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 had the choice of cereal, bread, and boxes of something called rusks. We’d never even heard of rusks before this trip. They were dry, beige nuggets of slightly-sweet bready-ness. We had to dip them into our morning camp coffee to make them soft enough to eat. But once we tried them, they became our favourite breakfast treat.
South African rusks actually date 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 to you, it should: this is also how to make biscotti.
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 as South African rusks. 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 they’re also mostly nondescript and a bit bland, to be honest. But they don’t conflict with the flavour of coffee, 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 version, anyway). And we had become…well, addicted is too strong a word. But we became accustomed to eating 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. We found a few products called “rusks” but they weren’t the same thing that we had on our holiday.
Then we discovered a South African import store in Edmonton called Serengeti Imports.
Lo and behold, this little grocery store had many of the products we tried on holidays, including biltong, Simba brand potato chips, and, yes, even rusks. In fact, Serengeti Imports carries a few rusk brands and a handful of different flavours.
The most famous rusk brand in South Africa are the Ouma brand. They come in a few different flavours, such as muesli, buttermilk, and condensed milk. Be warned though – the muesli flavour contains crushed peanuts, as my husband discovered the hard way, due to a peanut allergy!
A woman named Elizabeth Anne Greyvensteyn started the Ouma company in a town called Molteno on the Eastern Cape. During the Great Depression, the town’s pastor offered money to the women in his congregation to start businesses and earn income for their families. Elizabeth first sold her rusks under the company name Outspan Rusks, but later changed it to Ouma – the Afrikaans word for grandmother.
Elizabeth lived to the ripe old age of 98, so there must be something special in her family recipe for rusks! As an interesting side note, her grandson Leon became the founder of the Simba Chip company in 1956!
One day when we went to Serengeti Imports to stock up on South African treats, we came across this special Ouma Rusks tin box. The Ouma boxes slide into the decorative tin perfectly. We keep it on top of the fridge so the rusks are always within easy reach.
If you can’t find rusks where you live but want to give them a try, never fear. You can find several rusk recipes with different variations/ingredients/flavours on the Internet. I tried one homemade recipe recently that came close to the real thing. But to be honest the Ouma brand still can’t be beat. But with a few tweaks, maybe the recipe will become a keeper.