Let’s be honest about hamburgers. If you think about your stomach half as often as I do, hamburgers will be occupying your mind quite frequently. I fantasise about hamburgers. I’ve given a lot of thought to the concept of the perfect burger, not knowing that I belong to a tradition that has its roots in both ancient Roman culture and the culinary refinements of the nomadic Mongols. The Russians too played a part in the spreading of minced meat culture in the 17th century.
While the citizens of New York try to build a case, again and again, to prove that the hamburger, as 20th century citizens came to know it, was the logical next step after German immigrants brought Hamburg-style fillet (minced or, as the locals call it, ground beef) to the New World, two other facts should also be kept in mind.
The first is the formal acceptance, in 1765, of the concept of the sandwich, named after John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich. The earl was a card player and by clamping food between slices of bread, he managed to eat and still keep the cards clean. The second fact is the invention of the meat grinder in the early 1800s by the German engineer Karl Drais – no more uneven mince texture.
The rest is history. In New York the Hamburg-style fillet, made from ground beef, plus the health hazards involved in finding edible steak tartare, combined with the availability of bread and various forms of bread rolls to give birth to the hamburger. A simple beef patty prepared with bread crumbs, egg and various spices is grilled and served between two halves of a roll, with lettuce, onions and sliced pickles.
So, what’s the big fuss?
The most important notion to grasp is that there is no such thing as a simple patty. While it is universally accepted every hamburger should have a beefy flavour, chefs differ on the cuts of meat that should be used: brisket, chuck, hangar and/or flank steak or short rib. Or a combination of these cuts. Most chefs and authors on the subject agree fat should be integral to the mince because it enhances that desired beefy flavour.
Some chefs believe in a densely packed patty; others swear by a light touch when forming the patty, resulting in a fluffy, non-compressed sphere. Fluffiness promotes the spreading of the juices released by the meat and fat during the cooking.
But all agree that a burger’s patty must be properly seared, over an open fire or on a grill or flat top, and that a well-done interior is a total abomination that shrieks against all culinary traditions and culture. I agree; the juicier and pinker, the better.
There are various schools of thought about binding agents and spices. I have no preference, apart from an all-encompassing will to taste beef and an aversion to overpowering spices and sauces, unless they combine to form, along with the beef, a burger taste gestalt that is absolutely unique and tastes like beef. You get the picture?
As for the roll, some chefs believe that the patty and burger should have the same radial proportions, others feel the roll should be wider than the patty. I have a suspicion the latter also tend to be stingy in their personal habits.
Furthermore, the roll should be soft and have no overwhelming taste elements. It has but one function and that is to absorb all the juices that try to trickle down your hands while keeping the hamburger in one piece. This is a notion promoted especially by Vogue magazine’s Jeffrey Steingarten. Please note the implicit belief that hamburgers should be held in your hands, which enables you to bite into them more freely.
When we canvassed Stellenbosch restaurateurs about their thoughts on the subject, one pertinent fact emerged: if restaurants include hamburgers on their menus, more often than not the hamburgers will be more popular fare than items requiring more skill from the kitchen staff. Even when the burgers’ price is high, the demand will be significant.
It stands to reason that Stellenbosch Visio had to determine where the best burgers in the area could be found. We invited 10 of the finest establishments to send over a burger on a given day and serve it with chips, the traditional accompaniment of this wondrous fare.
We assembled a panel of diverse tasters with wide-ranging interests and experience. I was especially happy that Chris Otto could sit in, as he and I share the same formative burger experiences at the Tampico and Casbah roadhouses in the ’burg where we grew up on the Witwatersrand. Chris also brought me the news, a few years ago, that he had found the perfect hamburger: in Moscow! He thus provided the link to the hamburger’s historical foundation, described above.
The establishments that participated were Beyerskloof, De Vrije Burger, The Hussar Grill, Hudsons, Stellenbosch Kitchen, De Warenmarkt, RocoMamas, Java, Craft and Dopio.
The scoring sheets gave the tasters the opportunity to judge the burgers on appearance, manageability, patty texture and taste, the bun’s texture and taste, the extras in or on the burger and finally, the quality of the chips.
Now, it must be recorded that the tasters showed exemplary fortitude. Each of us ate two and a half burgers in total. With burger tasting one does not make use of a spittoon.
The tasters also proved to be excellent judges of hamburgers. In the end only a few points separated the top six restaurants, while the few burgers that did not meet with common approval were identified by all as not entirely the real thing.
The top three burgers came from Stellenbosch Kitchen, The Hussar Grill and De Warenmarkt.
As for myself, I’m still a-glow. Being in a relationship with a vegetarian, I approached this burger tasting with great relish and loved every bite, every juicy encounter, all condiments, the one smoky patty, and the overall top quality of the burgers that Stellenbosch offers the gourmet.
Burgers – and wine?
I’ve always thought that hamburgers and chips go with either Coke or beer. Since De Warenmarkt is no ordinary hamburger joint, I was quickly convinced wine also has its place, especially with the superb burgers we were to be served.
The Kleine Zalze Chenin Blanc 2019 was fresh and fruity and made for pleasant drinking. Fellow tasters suggested the Kanonkop Pinotage Rosé 2018, which also worked a treat. Owner Daniël Kriel opted for the De Toren Délicate (nv), an unassuming gentle red to go with the more spicy burgers.
We were almost in the straight (testing probably number 8 out of 10 burgers) when I discovered the establishment’s special, hand-written wine list featuring vintage Stellenbosch wines. We promptly ordered the old classic, Chateau Libertas 1994 (R350), still quite superb after 25 years. This was followed by a Waterford Chardonnay 2009 (R670), which again proved Stellenbosch is Chardonnay country and that our well-made whites can easily age for more than 10 years.
The service was outstanding. Byo at R25 per bottle.
And oh, I did sneak in a glass of craft lager beer, light but lekker.