Pig cheeks for the cabbage cultists


Pig cheeks for the cabbage cultists

It's a staple for most households in South Africa, but if you haven't yet been converted, the time has come, writes ERRIEDA DU TOIT.

Image: © IAN DU TOIT

BEING the founder of a cabbage geek cult group is not something I could have foreseen. The rare honour came when melting cabbage crossed my path and I couldn't keep my amazement to myself. But maybe I should have started the story with a trigger warning instead! You don't know whose childhoods were disrupted by cooking odours in hostel corridors, or which people only know cabbage when it's boiled into a watery, bland mush. This is your way back to cabbage conversion.

The cross of the cabbage family

Cabbage does not deserve the scorn. After all, next to cornmeal it is the most important staple food for most households in our country. It even has a pet name, “Johanne 14", in townships and the deep platteland. Cabbage, with its layered leaves, is reminiscent of the many pages of the Bible, hence the sacred reference.

The large head of cabbage is the pater familias of the Brassicaceae family, which includes such stalwarts as cauliflower, bok choy, broccoli, savoy cabbage and the dramatic Italian black cabbage cavolo nero. Take a look at the cross that forms the cabbage leaves and bow your head in wonder that with something so beautiful you can still feed four hungry people for R20.

Sofegao your way to nirvana

That my melting cabbage exploits sparked so much attention among my social media friends can probably be attributed to the cabbage being hidden under a sausage wheel. Sausage, whether it's boerewors or the Italian fennel pork sausage salsiccia, has something holy about it. Add to that the stewing method being called sofegao, which transforms the cabbage into its essential origin story in Venice. Simple food wrapped in a robe of romance and Renaissance wealth. Yet cabbage, as with us in South Africa, is a building block of cucina povera (kitchen of the poor).

According to Rachel Roddy, the British food writer living in Rome, braised cabbage (technically the more correct term) is a typical dish one can order in one of the Italian capital's humble tavola caldas — cafeteria-style self-help eateries. Sofegao refers to the technique of slowly simmering vegetables in their own moisture until they melt away properly. The shredded cabbage is accompanied through the gates of heavenly taste by a generous splash of vinegar, the fat from cubes of smoked bacon or sausage that you first fried in the saucepan, onions, salt and lots of pepper. Winter is your excuse to add olive oil and/or butter (I recommend “and" over “or").

What happens under that cover is pure alchemy; what happens after you top the dish with a wheel of sausage is ecstasy for your peasant soul. My WhatsApp is still regularly flooded with messages and progress reports, even photos of melting cabbage, some still in the making, others already crowned with the sausage. Others do like the Romans and stick a fried egg on top, while the industrious ones cut up a leftover roast chop as a garnish.

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Melting cabbage and sausage wheel

Get out your biggest saucepan for the pile of shredded cabbage that will at least boil down quickly. (Serves 4)

Image: © IAN DU TOIT


  • 1 medium head of cabbage, just under 1 kg
  • 1 large onion, thinly sliced ​​
  • 75 g pancetta or breakfast bacon, diced
  • 30 ml olive oil
  • 60 g butter
  • Salt and black pepper
  • 45 ml red wine vinegar
  • Sausage, enough for 4 people


1. Remove the hard outer leaves from the cabbage, cut the cabbage into quarters and cut out the stem. Shred the cabbage.

2. Stiffen the sausage wheel with skewers and fry in a large saucepan (the pot must have a tight-fitting lid for later). Take out and keep warm.

3. Add onions and bacon to the same saucepan. Add olive oil as needed depending on the amount of fat the sausage has rendered. Sauté over moderate heat until the onions are soft and translucent and the bacon fat is fried.

4. Add the cabbage and stir until it begins to wilt, then stir in the butter. Add salt, pepper and vinegar, stir, cover and simmer over very low heat for an hour or more until the cabbage is very soft and properly melted. Stir now and then. Keep an eye on it and add a little water just when the stuff starts to look dry. Season properly to taste.

5. Place the sausage wheel on top of the cabbage. Drizzle the precious sausage juices over it.


  • Do like the Romans do and eat the cabbage with a fried egg on top, or look into the back of your fridge for an almost-forgotten boiled potato or yesterday's leftover rice.
  • Melting cabbage is not for evenings when you want to get food on the table in 30 minutes. Your hourly investment adds a week to your life expectancy.
  • To avoid the boiled cabbage smells, first remove the lid for a minute or two to allow the salty fumes to escape — no hostel memories.

Spaghetti with melting cabbage, Marmite and bacon

Nigella made spaghetti with Marmite famous. Nothing comes close to spaghetti, Marmite and slaw. Here, the flavours are built by first caramelising the cabbage before braising it. The umami saltiness comes from all sides; depending on which camp you are in you can get it from anchovies, Marmite or Bovril. The guanciale is optional, but actually mandatory if you are an umami hunter. Gild the lily with a shower of parmesan. It's rich, so remember the finishing vinegar.

Image: © IAN DU TOIT


  • 5 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed, divided
  • 30 ml butter
  • 4 anchovy fillets (or replace with 5 ml Marmite or Bovril)
  • 250 ml coarsely grated breadcrumbs
  • 15 ml finely chopped fresh sage
  • 30 ml chopped fresh parsley
  • Salt and black pepper
  • 500 g pasta (bargain spaghetti also works)
  • 80 ml good olive oil
  • 200 g pancetta, guanciale or breakfast bacon, diced (optional)
  • 2.5ml chilli flakes
  • 1 small head of cabbage, stem removed and chopped
  • 165ml grated pecorino, grana padano or parmesan cheese


1. Melt the butter in a pan. Add the anchovies and crush them with a spatula until melted. Reassurance: if you don't like anchovies, there is a Marmite way out a few steps later.

2. Add half of the garlic and fry for a few seconds until it smells right. Stir in the breadcrumbs and sage and fry gently until golden brown for about 2 minutes. Season with black pepper. Remove from the heat.

3. Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir in the cubes of bacon. Add the remaining garlic and stir-fry until golden brown. Add the chilli flakes and stir-fry until fragrant. Stir in the cabbage and stir-fry gently until it begins to caramelise, about 10 minutes. Turn the heat to low, put the lid on and let it simmer until meltingly soft.

4. While the cabbage is simmering, cook the pasta according to the directions on the package. Pour off the water but keep about 45 ml which you can add little by little to the cabbage should it boil dry.

5. Add the cooked pasta and 5ml Marmite and stir through. Add the breadcrumb mixture and grated cheese. Season with black pepper.

6. Spoon into a serving dish. Finish with a few drops of vinegar or lemon juice. Sprinkle with chopped parsley.

Pantry indulgences

Invest in good pantry products. I go for enlightenment to Kiki Ciman of La Bottega, the family deli in Milnerton with its famous La Masserie products. With each visit, I treat myself to a product that can lead to new food adventures, but about which I first want to get expert and reliable advice. Here are the shopping finds from my last visit:


In Italian, everything sounds classy. Talk about pig cheeks and the offal paranoids will run into the mountains, but guanciale sounds like something everyone wants to eat. Get in your car and drive to the deli, because this smoked pork cheek charcuterie will make your mother's savoury tart and grandmother's bean soup speak with an Italian accent.

Guanciale is a salt-cured product, typical of the Umbria area, but good locally made products are readily available. You will be able to use it well in the stewed cabbage dishes, and it is indispensable in spaghetti carbonara. It's not really cold meat to eat on the go. It's saltier than pancetta and the meat is more delicate; the fat also melts nicely.

Ciao canned tomato

When your ship comes in, dash to your nearest deli and invest in the Rolex of tinned tomatoes — Pomodoro San Marzano. This tomato variety is the very best fresh or canned, but also the most abused. You can easily be fooled with the “fake Rolexes" of the tinned food world.

San Marzano tomatoes under the Italian brand Ciao are the real deal and carry the official mark of authenticity, according to Kiki Ciman. If you want to make pizza in the true Neapolitan style, this is what you are looking for, and it's worth the R82 price tag for a standard tin. It's so intensely fragrant that you end up using less of it.


  • Buying cheap is buying dear, an old wisdom. Bargain tinned tomatoes can be an indication that the juice-to-tomato ratio means you're getting less of what you're actually looking for. The juice can also then be thin and tasteless.
  • I prefer to buy whole canned tomatoes, which is already an indication that the tomato is more suitable in terms of taste. It's just like the chopped tomato, only cooked long enough to preserve; to develop the taste, it still needs to be caramelised. My advice is to first drain the juice (catch it), then sauté the tomato in a little oil to develop the taste. Add the juice again and crush it for pizza or a tomato sauce base.
Image: © IAN DU TOIT

♦ VWB ♦

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