Braai Master Andy Fenner

It’s Heritage Day, or Braai Day, and our favourite butcher has some tips

Interview: Dylan Muhlenberg | Photographs: Nick Gordon

Making a living is hard enough, but add “and make a difference” and the challenges really come rolling in. Prior to wearing an apron, Andy Fenner was in property development, wearing a suit and tie – and making good money. Then he quit.

“I was sitting in a boardroom, 20 years younger than everyone else, everyone in chinos and blue shirts, and I had a flash forward of me doing the same thing in 20 years. Ya, it was very cushy, but unrewarding, so I quit.”

Andy had already started his food blog while working in property, and soon began getting commissions from magazines, and invitations to review restaurants. Embedded in the food journalism scene, he found it strange that nobody really cared where their meat came from. Born from this necessity Andy opened a hole-in-the-wall in Metal Lane and, at time of writing, has a Frankie Fenner Meat Merchants on Bree Street with plans to open up shop in Woodstock and Claremont in the not-too-distant future.

With most of our Heritage Day celebrations centred on meat, we asked the Frankie Fenner founder to give us something to chew on.

I think braaiing is part of our heritage, it’s part of what we do, but I’m not 100% sold on people calling Heritage Day, "Braai Day". But you know, if it’s a bunch of young, new South Africans from different backgrounds and races wanting to celebrate how things have changed by having a braai, then I’m down with that. 

I’d read a bunch of books – Eating Animals, and The Omnivore's Dilemma, and it shook me up pretty badly. After reading those books I realised that I was never going to be a vegetarian, but I was also never going to eat meat the way I’d been eating it before.

We speak a lot about provenance. It’s about keeping that distance from the farm to your plate as short as possible and making sure that the number of hands that that meat passes through is kept to a minimum. We never deal with middlemen. We visit a farm, meet the farmer, shake his hand and then buy animals from his farm. That’s how we can have peace of mind about where it came from.

The farmer is our hero. We’re mainly getting our beef from the Eastern Cape, our pork from Elgin and our chicken from Mossel Bay. If a farmer is selling something to us for 100 bucks then he must get all of that money. That’s why we deal with them directly. If you’re buying meat from a middleman the farmer is only getting a tiny percentage of that.

We don’t get too hung up on labels like 'free range' and 'organic'. There’s so much red tape around all that stuff. We’d rather say we met this guy, the animal was this age when it was slaughtered, it was slaughtered at this abattoir, it ate this and we cut it in our shop. That’s more important to us.

We try and get different beef from different farms in different areas. If you have a specific breed of cow eating a specific type of grass, in an area with a specific rainfall, it will taste radically different to another. You get a steak from a cow in the Eastern Cape and compare it to a steak from a cow in Elgin and they'll taste very different – as is the case with wine terroir. 

Cows are designed to eat grass. That’s how they’ve been living their lives for centuries. What’s happened is that farmers have realised that they can speed up the process by feeding the cows grain. A cow’s not supposed to eat grain, so feeding it that isn’t good for the animal, it’s great for the farmer’s bottom line, basically. From an ethical point of view there’s a massive difference, and from a taste point of view the flavour is incomparable.

The farms need to speed up the process to meet the public’s insatiable demand for more meat. We’ve fallen into this lifestyle of eating meat three times a day, seven days a week. If we ate less meat, and treated it as a luxury item, and celebrated it once or twice a week instead of the way that we eat it now, then everyone could do happy farming with happy animals.

South Africans are obsessed with tender meat, and we like to sell tasty meat. Traditionally beef is slaughtered very young in South Africa. So we ask our farmers to raise the animals to a lot older. When we get the animal we’ll dry age it.

Short rib’s insane. Normally that’s a cut that is made into blocks for braising. We’ve started cutting something called Kolbi, which is a Korean BBQ cut, where you cut through the ribs – but super thin. You’re left with thin strips of meat and small pieces of rib bone. They are awesome to marinade and cook over a high heat. Great for a braai grid.

When you talking sirloin or rib eye, we salt something like that way longer than you’d think. Salt it for a day, heavily packed with sea salt to draw the moisture out – and when we're cooking it we do something called the reverse sear.

Traditionally people will put a steak on a high heat and then cool it down, and what we do is turn that around. We cook the steak on a gentle heat and then turn it up at the end. That’s how you get that perfect crust and the temp you want in the middle.

For me the wow cut is the rib eye on the bone. We try and sell all of our steak on the bone. I’m quite a big fan of cutting the steak pretty thick and then cooking it on the bone. You can cook a pretty fat piece of steak on the bone on the braai and then cut it up and serve three or four people, rather than buying three or four small steaks. Flank and skirt are also great on the braai. They’re super easy because they cook through in three or four minutes. Also good for sharing. Sear it, cut against the grain, and then serve on a board for people to pick at.

If you’re doing one of those thick steaks then those will need to rest for 15 to 20 minutes afterwards. Probably cook one of those, put it aside to rest, and then get something quick and easy, that flank steak, boerewors, pork chops… they all go pretty quickly. So get the centrepiece out of the way, and then while it’s resting the fire should still be hot enough to do the other stuff.

Cook stuff, and when it’s ready just cut it up and enjoy it. The flank steaks, sausage... cook it cut it up and pass it around. That’s how I braai, as opposed to the more formal, sit-down vibe.

Boerewors is obviously a pretty good thing to eat on Heritage Day. The reason we insist on making our own is that I’ve seen first hand the weird shit that goes into commercially made sausage. It’s atrocious. When we’re working with whole carcasses we’re left with a lot of fat, and a lot of bones and a lot of trimmings. We take trimmings from good cuts and fat and keep it super simple with some coriander seeds and some seasoning – and that’s it. That’s all our sausages.

I’m a sucker for a pork chop. Pork for me is, in terms of animal welfare, treated horrendously. The one thing you’ll struggle to find is good, ethically reared pork. Ours are raised really well and finished on acorns. In terms of how the animals tastes, obviously what they eat is going to affect what the animal tastes like. The pork tastes like pork. It’s just a far cry from that pale, weird grey meat that you see.

We actually stopped selling chicken here for a while. I was so disillusioned with what was available, so we canned it. Then a dude arrived in his bakkie and said, “I have this chicken.” So I asked him, "Listen, do you have some photos on your website that I can see?" He gave me this look that said that he didn’t even have a website. That filled me with confidence. Cut a long story short, we tasted it and I was blown away. Now he drives up here once a week and it’s definitely restored my faith in the bird.

There are definitely things you can do with chicken on a fire.  A little spatchcock chicken on the braai is great, and what we recommend is brining the bird first. Salt water. You can add bay leaves, pepper corns, garlic cloves or whatever you want. That’s probably the one thing that can benefit it the most if you’re going to be braaing it.

I find sometimes when you use wood it just tastes like wood. So you’ll put pork, beef, chicken on the braai and it will all taste the same. In the States they’re so passionate about the wood they’re using. Cherry or hickory or apple, and that’s a totally different game, where the meat actually benefits from the wood. I don’t think you need to be embarrassed using charcoal. I’ll choose both over gas.  

People have this perception of me that I walk around with a T-bone in my pocket. But I love vegetables and I love cooking them on a braai. I’d say something like tender-stemmed broccoli, asparagus, leeks, spring onion… You just need to put those through olive oil, put them on a braai and remember it’s really important to burn them. You want that charred flavor. Then dress them in a very acidic vinaigrette and toss in toasted breadcrumbs. Some potatoes in tinfoil and some flavoured butter. Hard to beat.

The hand test is a pile of shit. Everyone’s hand is different. It’s all relative. My hand is different to your hand. For me the best thing to do is put your ego aside and buy a meat thermometer. They’re there because they work and they’re awesome. You want something cooked 63 degrees for medium rare, you stick the thermometer in and it’s foolproof.

I’m feeling a sort of backlash against craft beer. It’s reached its peak. It’s so dense and overpowering. For a Heritage Day session, sitting around a braai, I’d take a Windhoek or a Black Label and I’d drink all of them. One thing I’ve learned from Dave, you can take a light bodied red wine and enjoy it slightly chilled around a braai no problem. And I’d rather drink a couple of those around the braai than a heavy IPA. With the pork chops, you could do a nice white as well.

My staff is a crew that I would go to war with. It’s brutal work here but they are all emotionally invested in it too, which helps. My wife Nicole is a fu**ing trooper for putting up with my vision for FFMM and for being a major part of it. She is here in the trenches every day and doesn’t get much love in terms of media coverage. She’s a big part of FFMM and so is the rest of the team, too.