Few dishes are as South African as a real smiley (baked sheep’s head). It used to be an oddity – something funny to show to tourists or to freak out your mother-in-law when you invited her over for dinner. Or maybe something you would enjoy when visiting Tannie Betsie and Oom Kerneels on their farm in the gramadoelas. It has even been documented as one of the world’s six most terrifying foods.
But of late, Old Smiley has a valid reason for that rather nasty grimace on his leathery face. Skaapkop is making a comeback, as are many other seemingly yucky dishes that were frowned upon and a big taboo on any respectable menu.
Today, a new generation is making sheep’s head cooking fashionable again – albeit dressed up with a rosemary sprig, married to merlot and masqueraded by candlelight.
Guilds are popping up all over South Africa and their members are not only the old and grumpy people longing for the good old days. No sirree. We are talking youngsters, professionals in their thirties, and women.
Yes, sadly the “art” of preparing and enjoying a sheep’s head and the privilege of hosting social sessions disguised under the premise of a Sheep’s Head Guild have, until very recently, been reserved for men.
At Turnberry Lodge in Oudtshoorn, Neil Els is in charge of the Oudtshoorn Skaapkop Gilde or guild. And on a guild night, everyone gets his own smiley.
“In case of emergency we always make sure there are a few lamb chops for those who may lose their heads when faced with a rather sheepish grin on their plates,” says Neil.
In Riemvasmaak, Northern Cape, however, no guilds are needed. Here you get the real McCoy. Skaapkop is no fad, trend or cultural craze. Here it is part of life and as welcome at the dinner table as a neighbour or best friend.
Johanna Adams is Riemvasmaak’s local caterer and renowned for her cooking and baking skills. Skaapkop is her speciality.
Johanna’s “cookery” is a windowless brick building on their grassless stand, adjacent to their humble home where “kafferbrakkies” (mutts) abound. Whether all food is cooked outside or only some dishes – that give off a bit of an aroma – is not clear, but skaapkop is certainly one of them.
On the gleaming coals, Johanna has a large pot of boiling water ready to show us how it is done in these parts. Who better to learn from?
She dips the sheep’s head into the steaming water to soften it before it gets cleaned.
“It can be difficult to get a young one,” she says. “Sometimes the local sheep farmers only have old goats available, but what can you do? Then you simply decorate it a bit more. The teeth simply look better then.”
This bhaaaa-euty cost her R50.
While Old Smiley is taking a dunk in the boiling water, having a hair cut and shave, a lavish aromatherapy session and a 30-minute tan, Johanna’s husband, Rhemiteus Adams, is entertaining the grandchildren on the stoep. The radio is on in the background. “Oh tonight, I want to find a way to make it without you, tonight…”
The TV is on mute. 7de Laan. It’s hard to believe that they have TV in these parts. Not to mention the beautifully tarred roads – where the absence of traffic somehow doesn’t justify them.
The walls inside are painted a grim green. The same green you find in Zulu houses in the sugar cane fields. It must be a standard government hue.
A picture of Nelson Mandela and two pictures of the crucifixion are the only decorations on the walls. The mirrors in the bedroom are hazy and the soft toys and plastic flowers on the bedside table are dusty and faded.
It’s a Sunday. The children and their parents are arriving in their droves for lunch, straight from church. Big families are still seen as riches in these parts.
“‘n Ma hou mos nooit op om ‘n ma te wees nie.” (A mother never stops being a mother.)
Johanna carries the smiling sheep’s head from the cookery into her red kitchen and puts it on the table with a bang. It is gently laid down on a bed of pap, and adorned with ripe red tomatoes, fresh rocket leaves and a sprinkling of colourful spices.
Johanna takes a few steps back and gives Old Smiley a once-over. With her head tilted, one eye squinting and a frown on her forehead, she nods.
“Die ou kop moet maar die ding doen. Die kjinners is honger.” (This old head just has to suffice. The kids are hungry.)
JOHANNA’S SMILEY RECIPE
What you need:
A smiley – preferably from a young sheep or lamb
Salt and pepper
What you do:
Boil water in a big pot
Repeatedly dip the sheep’s head in the boiling water to soften the hair. Leaving the head in the water for too long will burn the hair.
In a plastic bowl or skottel, scrape off all the hair on the face and ears with a sharp knife or blade.
Wash the head in salt water and rinse.
Cook the head in boiling salt water until soft.
Remove from the boiling water and leave to cool down.
Rub the head with herbs and spices. Rub extra spices in the mouth and all other openings in the head. Smear the head with a mix of tomato sauce, Worcester sauce and braaivleis spices.
Place in the oven on a greased baking tray at a high temperature (or in a greased and lidded cast iron pot on a very hot fire) and bake until shiny and brown on the outside.
Dish up with braaipap, garnished with fresh sprigs of rosemary and rose tomatoes.
Serve with cold ginger beer and fresh mint leaves.