Life feels a whole lot better when you wake up to the smell of rusks or “beskuit” in the oven. There is something very comforting to the smell of warm milk, butter, flour and sugar. Just as there is something utterly serene in sitting at a table at dawn dunking these delicate morsels in a cup of steaming coffee.
It is likely that the Egyptians were the first to use sourdough for baking. They obtained their sourdough from beer breweries as far back as 1,500 BC. Hieroglyphics show that they were prolific bakers, with more than 30 types of bread including bread with fruits and nuts. In Europe, the French were the first to use sweet-sourdough and they learned this from the Arabs.
The local Afrikaans name “beskuit” comes from the French “biscuit de guerre”. These twice-baked rusks were made from flour and water and were given to soldiers as part of their rations. The Dutch VOC company issued similar items as part of sailors’ rations. According to one source, these rusks “naauwlyks met de tanden kan meester worden” (could hardly be mastered with the teeth).
Jan van Riebeeck spoke about “beschuit” when they had to feed “cruymelbeschuit” (rusk or breadcrumbs) to pigs in 1660. Most likely these “krummels” (crumbs) became mouldy. Rusks also formed part of the daily rations during the first years, as Van Riebeeck and his people were dependent on bread brought by ships. This naturally dried bread was also called “hartbrood” (hard-bread). The French-inspired name “beskuit” became the preferred name over the Dutch “tweebak” (double-baked).
Early recipes for rusks
Recipes for “mosbeskuit” and “boerbeskuit” were published in 1761. This is perhaps an indication that these were the popular recipes at the time.
Rusks were popular among travellers and the VOC often requested citizens to supply large consignments of rusks to visiting ships. This provides evidence that rusks as a commercial commodity date back to the time when the Dutch established their presence at the Cape.
Traditionally, “mosbolletjies” were baked using “mos” or “must”. Most likely it was French bakers with their knowledge of winemaking that started using the must (fermented grape juice) in baking. An early recipe for mosbolletjies listed the following ingredients: flour, aniseed, nutmeg and sugar. The mosbolletjies that were not eaten fresh (usually with butter) were dried out to make “mosbeskuit”.
The fermented must contained yeast, which helped to proof the dough. The dough was shaped into little balls and baked in large bread-pans. This allowed the bread to be torn apart along the seams formed by the dough.
“Boerbeskuit” or farmers-rusks was made with sweet-sourdough and contained any number of the following flavouring agents: sheep’s fat, “kaiings”, raisins, fennel seeds or aniseed. Boerbeskuit were baked as whole loaves and then cut or torn into strips. It was often baked along with bread and when the baking was done, the rusks were returned to the oven to dry out. Boerbeskuit was sugar-free.
Commercial brands can be bought in all local supermarkets and grocery stores and most communities have at least a few home-bakers specialising in rusks. In recent times the interest in home-baked rusks among home-cooks have increased significantly. It can easily be done at home.
Karringmelk beskuit (buttermilk rusks) is a classic and perhaps the standard against which all rusks are measured. Local unflavoured “omaere” or cultured milk can be used as a replacement for buttermilk.
Another local favourite is “mosbeskuit”. Although this version shares its name with the original Cape rusk it no longer requires must. Its texture is feather-like and it is flavoured with whole aniseed.
Only a few home-bakers still bake boer-beskuit.
More modern varieties include fruit-flavoured versions such as this orange-flavoured one. Sugar-free varieties are gaining popularity and so are recipes that include added seeds and dried fruit such as raisins or sultanas.