Work in Harrismith this week provided an excuse to spend time at Verkykerskop again and, as always, it was baie nice.
“We still barter here” Beth tells me while dishing up big, seriously crispy baked potatoes for supper. Her friend along the road grew them and needed some organic beef. “She brought me a sack of huge spuds and we kind of worked out its weight in beef – deal.”
There is a mushroom sauce to go with the potatoes and spiced cabbage and cauliflower too. The table is populated with an eclectic mix of engineers, pilots, horse lovers, conservationists and climate change sceptics – as is to be expected in this interesting village. Meals are mostly communal affairs with locals and visitors sharing whatever is on offer that day.
One evening we enjoy Thai vegetable soup and salad followed by a yummy, albeit wonky, coffee cake which I take home for breakfast instead.
On another, lots of herby pizza with a soup of roasted vegetables and on my last night, scrumptious baked gnocchi with baby marrow. The old ginger cat Chisel, stretches tall and puts her paws onto the table top to scoop off any tiny titbits which come her way.
Beth and Matt arrived here 9 years ago in winter when the colours were fantastic, just as they are now. “Everyone said it was brown, but it wasn’t” She is quite right, the landscape is a mosaic of old grey, faded gold, dusty rust, translucent yellow and the occasional slash of orange as a Canna flowers valiantly.
Beth and Matt enthusiastically set about reviving the old trading store, injecting style, boundless energy and much colour into what was probably just another dreary Free State village. They are scattered about the countryside every 40 kms or so and most have long since died.
At Verkykerskop they run an Nguni herd which eats only veld grass, so is as organic as it gets. The meat is sold in an on-site butchery where they make sausages and biltong too. I am intrigued to learn that when animals are sent to slaughter, they come back without the tails, tongues, liver and other offal. How peculiar. There is a pod of pigs in a field nearby which eventually become Cabanossi and Sunday roasts.
Their Sunday buffets are really popular with locals who stop by with granny and the kids on the way home from church. I find the mix of cultures and languages fascinating and marvel at how this unlikely pair is building community with good food, music (LP records play constantly) and simple services like collecting and sorting the post and selling airtime. A classic case of small things adding up to something big.
Beth is on the move constantly, acting out anecdotes and sharing tales of country life. She tells me of the sack of succulent strawberries which were frozen by mistake and became the most delectable cheese cake; the fudge which turned out too soft and was rolled into fudge nuggets and dusted with icing sugar. Nothing is wasted. The abundant harvest of late summer pumpkins really piqued her creativity with fitters for breakfast, soup for supper and chunks roasted for lunch.
Recently, they hosted a Retrofest which attracted fans of retro music, clothes and cars from far and wide. “Whole families arrived decked out in 50’s gear in their Studebakers” she says with delight. Obviously a hot dog eating contest was de rigeur, but Beth being Beth, got Fry’s vegetarian foods to sponsor it. Flippin’ Cool (her words). Despite the big tough guys blustering about how they were going to beat everyone, it was won by a small, skinny, tattooed, lesbian vegetarian! Only in Verkykerskop!
While writing this in the late afternoon sun on the verandah a group of camo-clad men arrive and I say hello. “You won’t see much of us” they apologise, “we are hunting tonight”. I respond that that is just fine as I’m vegetarian and don’t particularly want to see them either. The chap with the biggest boep tells me “When I feel like some vegetables, I eat boerewors.” Ag shame.
Read about my first visit last spring – when the colours were very different but the generous spirit and sense of place were just as impressive.