The history of one of SA's favourite snacks: Ouma Rusks

A lot of countries like their versions of rusks, but South Africa really loves them — especially Ouma's

01 March 2020 - 00:00
By Andrew Unsworth
South African's favourite snack Rusks.
Image: Supplied South African's favourite snack Rusks.

Rusks may be found all over the world, but they have been a particularly South African favourite food or snack for centuries, certainly long before the famous story of the iconic brand, Ouma Rusks. That ouma, literally, cashed in!

In one form or another, dried bread or cake, and anything in between, has been around forever. It's a way of saving bread, storing it, and carrying food on long journeys, the original padkos.

France has its biscotte, Germany has zweiback, whole slices of a loaf, while the Netherlands has beschuit, which are round slices of very soft sweet bread, dried and sold in rolls. ("Biscot" simply means baked twice).

The first published Dutch recipe for beschuit appeared in the wonderfully named De Volmaakte Hollandsche Keukenmeid (The Perfect, or Compleat, Kitchenmaid), in 1746, a popular book that was republished many times.

Dutch settlers brought their beschuit to the Cape of Good Hope, and they have been made here since the 1690s at least. In the 1700s women in the Cape were selling home-made rusks to passing ships en route to the East or back, and to expeditions into the interior.

Later, rusks were no doubt carried on every Voortrekker wagon heading out of the Cape, and more were made at every uitspan or camp.

During the Anglo-Boer War, rusks played a part in keeping the Boer commandos fed in the field. Boerebeskuitwere, and still are, balls of yeast bread packed tightly into bread pans, baked, broken up into segments, and dried in the oven. Traditionally they had no sugar, and some still make them that way.

A century after the Great Trek, rusks came to the aid of the small Eastern Cape town of Molteno. The Great Depression had devastated the economy of rural towns: the price of wool had fallen and the Molteno district produced not much else.

The local dominee came up with a scheme to help. He offered the women in his congregation half a crown each to start a small business enterprise.

One of them, Elizabeth Ann Greyvensteyn, known as Ouma Nannie, decided to make rusks to sell at church bazaars, sports meetings and other gatherings. She used a family recipe, possibly one from her husband's cousin Emmarentia, or "Ren".

Typical of any cook, Ren apparently gave the recipe for her mosbolletjieor musk rusks on condition that it did not go further.

It didn't, but the rusks did. They were a great hit and Ouma's husband Thys, who owned the first Ford car dealership in Molteno, took to delivering the rusks further afield using his Ford bakkie. This soon earned him the nickname Thys Beskuitjies.

Their son Leon got involved in the business, and built a rusk drier using an old car engine and more clay ovens in the barn on the family farm Freidenheim. It became a small factory, and today Ouma Rusks are still manufactured on the farm.

In 1941 Leon got the new Industrial Development Corporation to lend the family business its first ever loan of £1,500 to expand into a new factory. That burnt down in 1952 and another was built.

The rusks were long sold as Uitspan and Outspan Rusks, later changing to Ouma Rusks.

In 1956, Leon Greyvensteyn founded Simba Chips as well, but that's another story.

The family sold the business to Fedfood in the 1970s and, over the years, Ouma Rusks have had a number of corporate owners: the recipe has changed, and many new varieties and flavours of rusks have been added.

In 2013 Molteno nearly lost Ouma Rusks along with 250 jobs. Faced with deteriorating roads, water and electricity supply, then owners Foodcorp considered moving the factory to Randfontein.

CEO Justin Williamson decided that for the sake of Molteno, it was the wrong thing to do. After negotiations with the Inkwacana local municipality, Eskom and others, the rusk factory not only stayed but was rebuilt with a R46m investment. It now produces 23t of rusks a day.