date, butter and flour mixture in a large bowl and add the walnuts and orange zest. Spoon the cake mixture into the prepared tin and bake for 45-55 minutes until a skewer inserted in the centre comes out clean. Run a knife around the edge of the cake to loosen it. Just as it cools (although it will keep for several days in an airtight container), dust it with icing sugar and a dollop of creme fraicheReuse content