Photographs by Brandon de Kock
A window runs the length of Boschendal’s kitchen, framing the Groot Drakenstein mountains. Using a long dowel otherwise employed for shaping crisp, lacy brandy snaps, Leah Luskam flips a switch and the standing mixer begins to whir. Her movements have a natural flow; she’s baked malva pudding here for 17 years.
You know Malva, right? A traditional Afrikaans pudding as entrenched as koeksisters and melktert?
Or is it? Have you ever stopped to wonder how this brown, plain Jane of pudding became so thoroughly institutionalised as part of our national repertoire it landed up on Oprah and at Woolies as ready-meal? Or why it is so wildly popular that a humble malva recipe is the most-clicked piece of content on Getaway’s website. Really. Above Kruger kills and bungee jump footage.
Probably not – I certainly hadn’t and I write about food for a living. But it was these questions that led me to a story which unfolded on the outskirts of that oak-trimmed university town, Stellenbosch, to a wine estate I associate more with quaffable Blanc de Noir than rib-sticking winter desserts – and to Leah.
‘I must be in a nice mood when I make it,’ said Leah, who has the air of a lovable auntie but becomes serious on eyeing the whisk, ‘otherwise it doesn’t work.’ She’d lined up a selection of ingredients that could be found in the humblest pantry: eggs, sugar, milk, cream, butter, flour, vinegar, bicarb, apricot jam.
Combined, these transform into a rectangle of sponge soaked to saturation in sugar-butter-cream sauce. The point, as I was to learn, is entirely textural. Done right, the reward is a whole that’s lighter than the sum of its parts. Get it wrong and there’s no room to hide – no glistening fruits or bruleed crust – which is why Leah insists on beating for a full 15 minutes.
Not everyone has Leah’s light touch. As one Malva connoisseur noted, ‘You could attack Syria with some of the cannonballs served up today.’ Maybe I’d eaten too much cannon-fodder, but frankly I never really ‘got’ Malva.
I simply assumed it must be as old as the oxwagon – or never had reason to think otherwise until my editor asked me to look into it. So I opened a 1960 copy of South Africa’s bible of home cookery, Cook and Enjoy it (Kook en Geniet in Afrikaans) in search of a baked Malva. Surprisingly, there was no trace of it.
This must be a Cape Dutch thing, I thought, and as an Engelsmeisie I was on the back foot. So I joined forces with Joan Kruger, an Afrikaans-speaking etymology expert with an insatiably curious mind and an interest in Malva. Together we embarked on a comprehensive trawl of cookery books and libraries looking for some sign of it.
For fellow food nerds interested in a detailed booklist I’m happy to oblige but in short, there seemed to be a twist in malva’s tale. The earliest published reference we found was from the 1970s – a malvapoeding in Erina Bezuidenhout’s My Beste Nagereg. Which raised the question: Was Malva only as old as the bell-bottom?
Surely not… My parents’ contemporaries remembered their mothers making it. Some light Googling tosses up three theories on the name. Number one: rose-scented malva leaves were once baked in the batter – ‘malva’ being the Afrikaans term for our indigenous, pink flowering pelargonium or rose geranium.
But pelargoniums fall under the Geraniaceae not the Malvaceae family, and would their fragrance stand up to such great swathes of sugar and cream? And why didn’t writers C Louis Leipoldt, and Hildagonda Duckitt, who documented so much of our culinary past, touch on pelargoniums in pudding when both were such keen botanists.
More likely, I thought, was the marshmallow theory. In The Complete South African Cookbook, Magdaleen van Wyk introduces ‘marshmallow pudding’ (Malvapoeding) by saying, ‘This rich pudding contains no marshmallows, but probably got its name from its spongy texture’ – the Afrikaans for marshmallows being ‘malvalekkers’.
When I followed up, Magdaleen demurred, ‘I’m a dietician, not a food historian,’ and put me onto Dr Hester Claassens, known for her definitive tome: Die Geskiedenis van Boerekos 1652 – 1806. Hettie believes it’s the pelargonium leaves – simmered in the sauce and removed before pouring it over the pudding.
Author of The Great Boerekos Book, Dine van Zyl, agreed: the secret is in the sauce. But according to her, it must contain brandy otherwise it’s not Malva pudding. Enter theory number three: Dine says the Dutch made a Malvasia pudding (shortened to Malva) using fortified Malvasia wine but substituted brandy on arriving in the Cape.
By now I’d called a string of culinary heavyweights. The evidence was anecdotal and the claims unsubstantiated, yet Malva’s murky past is as fervently debated as the origin of humankind. Malva kept me awake at night and I wasn’t even a fan. Could it have Huguenot roots? Would aligning myself with the mallow theory be a career-limiting move?
It was time to go from heavyweight to legend. The only other recipe suggesting brandy – or sherry, water or orange juice for that matter – was Ina Paarman’s. Having met Ina once before, I was impressed by her meticulous approach, manifested in her polished grooming, an unsurpassed chocolate cake mix and the fact that she returns her calls in person. Aunty Ina would know.
‘It became popular around 1980,’ said Ina in her measured tone, ‘Boschendal had a very good restaurant and they served a lovely spread, which included a malva pudding – that was the first time it was really picked up by the English community and foreigners.’ When Alicia Wilkinson, the principal and much-loved matriarch at Silwood School of Cookery, corroborated this story, I’d turned a corner.
Finally there was some agreement: on a tipping point, when malva made the leap from ouma’s cookery book to restaurant menus. And all roads led to Boschendal. ‘I remember the whole family going for lunch, just for that pudding!’ enthused Alicia. Alicia still teaches that malva as a blueprint recipe, crediting Michael Olivier, who was Boschendal’s PR manager at the time.
According to Michael, it happened in the Summer of ’79. Boschendal’s chef was on holiday and he’d asked his friend, Maggie Pepler, to fill the gap, also persuading her to make her mother’s malva pudding. Michael suspects it ‘snuck out’ when included in a file of recipes printed for guests. ‘I can happily claim responsibility for the resurgence and subsequent popularity of malva Pudding,’ says Michael.
Michael, a cordon bleu-trained restaurateur turned food-and-wine writer, is both gentle and genteel. In describing Maggie, he said, ‘Food seemed to come out of the tips of her fingers with consummate ease’ and I’m left with the impression this is a woman with an appreciation for the details that make life rich, like the unique beauty of hand-woven damask or mastering the art of malva.
So it came as no surprise that Maggie’s son is David Pepler – Stellenbosch University professor and presenter of environmental programme Groen – a man celebrated for his far-reaching knowledge. ‘Malva should be unspeakably light combined with a certain richness,’ said David, describing the Malva of his childhood. And this is how it lives on at Boschendal, now made by Leah.
Tasting her version opened my eyes. Light, fluffy and so saucy it teetered on the brink of collapse, I couldn’t stop sinking my spoon into its dark, luscious depths. It sits alongside a jug of Moirs custard and besides the silver tray it’s presented on, there’s no clue this Malva might be the original recipe.
It turns out Maggie’s cooking also graced the hotel restaurant at the Lanzerac Wine Estate (in 1977) and another malva-Lanzerac connection came up when phoning Peter Veldsman at his restaurant Emily’s in Cape Town’s Kloof Street. During his long, illustrious career as both chef and academic, Peter has seen it all, and he was happy to reminisce about his first malva.
‘I remember it well…’ said Peter, laughing fondly. It was the 1960s and David Rawdon had purchased the Lanzerac (by 1975 he’d turned it into one of the top 300 hotels in the world). ‘One of the cooks made this inherited English baked pudding and David presented it, decorated with malva leaves, calling it malva pudding.’ Sadly David and his cook aren’t around to tell us more about the good old days.
Today the Lanzerac malva comes garnished, not with foliage à la David, but with a jaunty crème anglaise-filled ‘cannelloni’ and pineapple compote that tastes like a ray of sunshine on a wintery day. It suits the napkins folded into papal hats and the Cape governors looking out from gilt-edged frames. But it still didn’t solve the mystery.
After weeks of research I’d established nothing more than the obvious: malva is one variation on an old-fashioned theme of baked-pudding with pour-over sauce. As is British vinegar pudding or Afrikaans Asynpoeding, Jan Ellis pudding (named for the Springbok flank), even Brandy pudding and sometimes Telefoonpoeding.
I was no closer to discovering where it came from, who christened it ‘malva’ and why they thought it fitting. Just like human evolution, there was a missing link. Maggie and David’s recipes couldn’t be traced back any further back and all I knew was malva’s real debut happened on either side of the Helshoogte pass, during a golden age of grand buffets.
Then, with my deadline looming, one visit to Silwood provided a double malva epiphany. In a generous-spirited gesture, Alicia and her daughter, vice principal, Carianne, had made Michael’s recipe and, later, facilitated my greatest find yet.
As Michael and I admired the Malva’s honey-toned centre, he said, ‘There are outside people and there are inside people,’ and pointing to the bubbled edge, ‘you’ll see the sugars have caramelized all along the base, not just around the edges… the inside is where it gets all goojee.’
Although feather-light on eating, this malva held its shape when cut; a square of cooking-school perfection served with vanilla-speckled cream. Finally, I got it. Savouring each note of bright acidity and toasted caramel, I refused to surrender my plate until every last crumb of soft, sticky goojee-ness was eaten.
Understanding my proof was to be found not only in a pudding but in a supporting text, Alicia also offered access to her mother’s cookbook collection. Together we paged through macaroni pudding, national pudding, canary pudding – more research for another time! Then, on page 93 of South African Cookery Made easy by Mrs. P.W. De Klerk, there it was: malva pudding, published in 1924.
The preface dated back another decade to 1912 and the ingredients checked out: flour, sugar, eggs, milk, butter, vinegar, soda (bicarbonate, I presume) but no apricot jam. There was no brandy or rose geranium either. And it predated the commercial production of marshmallow sweets.
All of this suggested malva pudding may have little to do with the theories touted. In fact, it wasn’t even baked. Taking pride in her brevity, Mrs. De Klerk writes, ‘My object has always been… to make everything as short and simple as possible’. No kidding – her method simply reads: ‘Boil’.
It got me thinking, perhaps the name derives from Latin? The Latin word malva means ‘mallow’ and mucilaginous extracts of the marshmallow plant (Malvaceae family) were used to make early incarnations of the puffy pink confections we blister over braai coals today. Theory four, perhaps?
This is just one source and all it does, for now, is push the missing link back by 40 years. So my search is by no means over – the journey continues. In the mean time, what I can offer with certainty is the ‘original’ recipe. Bake it – not only to honour Maggie, but to understand what malva is truly supposed to be.
Published in the July 2013 issue of Getaway magazine.