By Louise Liebenberg
ASK anyone in the tiny Port Elizabeth suburb of Essexvale and they’ll tell you the title of braaimaster of the barrio belongs solely to Mike Jones.
Salvelio and I have lived in the leafy street for nearly a decade, a stay eclipsed by 70-something Mike’s impressive 34 years in the valley, just a few doors down the road.
Mike, a well-known photographer and vintage car restorer in town, is equally known for his countless entertaining letters to Weekend Post and sister paper The Herald over the years. But his huge love of braaiing is perhaps less known by the public at large, even though by Mike’s own conservative estimate he has lit more than 5000 convivial fires in Chelmsford Avenue.
Sadly Mike and Irma, his wife, have decided it is time to scale down and swop their sprawling home, which borders Settlers Park, for a more manageable townhouse elsewhere in the city.
Packing is now in high gear with practically everything in boxes and ready for their move in mid-April… save for the grid and braai tongs, that is!
Five-thousand braais sound like an exaggeration to you? Not so, says Irma. Mike has faithfully lit his fire at least three times a week for every week they have lived in Chelmsford Avenue, although this often goes up to five per week if the weather is good. Not that the weather has ever been a deterrent – Mike is one who braais come rain or shine.
Mike and Irma moved to Chelmford Avenue back in January 1977. There was no built-in braai at the house then and so they made do with a portable one for the first couple of weeks, before getting a bricklaying friend to build a braai to Mike’s exacting specs. It’s the same braai they’ve used all these years and Mike has all he needs at his fingertips, including his concrete umbrella stand for when rain hits!
The couple’s new home in Walmer Heights does not yet have a built-in braai, “but I’m on to that!” says Mike, who is already planning his first braai. For the first couple of weeks the couple’s old portable braai will no doubt have to be fired up again.
They’ve had some memorable times in Chelmsford Avenue, says Mike, but the time has come for a new chapter. “Essexvale was a wonderful place for the kids to grow up in. It’s beautiful out here and and their schools were just up the road. We’ve had the happiest of times here in the valley, and have been unbelievably blessed.”
I’ll always have a soft spot for Mike, not least because he and my late father, also named Mike, had much in common. They never met each other but I don’t doubt they’d have hit it off. My dad was born the day before Mike, on August 3, 1935, and he also moved to Port Elizabeth in 1964, just as Mike and Irma did after a few years in Joburg, Irma’s home city. And, like Mike, my dad loved the sea, enjoyed writing “letters to the editor” and could easily spend hours shopping up a storm at the supermarket. Like Mike says, “You can put me anywhere in the world and you’ll find me at the local supermarket!” My dad also adored his braai and we’d easily light that fire two to three times a week, much to my mother’s annoyance. My dad always did the braaiing, kept the boerewors aside as a snack before the main just as the Joneses do and, like Mike, would be the last one to clear his plate – mainly because he was too busy enjoying himself and yacking away to his friends.
I do hope Mike and Irma will come and visit us in Chelmsford Avenue once they are properly settled in their new home – it would have to be over a braai, of course! They’ve also made a deal with the Somerset-East family who’ve bought their house – that they’ll be allowed to return in avo season every year when the great old avo tree at number 14 bears fruit!
Mike’s braai tips
Mike, we discovered this week, does not just have vast experience as a braaimaster… he also has some serious coal cred from his days as a finalist in the Kellerprins braai competition held at the Port Elizabeth beachfront in the early 1980s! Irma mainly remembers the event because Mike spent hours sharpening his axe the day before the cook-off, so he’d have the best firewood on the day… only he forgot the darned chopper on the lawn and their son Timmy (now 41-year-old Tim!) nearly amputated his toe on it. At least all ended well with Timmy’s toe saved by the family doctor and Mike and an old mate claiming third place in the contest. Tim has a twin, Andrew, and both live in the UK. Mike and Irma also have a daughter, Claire, in New Zealand. The boys are a chip off the old block as they’re game for a braai even when it’s snowing in the middle of the European winter. And all three kids have made sure there are always braai facilities on hand for whenever Mom and Dad come and visit!
Here are a few of Mike’s top tips for a brilliant braai:
* A braai must never be rushed. If it takes two hours for the coals to be perfectly ready, so be it.
* Never, ever overcook your meat, says Mike. “Those who want their fillet well done have lost the plot.”
* Look for good-quality chops and wors – don’t waste a good braai on inferior meat. Merino Butchery in PE is a good bet but Mike still raves about that famous country butchery, the Kareedouw Slaghuis, which was established in 1962 and is situated off the main road in the town – call 042-2880404.
* Always braai over a wood fire, if possible. Mike buys his wood from a guy in York Road, Port Elizabeth. He’s not sure what type of wood it is but it is “pretty darn hard and solid”, and comes from Namibia. Dry hardwood from the Karoo is also a good bet – but check the bag for unwelcome hitch-hikers. Mike opened a bag once and a snake popped out, scuttling off into the bushes to join Settlers Park’s many creepy crawlies!
* Freshly-squeezed lemon adds a lovely flavour to meat on the braai. Mike also uses lemon in his marinades and the juiced halves are great for cleaning your grid before burning.
* Once the grid is clean and he’s ready to braai, Mike brushes a bit of his marinade onto the grid before laying the meat over the coals. Those lovely aromas will really work up your guests’ appetite!
Recipe: Mike’s kassler chops with pineapple
Mike braais his kassler chops while basting with a simple marinade made from a mixture of cooking oil, freshly squeezed lemon juice and soya sauce.
He couldn’t give me quantities except to say you use a “blob” of each, but Irma reckons it’s about a tablespoon or so of each ingredient.
Mike also braais some fresh pineapple slices on the grid and these get served on top of the chops.
Recipe: Irma’s baked beans
This is a great way for dressing up a humble tin of baked beans as a side dish for your braai, says Irma.
1/2 medium onion, finely chopped; 1/3 greenpepper, finely chopped; 1 Tbsp of finely chopped or crushed garlic; 3 rashers of bacon, finely chopped; oil for frying; 1 medium tomato, peeled and chopped; 1 tin of baked beans in tomato sauce; salt to taste
In a frying pan, heat the oil and fry the onion, greenpepper, garlic and bacon till done. Now add the tomato and cook through for a bit before stirring through the baked beans and sauce. It might not need seasoning as the bacon adds a little salt and the baked beans are likely to have salt as well. Serve hot.