Let it Rise – Bread, that is

Posted on 17 March 2021

Foam, fermentation, brewing and ageing… The latest trends like to push food to their limits. Louzel Lombard Steyn reveals how South Africa has been ahead of the curve with classics such as creamy amasi, kick-ass umqombothi and of course, bread. Remember how we flexed our fermentation muscles over Lockdown as the kitchen became a place of creativity and desperation?

I like to compare the 180-year-old mother dough yeast on my kitchen counter to a Tamagotchi. You know, those Japanese digital pet gadgets we clung to as kids which all – without exception – eventually died.

This new ‘Tamagotchi’, too, has died plenty of times. I forget to feed it. Or suffocate it. Or, most 
often, bake up the whole thing without remembering to reserve a bit to regrow. Luckily, my actual mother is much better at keeping a mother dough alive… so 
I often steal from hers and start again.

The importance of fermentation hit home during the national lockdown when the thing died (again) and I had to make my own, from scratch. Shockingly, it’s not an art to make your own sourdough starter. In fact, you do nothing and just allow natural ingredients to undergo a natural transformation, guiding the process here and there as you go. That’s the way bread was created in the first place.

However, keeping something on the kitchen shelf until it oozes over the edge of a bowl and fills the air with a sour aroma goes against your modern, Westernised idea of what is classified as ‘good food’. The same goes for brewing kombucha, making amasi or curing cheese. Commercial customs such as sell-by dates and best-befores suggest that food must be thrown away after it’s reached its sell-by date… 
especially when it starts to grow, ooze or smell. Can you imagine? If no one explored the extent to which milk could be cured we’d have no cheese, no yoghurt and – heaven forbid – no amasi.

Niël’s stoep

The same goes for mielies – an all-round South African classic. Fresh on the cob, we love mielies 
because they are sweet. They’re often thrown on the coals and then bathed in a coating of butter and 
Aromat – the perfect combo.

When freshly picked, corn is typically high in sugar and low in starch. That’s best for caramelising on the braai. Gradually, however, the sugars in the corn 
kernels will naturally turn to starch. This mutes the sweetness and affects its texture when cooked. You get a dry, starchy mielie; not good. But this only marks the end of the mielie’s first lifecycle. Mielies, in SA especially, are best-loved in their dried and ground state – well past a fresh sell-by date. And maize meal, our staple food, is the foundation on which our collective South African food story is told. A fresh mielie is but the tip of the umphokoqo and umngqusho iceberg, so to speak. And then, as a last hurrah, it’s the perfect fermentation medium and star ingredient in two of our favourite fermented treats – umqombothi and amahewu – the latter being a sour, maize-based fermented liquid enjoyed as a sort of energy drink.

Real food is alive, which means it goes through stages of living to provide different nutrients and 
flavours. Umqombothi, from the cob to the cup, is a most delicious example. Bread, especially sourdough bread that comes alive thanks to living creatures’ breathing, is another.

During lockdown, many South Africans were driven into the kitchen. Some, in need of a creative outlet and others, desperate to brew something mildly intoxicating to take the edge off SA’s alcohol prohibition. It was a call back to our roots in more ways than one.

South Africans, naturally, are generational growers and cultivators of food. Before it was cool, we were brewing our own beers in large 5L tins and sharing them with other experimental fermenters at gatherings. Call it craft. Call it culture. Call it whatever you want. There’s no need to fear fermentation if you’re a full-blooded South African.

These brands and establishments have mastered the Big F – and can help you to do the same.

Taste of Africa

Umqombothi is the original African beer made from sorghum and maize. It has been brewed on our continent for centuries and forms an important part of our collective African culture – it’s everywhere. However, the beer doesn’t have a shelf-life and the freshly brewed version is hard to come by as it’s most-often brewed for private functions. Getting a taste means you have to be in the in-crowd, so to speak. In Cape Town, the La Gu Gu Township Tour takes you there… to the inner circle where umqombothi is brewed and enjoyed in a laid-back setting. Local tour guide Mike Zuma knows everyone and everything in this neck of the woods and he’ll gladly introduce you to the amazing people who, in Yvonne Chaka Chaka’s words, ‘Wake up early every morning to please the people with African beer…’. 
Call Mike on 072 450 7237.

June Culinary Studio

You can also opt for the cheat’s version, Chibuku – the first-ever commercially produced version of SA’s traditional brew. Four breweries in Butterworth, Khangela, Phelindaba and Tlokwe produce the iconic beer which is intentionally low in alcohol, high in nutrients and cheaper than typical clear beer. It’s called Chibuku Shake-Shake because you have to shake the carton before opening.

Where: The La Gu Gu Township Tour is hosted by 
City Sightseeing. It starts in Bree Street, Cape Town

Say Cheese

Travelling chef, Junita (June) de Kock Huysamen’s
cheese-making demonstrations focus on making fresh cheese from scratch. At different towns across SA, she hosts the three-hour demos, showing the preparation of mainly feta, halloumi, mozzarella and ricotta. The class serves as an introduction to cheese-making, explaining the use of cultures and microbes in the process. Those who dare can venture on into the world of cured cheeses after mastering June’s crash course. 079 974 0858

Where: June is based in the Garden Route and often hosts classes in this region. Follow June Culinary 
Studio on Facebook and keep an eye on her schedule for other classes across SA.

Bread in the Woods
Food is art come to life for SA artist Niël Jonker who hails from the quaint town of Baardskeerdersbos.

Here, in his family home, with a wild veggie garden and traditional clay oven, Niël hosts weekend retreats which focus on the art of baking sourdough breads and pizza. The experience is fun yet thorough and emphasises the benefits of slow fermentation, wholegrain ingredients and process consciousness. An advanced understanding of core bread-making principles is covered while apprenticing in a fully functional artisan bake-house. Novices and experienced bakers are catered for equally.

The retreat often forms part of a Baardskeerdersbos Art Route pop-up weekend, when townspeople and local artists open their hearts and homes to 
welcome art-lovers. [email protected]

Where: Niël’s stoep in the small town of Baardskeerdersbos, Western Cape


Master Baker

Learn tried-and-tested techniques from this fourth-generation master baker who set the benchmark for sourdough loaves in South Africa. ‘The Cultured Loaf – A Master Class’, as it is called, is a sourdough bread-baking workshop hosted by Chef Markus Färbinger from île de Païn bakery in Knysna. The three-day, two-night workshop includes one-on-one time with the sourdough man himself, as well as a portion of his treasured sourdough culture which dates back to the 1800s. 044 302 5705

Where: île de Païn bakery, The Boatshed, Thesen 
Harbour Town, Knysna, Western Cape

Mountain-brewed Magic

Zwakala Brewery’s beer is made with the water that flows high up in the Magoebaskloof Mountains of Limpopo. With ever-changing seasonal brews such as the popular Upside-Down Baobab and Ginger Weiss, or The Pantsula Hop, this place captures the essence of South Africa’s love for brewing in a sophisticated way. Each batch of beer is handcrafted, nothing unnatural is used in the brewing process and the most important ingredient is the clear and pure mountain water.

The pet-friendly setting with sprawling lawns and scenic views over the valley makes this one of the 
favourite hangouts on the mountain. They’re open on weekends and public holidays. 073 791 6797

Where: Zwakala Brewery, Cheerio Road, 
Magoebaskloof, Limpopo

Zwakala Brewery

Make your own

Eager to try your hand at home fermentation? There are various stockists of equipment and ingredients around South Africa to help you brew beer, bake bread and cure cheese to your heart’s content.


This specialist shop in Cape Town is focused on all things fermentation and sells everything you need from beer to cheese to spirit-making. beerlab.co.za

Finest Kind

Based on a farm at The Crags, Plett, these guys specialise in selling cultures, equipment and ingredients aimed at making your own cheese. They also offer vegan-friendly alternatives for cheesemaking. finestkind.co.za


These folks focus solely on beer brewing. They stock ingredients and equipment and also host online workshops on fermentation and beer making. beerguevara.com

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