The Origins of Mosbolletjies: A Sweet Slice of French Bread with a Local Twist

Words: Crush

Few things evoke a sense of comfort and nostalgia like the aroma of freshly baked bread does. Amidst the diverse tapestry of bread varieties, one delicacy stands out for its unique heritage and flavour profile – mosbolletjies. Influenced by the French Huguenots and originating from the Cape Winelands, mosbolletjies are a testament to the fusion of cultures and culinary traditions that have shaped the region over centuries. Here’s everything you need to know about the origins of mosbolletjies.

Image credit: La Motte

Mosbolletjies are sweet, aromatic, brioche-like buns leavened with a starter made from grape must, a byproduct of winemaking.

Huguenot and Cape Malay Influences

To understand the origins of mosbolletjies, we must delve into the history of South Africa itself. The roots of this culinary gem can be traced back to the French Huguenot refugees, who faced religious prosecution in France and fled to South Africa in 1671.

Governor of the Cape, Simon van der Stel, who owned land in Franschhoek and Paarl, provided the French refugees with shelter. In turn, they helped establish wine farms and viticulture within the Wineland regions, as many of them were skilled farmers and happened to share religious ideals with The Dutch East India Company members, who had already established trade in the Cape. These settlers also brought with them their traditional recipes and baking techniques, which laid the foundation for mosbolletjies.

The Origins of Mosbolletjies

The name mosbolletjies itself is derived from Afrikaans, with mos meaning ‘must’ or ‘grape must’, which stems from the Latin term vinum mustum meaning ‘young wine’; bolletjies translates to ‘little buns’ or ‘balls.’ This name hints at the key ingredient that gives mosbolletjies their distinctive flavour: grape must.

Image credit: La Motte

Grape must is essentially freshly pressed grape juice that includes the skins, seeds, and stems of the fruit. It is a byproduct of winemaking and is traditionally used in the fermentation process to create wine. However, resourceful French bakers discovered that grape must could also be used to enhance the flavour and texture of bread, leading to the creation of mosbolletjies.

The roots of this culinary gem can be traced back to the French Huguenot refugees, who faced religious prosecution in France and fled to South Africa in 1671.

Today, many bakers might struggle to find grape must, especially since mosbolletjies can be found in everyday grocery stores and bakeries throughout the country. Back in the day, it might have been limited to being made strictly during winemaking season at vineyards and wine estates, but that’s no longer the case. A common substitute that works equally well is a mixture of white grape juice and yeast.

At its core, mosbolletjies are sweet, aromatic, brioche-like buns leavened with a starter made from grape must, a byproduct of winemaking. This distinctive ingredient not only imparts a subtle sweetness, but also lends a characteristic flavour that sets mosbolletjies apart from other bread varieties. Over time, variations of the recipe emerged, incorporating additional ingredients to enhance flavour and texture.

One such addition that has become synonymous with mosbolletjies is aniseed. The inclusion of whole aniseed, with its unique, liquorice-like flavour, is believed to have been influenced by the culinary practices of the Cape Malay community.

What’s in a Mosbolletjie?

The process of making mosbolletjies is a labour of love that requires patience and skill. It begins with mixing flour, yeast, sugar and spices to form a dough. Then, the magic ingredient, grape must, is added to the mix – and warmed in a saucepan along with butter – imparting a subtle sweetness and hint of fruitiness to the buns. The grape must and butter mixture, as well as water and milk, are then added to the dry ingredients. The dough is kneaded until smooth and elastic before being left to rise, this process helps create the soft texture that makes mosbolletjies distinctly delicious.

Once the dough has doubled in size, it is shaped into small balls and arranged closely together in a baking pan, which also gives this pull-apart bread a moreish, yum factor. As the buns bake, they rise and expand, forming a golden crust, while remaining soft and pillowy on the inside. The aroma that fills the kitchen as they bake is enough to make anyone’s mouth water. Finally, the buns are brushed with either simple syrup or apricot jam, giving them a beautiful glossy texture and an extra sweetness.

Lashings of Butter & Sweet Confyt

While mosbolletjies have their origins in the Cape, they have since become a beloved treat enjoyed throughout South Africa. They are often served as a treat or dessert, either on their own or accompanied by lashings of butter and confyt (meaning ‘jam’; derived from the French word confiture) or preserves. In some regions, they are a popular choice for festive occasions such as weddings, birthdays and holidays.

Over the years, variations of mosbolletjies have emerged, with some bakers adding nuts, raisins, or cinnamon to customise the flavour. However, the essence of this traditional treat remains unchanged – a testament to the enduring legacy of South Africa’s culinary heritage.

While eating them fresh out of the oven is arguably the best way to enjoy these tasty morsels, many people also use stale mosbolletjies to make rusks, which are often dipped in tea or coffee. Some say that the traditional sweet bread resembles an American delicacy, monkey bread, a similar type of pull-apart sweet bread, which is spiced with cinnamon, glazed with syrup and presented in a wreath formation.

Today, mosbolletjies are sold at most grocery stores throughout South Africa. Our top honours go to La Motte and their bakers. At the start of mosbolletjie season, we always make sure to get a batch. Visit their Artisanal Bakery & Garden Café at the La Motte Wine Estate in Franschhoek for a taste of mosbolletjie heaven.

If you love bread as much as we do, you’ll want to try these homemade bread recipes

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