Something about the story of Poppie van As immediately captured my imagination. Oddly, she didn’t come to my attention on Instagram (where she is now a star!), but before her following skyrocketed, when someone sent me a short article about her from Die Burger. Here was this vivacious woman in her 60s, bursting with joie de vivre, who was making her living selling roosterkoek from a padstal along the N1 motorway outside Laingsburg.
Then, after a whole life in the Great Karoo, she was suddenly on her way to Italy to make this essentially South African, fire-baked bread for a group of cyclists on tour. I was hooked. Her rural-small-town story reminded me more than a little bit of my own. And she was going to be just around the corner! I just couldn’t resist inviting her to JAN to give my team of fancy schmancy chefs an education in how to bake ‘real’ roosterkoek. This is her story, as told by the team who helped her to make this dream a reality…
WORDS BY DONNET DUMAS | IMAGES BY 13TH MONTH FILMS
Rosaleen ‘Poppie’ van As, a 64-year-old woman born in the almost forgotten dorpie of Touws Rivier, makes a living braaing roosterkoek (although she prefers to call it roosterbrood), everyday in Laingsburg at her small road-side food stand. A chance meeting over a warm appelkooskonfyt (apricot jam) and cheese roosterbrood between my partner, Stan Engelbrecht and her 7 years ago sparked her now famous story: Tannie Poppie Goes to Italy! Stan and Poppie had worked together previously creating delicious lunch stops on the routes of his Karoo-based cycling races. Poppie, and the smell of her freshly braaied roosterbrood, had satisfied many weary riders over the years.
Then, in March of 2019, at the third Eroica South Africa, an Italian cycling event that celebrates vintage bikes and racing, Poppie was telling fireside stories about her life to the Italian representatives. They were so touched by these stories that they called Stan aside the next morning. They wanted to make her dream of travelling overseas come true! Cut to September 25th 2019 and Stan, Poppie and me were boarding a plane for a two-week trip to Europe.
Between March and September there were various things that turned this trip into something more than just an opportunity for Poppie to make her roosterbrood for an international audience at the main Eroica event in Gaiole, Italy. One of those moments was when we got an email from the ‘Jan Hendrik Group’. We knew this was big. Together we decided to add on a two-day trip to Nice for Poppie to meet with Jan Hendrik and for her to dine at JAN.
Italy was filled with a rollercoaster of emotions for Poppie. The highs of new experiences (like travelling by boat for the first time in her life) came alongside the discomforts of eating totally foreign food every day. Although a gelato at sunset always helped ease the ‘weirdness’ of anything else we had asked Poppie to try. The Eroica cycling event drew near, and Poppie was ready to braai! She expressed how much she missed her stalletjie back in Laingsburg, and she wanted to get back to making roosterbrood again. On the day of the event, firewood was foraged from the surrounding Tuscan forest. Poppie was warned that she wouldn’t be able to find firewood in Italy – but in fact, it was abundant! ‘Hier lê hout vir die hele Afrika!’ she laughed. To call the day a success would be an understatement. As 2000 cyclists came and went throughout the day, the queue at Poppie’s stand never ceased. Arms stretched out to grab the warm bread straight off the fire, and the Italians gawked at the combination of apricot jam and their scared parmegiano. After a long day – and over 500 roosterbrood later – Poppie was a star!
Arriving in Nice, Poppie was tired. This had been the longest trip away from home she had ever made. And we knew she was feeling some serious home-sickness. We had been told that a booking had been made for us at JAN that evening, and the following evening Poppie and Jan would be in the kitchen together making roosterbrood. As Poppie took an afternoon nap, there was a moment of panic. We wondered what the hell we had done. Had we pushed her too far? What would a woman from a small Karoo town, who had never even left the Western Cape, know about a Michelin-star restaurant, or kitchen for that matter?
Picture this: Your usual supper consists of a half loaf of white bread, perhaps some pap if you have some money to spare, polony, and an apple. You sit perching on the edge of a bed you share, or on an upside-down crate for a stool. You eat with your hands. And there is no dining room table. This is Poppie’s reality. This is her everyday. And here we were, walking into a Michelin-star restaurant for dinner at 8pm.
Although we had shown Poppie some pictures of the food that Jan serves at his restaurant we had no idea if she would be willing to try all the small courses that she described as ‘blomme’ from the pictures. As we sat down, we could still see traces of Poppie’s tiredness in her face. Water was poured, and out came Jan. He greeted the ‘Madame’ in Afrikaans gave her a big hug and suddenly Poppie was back! He explained that what she was about to experience was his version of some time-old South African recipes. That the dishes may look a little different to what she is used to. With each course, Jan described fond food memories and where she could, Poppie related her stories to the food of her childhood. Biltong lamingtons, burnt pap en chakalaka, bobotie, Rooibos beef tea, jelly and custard, and good old Spanspek! As we ate the beautiful and delicate dishes, ‘Suikerbos, Ek Wil Jou Hê’ playing softly in the background, we could see Poppie settling comfortably into this foreign but familiar sense of home.
The next morning Poppie was up bright and early. Jan and her had a date with the famous Nice market, Cours de Saleya. As Jan pointed out some strange-looking pancakes made of chickpeas and flat peaches they giggled to each other about stories from Poppie’s childhood. As we said goodbye to Jan in order to do a bit of sightseeing he reminded us about Poppie’s chance to show his team of chefs how to make roosterbrood that evening in the JAN kitchen. Poppie donned her new favourite blouse – a bright red number with blue flowers, black skinny jeans, a pair of Nikes with her iconic kappie on her head. She strutted into the kitchen as if she owned the place.
The young chefs, their uniforms white and starched, looked on, gaping as Poppie threw together her recipe without a measuring cup in sight. It is all intuitive. Her hands dipped into the soft, white, French flour, and almost miraculously the dough came together in minutes. Sleeves rolled up, hands always busy, she babbled away, bantering with Jan about whether he really knows how to make traditional roosterbrood. She explained that time is of the essence in her business. There’s no time for long periods of proofing. The bread needs to be ready, because the customers are coming and they don’t have time to wait.
The night drew to a close under a balmy October evening sky, sipping on some wine. At the table next to us sat a couple. We watched on us they called for the bread service for a third time. ‘Can we have some more of that fire bread’, they asked. Poppie’s mouth opened in a silent laugh, her tongue sticking out just a little. ‘Nou sien jy. Roosterbrood in France!’
If you’re not following Poppie’s adventures yet, get the scoop on her Instagram feed