My wife and I took a few days this past week to visit an area of South Africa that we had not seen before: the Drakensberg (Dragon Mountains) in the KwaZulu Natal province. While there, we arranged for a trip over the Sani Pass into Lesotho, a small, mountainous kingdom entirely surrounded by South Africa. And why would I be mentioning this in a bread-dedicated site, you might ask? Well, because of something that we did not realize was part of the tour: a visit to a small village just a few miles past the border.
Getting up Sani Pass is a challenge, whether for bikers, hikers, or vehicular traffic. The pass itself tops out at 9,470 feet. The route there is an unpaved road that twists and turns as it snakes its way up the mountainside. 4x4 is the order of the day for vehicles. The following picture was taken about half-way in and about a quarter of the way up:
As you get closer to the top, the going becomes even more challenging:
After reaching the crest, there's the obligatory stop at Immigration:
After leaving Immigration, we drove across a plain whose tallest features were the shepherds and their flocks. Vegetation seemed to consist primarily of knee-high tussocks of grass and heather. We eventually arrived at a village consisting of perhaps a dozen stone huts:
Notice the white flag flying at this hut. No, the occupants haven't given up. The white flag indicates that bread and beer (a sorghum-based brew) are available for purchase. A green flag would indicate vegetables and a red flag would indicate meat for sale.
You might think from looking at the hut that the kitchen facilities are far too limited to support a bakery/brewery operation. Limited, yes, but not too limited. The "kitchen" is a battered wooden table against the wall opposite the door. It holds a few bowls, some enameled metal drinking cups, and not much else. There are a couple of larger plastic containers to the right of the table; that's the brewery. The oven is a Dutch oven that rests on the hearthstone in the center of the hut. The bedroom is a single bed against the wall to the right of the door; the living room is a stone bench built against the wall to the left of the door. There are no interior walls. Nor are there windows. The local thinking is that windows make the hut harder to heat. Smoke from the fire escapes through the doorway, if the door is open, or through the thatched roof.
The available fuel for fires:
The pile of "bricks" on the left is dried cow manure. It is the primary fuel, supplemented with brush from the bundles on the right.
Despite what many of us would view as absolutely impossible conditions for turning out anything other than a flatbread, or maybe a bannock, Miriam (the hut's owner) makes some beautiful bread that she sells to flatland tourists like ourselves and to her neighbors. And I'm not being patronizing in the slightest when I use the word beautiful. See for yourselves:
Miriam's bread is both elemental and artisanal, in the best sense of that overworked word. The ingredient list is limited to flour, water, salt and yeast. She has no scale, yet each segment is wonderfully uniform in shape and size. I'd guesstimate that each section weighs around 400g, perhaps a little less. She regulates the heat by the quantity of coals beneath the DO and on its lid. As you can see, the crust is a lovely brown; neither underbaked or scorched. The crumb was moist and soft straight out of the DO. I think that the flour used was mostly white, although some flecks of bran were visible. The flavor was exactly what you want from bread: wheaty, yeasty goodness.
After a brief tutorial on Lesotho, in general, and life in the village, more specifially, we bought some bread and some handcrafts and then bid Miriam goodbye.
Before heading back down the pass, we stopped at the border for lunch at the highest pub in Africa:
Somehow, the pass looked even scarier as we started down than it did on the way up:
However, our driver got us back safe and sound. And with a much greater appreciation for the so-called necessities that I think are required for making bread. Knowing the difference between essentials and conveniences may be Miriam's biggest gift to me.