The Toasted Cheese and Black Coffee | An Ode
I’ve never had any great patience for food. I enjoy food and I understand it as a necessity, but the process of preparing, buying, or even consuming it, has always annoyed me slightly.
When I was in the 3rd grade, I did a class presentation on what I thought the world would look like in a few hundred years. My presentation included all the flashy and outlandish things that only a child tasked with imagining the future could dream up. There were lightspeed tubes that transported individual people across continents, there were underground houses that could be accessed by taking elevators down into the heart of mountainsides, and if you wanted to get around town, there were these fancy watches that, at the press of a button, would encapsulate you in a bubble car replete with customisable colours and a sound system.
Of all the things I dreamed up in that presentation, there was one I really loved – the ability to reduce all food types to nifty little tablets, each one being the equivalent of a full meal. Not much has changed. I still love the idea of being able to live inside a mountain and surely, if I could have my favourite foods in pill form, I would jump at the opportunity. But it is 2017, unfortunately, and the closest thing I can find to a simple and fulfilling meal is the toasted cheese and black coffee.
Humble at heart, the toasted cheese and black coffee is simple to prepare, even simpler to consume, and wonderfully easy on the wallet. As a kid, as a broke university student, as a broke adult, as an impatient writer – it’s never failed to keep me filled and fuelled. The toasted cheese – brown bread, butter, cheese – is easy to make, perfectly packaged, and just filling enough. And the black coffee – piping hot, no sugar – is the perfect accompaniment. But of all the times I’ve enjoyed a TCBC, I savour it most when I am travelling.
Travelling is a thing I do most often by car, and it’s something I like to do with the utmost efficiency. This is a trait I picked up from my mother during those annual drives from Cape Town up to Johannesburg to visit my grandparents – long, arduous trips that required the tightest of schedules if you wanted to avoid driving into the night. If a trip is estimated to take about nine hours from start to finish, I will aim for eight. This means that absolutely no time can be wasted when stopping off for a meal. And because I write for a living, my travels also tend to be as frugal as possible.
Over the years, I’ve had many a TCBC on the road and as it goes, not all TCBCs are created equal.
The Garden Route is a scenic drive that’s dotted with a wide range of restaurant stops, farm stalls, and of course, seedy garage cafes. About halfway between Knysna and Mossel Bay, just before George, there is a small Afrikaans restaurant. It has a comically large succulent garden out front, wooden ‘live-laugh-love’ ornaments on the walls, biltong and fudge on the front desk, e.e. cummings quotes about family on the menus, and of course, home-cooked meals. I had a toasted cheese&tomato on brown and a plunger of coffee for about R60. Garish décor aside, it was a decent spot to stop off.
Further north – in the North West to be specific – there is not much to do besides stop off at a weekend market or an obscure pub. During a trip through Hartebeespoort earlier this year, I stopped off at a charming double-storey pub. I took a Black Label draught with my toasted cheese, which came with a side of chips. It was perhaps one of the worst toasted cheeses I’ve had in my life. If you’re travelling through the North West, stop off at The Upperdeck Restaurant for the atmosphere and cold beer, but avoid the toasted cheese at all costs.
The trip into Gauteng via Cape Town, or via anywhere really, is a dismal one. As you drive, you see greenery and sea sides and general beauty fade away in place of yellowing grass and dusty hillsides. The pitstops on this route aren’t much better. Whenever I travel through Gauteng, I usually opt for a take-away TCBC from one of the Engen Wimpys – the coffee usually tastes a bit like plastic and the tomatoes in the toasted cheese almost always burn the roof of your mouth, but they are cheap (around R40 altogether) and they are easy.
If you find yourself travelling through Krugersdorp, the Neck&Deck Café is a pleasant spot for a quick bite. The venue takes its name from the resident giraffes that hang out and watch you eat. As far as the TCBC goes, the coffee is watery and the tomatoes sweat over everything, resulting in a horribly soggy toasted cheese. The giraffes don’t look too enthused either.
If you are driving through Mpumalanga’s Panorama Route it means you are driving through some of the most beautiful spots with the most gorgeous stop-offs in SA. In terms of the TCBC, though, there is only one place to go. The Sudwala Caves are a popular pit-stop, and for good reason too. They boast misty hills, historical caves, and even a dinosaur park. They also have a two-storey, thatch-roofed restaurant that’s built into the highest point of the hillside. The toasted cheese here is of the melt-in-your-mouth variety and comes with its own little side salad that’s surprisingly inviting. The coffee comes straight from Sabie Valley itself and goes down like a dream. All of this comes in at about R70 – a little costly for a meal that consists of a hot drink and a sandwich, yes, but I am only exaggerating a little when I say that it is possibly the best TCBC experience you will ever have.
Perhaps I’ll grow tired of the meal one day. Perhaps my 3rd grade dream will come true and I’ll look forward to testing the many varieties of the TCBC in pill form soon enough. Until then, there are many more roadside cafes to be explored.
Dave Mann is a writer. He is also surprisingly healthy, despite the diet.