Must, must, must!

Restaurant JAN has made headlines recently after just winning its first Michelin star. South Africans are justifiably excited because Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen, the chef behind this restaurant in France’s famous coastal town of Nice, is a boerseun from Middelburg who did his culinary training in Stellenbosch.

And while the heading of this piece might sound like a visit to JAN is something to add to the bucket list, it’s not: it’s rather a delightful repetition of something we only get to enjoy once a year – fermenting must.

This fermenting grape juice is the crucial ingredient in the seasonal delight of mosbolletjies. A central tenet of Restaurant JAN is to celebrate the food found in the local markets – and featured on his weekly menu in February, the first course is mosbolletjies and Cape seed loaf with a whipped biltong miso butter.
Whether or not the recipe at JAN uses fresh fermenting grape juice – wine must – is debatable as the French harvest is still six to seven months away but there are recipes which advocate steeping raisins in warm water and then pulverising them before using the resultant juice in conjunction with dried yeast to start the dough rising. To my mind, though, that lacks authenticity. It’s not a real mosbolletjie if it’s not made with must.

A proper mosbolletjie is a thing of beauty: light as a feather, studded with aniseeds and brushed with a light syrup glaze. Numerous books and food blogs attribute the bread’s local origins to the French Huguenot settlers, which is entirely believable since it has a lovely brioche texture to it. It’s simply not as dense or heavy as other breads.

Making it is also a labour of love because, when done properly, it takes two days. The most important ingredient naturally is the must. According to De Wetshof Estate’s widely circulated recipe from their champion mosbolletjie maker, Francina Blaauw, the must should be fermenting strongly – and they even advocate that the sugar reading be at 17°Balling. The reason given is that if the Balling is not right, the resultant mosbolletjies will be either too sweet or not sweet enough. When the cellar is humming with activity and must is at the right sweetness, matriarch Lesca de Wet is known to bake trays of these treats for office and cellar staff, as well as friends and neighbours!

Then the question arises – what type of grape to use? Jordan Bakery’s team advocates Sauvignon Blanc because that’s what winemaker Sjaak Nelson supplies them with … and because Sauvignon Blanc is one of the first grapes to hit the cellar and begin fermenting during harvest.

Way down south in Agulhas, the team at Black Oystercatcher Wines also uses Sauvignon Blanc for their mosbolletjies, which restaurant manager Salmon Decker says are a massive hit with patrons. Some of the best in the winelands are baked at Babylonstoren – and they’ve been known to use Viognier for theirs.

At Fairview’s popular restaurant, The Goatshed, baker Ignus Terblanche admits it’s a labour of love making mosbolletjies but since it only occurs for a short period once a year he’s happy to do it. “And the people love it. We sell out – especially on weekends.”

Regarding grape variety, Terblanche is not fussy. “We use whatever the winemakers give us – but it must be between 18° and 22°Balling.”

La Motte’s farm shop sells mosbolletjies in both fresh and dried rusk form. They’re baked by the team at the highly regarded adjacent Pierneef à La Motte restaurant. Any product left unsold on the day goes back to the restaurant and is then dried out in the ovens and recycled as rusks, a staple coffee accompaniment on these shores. In an interesting twist, they also make a grape must syrup which is then brushed onto their version rather than using the more simple and traditional sugar syrup glaze.

(Courtesy of Francina Blaauw, De Wetshof Estate)

2.5kg flour
35g dried aniseed
4 cups sugar
250g butter, melted
2 cups milk
6 eggs
4 cups must (strong fermenting must, at about 17°Balling)
Sweet sugar water (three tablespoons to a half a cup of water)
Pinch of salt

Mix flour and aniseed in a mixing bowl.
Blend sugar, melted butter and milk in another bowl.
Beat eggs separately.
Now mix the flour and aniseed with the beaten eggs and then add the milk, sugar and butter mixture.
Add the must and knead well.
Cover the mixing bowl well with a blanket or thick towel and leave to rise overnight.
The next morning, knead down, form small balls and place against each other in buttered loaf pan.
Allow to rise again and place in oven at 180°C until golden brown and cooked (takes more or less one hour).
Remove from the pan and dab the top with a pastry brush dipped in sugar water.
PS: It is very important to obtain must at the correct Balling or the buns will be either too sweet or not sweet enough.
– Fiona McDonald