The Fresh Loaf

A Community of Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts.

Bread in a Lesotho village

pmccool's picture

Bread in a Lesotho village

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.




varda's picture

What a cool experience, and fascinating post.   I love the photos and especially the bread.   Next time I feel like I must have better tools to bake great bread, I'll think back on this.  -Varda

proth5's picture

Thanks for sharing it.

Cooking/baking like that represents what I have heard described as the pinnacle of regional cuisine, shaped by decades of experience and good - because with a scarcity of resources - it needs to be good.

Of course, it wouldn't be me if I didn't immediately think up with a raft of questions, questions, questions on the details - but I consider I'll content myself with contemplating the simplicity of the surroundings and the quality of the output.

Thanks, again.


Floydm's picture

Wow, fascinating post, Paul.  

When I first saw it show up in my RSS reader I thought it was a field report from the Mercy Corps blog.  

Thanks for sharing.


Franko's picture

What a terrific post Paul, and many thanks for sharing the experience and lovely photos with us. Miriam's loaf is a clear reminder to all of us that pure bread crafting need not be as reliant on fancy equipment and techniques as many of us might think. 


ehanner's picture

Wonderful post Paul. Seeing how those people live so happily in meager conditions is a life lesson. These are the people who will survive a major population reduction on the planet. So glad you shared the experience with us and in such a respectful way.


breadsong's picture

Hello Paul,
Miriam's bread is truly beautiful - shaped like a perfect daisy flower.
The skill shown in making this bread, and then managing the coals so well in baking it!
Thank you for sharing this story of your journey.
from breadsong

Syd's picture

Great post, Paul.  What perfectly shaped bread.  It just goes to show (as Franko said) that all you need to make good bread is the most basic of ingredients, a surface to knead on and the most basic of ovens.  Now I feel ashamed of my digital scale and probe thermometer. :(   Lesotho is truly beautiful. It is not called the mountain kingdom for nothing.



RuthieG's picture

Wonderful post and very informative.  I was just talking to my husband about the snobbery that we have in the bread baking world.  We think we have to have all the modern conveniences and latest tools and books and that everything has to be weighed to the inth degree when the truth is, all it takes is the kitchen you described of Miriams.  I truly enjoyed your post and the pictures.  Her bread is beautiful.

kim's picture


Thanks for your post and those beautiful baked breads. I enjoy reading your post so much. Thanks you,


swtgran's picture

Thank you so much for sharing your experience.  I bake bread in a dutch oven when we camp.  I cannot imagine doing that on a daily basis, little on as a business to sustain myself and family.

The photos are wonderful.  Terry R.

pmccool's picture

and happy that I can share a portion of the experience with you.  Yet another reminder (I run into so many of them here) of just how priveleged I am just because of where and to whom I was born.  Even though many of the children from the village move away as they finish school and grow into adulthood, it is hard to imagine that many of them will find themselves in the U.S. someday, just as bemused by what they experience as I was when I visited their village.

Pat mentioned curiosity about details.  I can't speak to Miriam's breadmaking process, since all I saw was the finished product.  She has to have some way of keeping the dough warm as it rises, though.  When we arrived, it was about 1:00 p.m. and there was still ice on the surface of some of the shallow ponds, with a chilly breeze blowing.  Not exactly ideal conditions for bread dough.  What she does, I don't know.

Our guide said that the men of the Sotho people are known as the blanket men, which you can see examples of in one photo.  It's a great way to stay warm out on the veldt when the wind is howling and the snow is falling.  And yet, in spite of the temperatures at the time of our visit, a toddler who was only 2 or 3 years old was running around with a sweater on top and bare to the air from the waist down.  This is a community of hardy people and that hardiness apparently starts at a very young age!

There were some interesting features in the huts' construction.  If you look at the photo of the DO, you can see that the hearth is 2-3 inches lower than the floor level.  The floor is constructed of a layer of stones, each one touching the neighboring stones.  A plaster-like material, consisting of cow manure and clay, is then placed on top of the stones to a thicknes of 2-3 inches.  I don't know if it is a slurry consistency when applied or if it is firmer and requires compaction.  At some point the surface was wet and soft, since trowel marks are visible.  Dry, the surface is nearly as hard as concrete.  The same material is used to plaster the walls and the stone bench that I mentioned.  This provides a smooth surface and stops the wind from penetrating through the joints between the stones.

The beauty of this construction technique is that the fire built on the central hearth not only warms the occupants by direct radiant heat and by convective exchange with the surrounding air; it also warms the stones under the floor's wearing surface by conduction.  In effect, an in-floor heating system.  (Those of you with WFOs are no doubt nodding your heads.)  Thus, someone who lies down on the floor at night with blankets or skins for covering feels warmth emanating from below.  It's a brilliant concept, wonderfully executed with locally sourced materials.  I wish I knew how many centuries or millenia this practice has been employed by these people and their ancestors.

I noticed that the threshold and swing zone of the door, which is hinged to swing inward, is also lower than the rest of the floor, by about the same amount as the hearth.  That keeps water from wetting the inhabitants if some is blown under the door. 

There were a number of "long drop" toilets (outhouses) in the village, provided by the government.  I saw a small solar PV panel mounted on a pole, too.  My guess is that it charges batteries but I did not get a chance to ask about it's specific use.  It was a bit jarring to hear the local variation of rap music blaring from one of the huts.

Miriam's husband, like other men of the village, works in another location.  He is a construction worker and has to follow the projects.  Her three youngest children are still at home but the older children are away at school in a neighboring town.  Combine absent family members + HIV/AIDS incidence at about 70% in the population + harsh living conditions, and it's a wonder that anyone stays put.  Whether because of lack of opportunity elsewhere, or sheer grit, or love of what she has, Miriam keeps on.  She is making a home for her family and contributing to the well-being of her community.  I am impressed.


ananda's picture

Thanks for posting on this Paul,

I think you really do bring home the authenticity in Miriam's true craft in the difficult circumstances you describe so well.

Best wishes


Yerffej's picture


Your post should help deter anyone from ever complaining about their baking equipment and or conditions.  Thanks for a great story.



Fantastico post!


Saluti Giulia