Out of South Africa: Wash and brush-up for a dish to unite black and Afrikaner

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JOHANNESBURG - No matter how earnest the assurances of your butcher, before cooking a sheep's head you are best advised to give it a good wash and shave. Normally a sheep's head is fleeced and steam- cleaned at the abattoir but Dine van Zyl, who has written a number of books on traditional South African cuisine, recommends that you spend an hour at least on the animal's toilette.

'First you get a razor blade and you shave around the nose and the chin where there are usually a few little stray hairs left. Next you take a knife and scrape out the black waxy stuff in the ears. Then you open the sheep's mouth and hold it under a tap so as to rinse out the tongue and the throat. Meanwhile you brush its teeth to remove any little bits of grass that might still be trapped in there. It's quite easy. I just use an ordinary toothbrush.'

Ms van Zyl's culinary speciality bridges the old apartheid divides. The cooking, as she put it, of 'tripe, offal and all the other stuff that falls off the carcass' is one of the few customs that Afrikaners and black South Africans have long shared. A sheep's head may be viewed, therefore, as an eloquent symbol of national reconciliation, as the dish for the new South Africa.

'A pinch of salt on the head and inside the mouth and a bit of water in the baking tray is all you need, really,' Ms van Zyl explained, 'though to make the dish more fancy I add a little white wine to the water, about an inch deep in the tray, and I sprinkle a few thyme leaves over the head.

'Some people cover the head with a brown paper bag, which results in a very crispy, dried out texture. Some cover it with tin foil. I prefer to leave it open and cover only the ears with little tin foil horns, like a Viking, otherwise they get too dry to eat.

'You bake it at 100C for about three hours. If you look at it while it's in the oven you'll see it starts to look rather frightening - it starts to grin as the meat shrinks and the lips pull back to expose the teeth. Gruesome, like something out of Hamlet]' A 'smiley' is what they call a sheep's head in the townships where hawkers sell them cooked, ready for the table.

How is the sheep's head eaten? Ms van Zyl suggests that the ideal environment is an intimate, romantic evening for two. 'You sit together with a bottle of wine, the sheep's head and a pocket knife and you cut off, well, an ear for an ear and an eye for an eye. The ears are crispy and a bit gooey: VERY nice. My husband likes to pluck out the eyes with the knife and pop them into his mouth. I'm not so keen but they are not like jelly, as you might think, but firm and chewy, delicious if you don't look too closely. The tongue and the cheeks are also lovely.

'Finally what you do is you hold the sheep's head in your left hand and with your right you stick the knife, or a screwdriver if you're having trouble, into a little hole you'll find in the back of the head and you flap open the top of the skull. And there you'll see it - wonderful - the grey matter]'

For those who wish to entertain in grander style, an ox's head provides what Ms van Zyl describes as an absolutely delicious alternative. Having not actually cooked the dish herself she suggests a glance at a recipe written at the time of the Depression in the 1930s by Louis Leipoldt, an Afrikaans poet and gourmet.

Leipoldt, as emphatic as Ms van Zyl about the importance of comprehensive cleaning, instructs one to place the whole head, complete with horns, in a large bread oven and bake it for a day and a night. He does acknowledge that the spectacle of the 'immense and horrific roast' on the dinner table may shock. 'The expression is ludicrous as well as baleful and the lips are drawn back to show the teeth in a sort of snarl that no living ox ever shows.'

Yet, Leipoldt rhapsodises, 'the fleshy parts of the head are exquisitely tender, like the meat of a young partridge, with a taste that no beef can excel . . . the memory of its surpassing succulence remains with one just as the recollection of the bouquet, aroma and flavour of an exquisite wine stays with one through the years, stimulating the longing for a repetition of so perfect an experience in degustation.'