A few years ago, when my husband and I were travelling through South Africa, our tour guide/driver/cook/counsellor/drinking buddy had the truck kitchen stocked with a variety of local foods. For breakfast, we were given the choice of cereal, bread, and boxes of something called rusks. The rusks were rock hard, beige nuggets of bready-ness that were meant to be dipped in our morning camp coffee.
Their creation goes all the way back to the late 1600s, when travellers needed a way to preserve bread for long journeys without refrigeration. Rusks are basically double-baked bread chunks. If the double-baked process sounds familiar, it should: this is also how biscotti is made. Several countries have similar “rusk” products, such as melba toast (US and Canada), zwieback (Germany), skorpor (Sweden), and so on. But they’re not really the same product, it’s just a general term for a hard biscuit, with numerous variations.
South African rusks can be an acquired taste, mostly because they don’t really have much of a distinct flavour. But you know what? This is why they complement a morning cup of joe so well.
Rusks are crunchy and slightly sweet, but mostly nondescript and bland, truth be told. But they don’t conflict with the coffee flavour, and instead absorb it as you soak the tough biscuits in your mug of steamy hot java. Before we knew it, we found ourselves shunning the pedestrian bread and cereals to grab a couple of rusks every morning on our vacation.
This became quite a problem once we came home, however. We don’t have rusks in Canada (not like the South African rusks anyway), and we had become, well, addicted is too strong a word. But we had become accustomed to having a rusk or two with our morning coffee. And we found that we missed them.
We searched the local grocery stores but had no luck; a few products were called “rusks” but weren’t the same thing that we had on our holiday.
Then we discovered a South African import store in Edmonton called Jacaranda Imports (now called Serengeti Imports). http://www.serengetiedmonton.com/ Lo and behold, they had many of the products we tried on holidays, including biltong, Simba brand potato chips, and, yes, rusks. Hooray!
The most famous rusk brand in South Africa are Ouma brand rusks. They come in a few different flavours, such as muesli, buttermilk, and condensed milk. The company has been in business for over seventy years, started by Elizabeth Anne Greyvensteyn during the Great Depression. She lived to the ripe old age of 98, so there must be something special in her family recipe! The company history is quite interesting and worth a read: https://www.foodstuffsa.co.za/molteno-a-town-saved-by-foodcorp-and-ouma-rusks/
If you can’t find rusks where you live, never fear; there are several recipes on the Internet. I tried one homemade recipe recently, but to be honest the Ouma rusks still can’t be beat. But with a few tweaks, maybe the recipe will become a keeper.
Until next time!