When I started this blog three years ago, food blogs were reasonably plentiful. Reasonably, I say, because, on a global scale, food blogging was a lesser-known, rather niched activity. Less than a handful of South African - or indeed African - food blogs existed at the time.
Much has changed. Food blogging is the flavour du jour, if not du decade. The Internet is bulging with hundreds of thousands of food blogs, ranging from professional, beautiful and instructive sites, through charming, chatty food diaries, to some of the most dreadful and dire food nightmares you can imagine.
In the last eighteen months or so, the rise of South African food blogs - pioneered six years ago by my mate, London-dwelling South African Jeanne Horak-Druiff of Cooksister - has been meteoric. There are, to my knowledge, well over 120 South African food and wine bloggers posting recipes and restaurant reviews on the Net, on Facebook and on Twitter. And, as they have attracted more fans, these blogs have become very popular, and somewhat influential. In fact, I would go so far as to say that there has been a minor storming of the food-blog world from South African food bloggers. Not a tempest, but maybe a little whirlwind.
This is so heartening, especially given the fact that South Africa is about to be catapulted into the limelight during the 2010 Fifa World Cup. It's also encouraging because South African food deserves to be highlighted: it's about time that the spotlight falls on our beautiful fresh produce, our superlative wines, our creative cooks, our excellent restaurants and our extraordinarily rich culinary heritage That razor-tongued restaurant reviewer and gourmand A.A.Gill, in several columns on the subject of South Africa, has often indignantly wondered why South African cuisine - and in particular, Cape Malay cuisine - has not become famous, and the next big trend.
Well, A.A., one tries. Certainly, I've tried hard enough on this blog to promote South African foods, and after three years of hard slog, my blog is attracting traffic and interest I didn't dare to dream of three years ago.
Which brings me to my next point. As any successful food blogger knows, more popular and visited your blog becomes, the more often you're begged for mentions.
So here's the freebie question. The marketeers, publicity agents and pee-ars of South Africa - and further afield - have just twigged on to the fact that local food bloggers attract an audience. In the last month alone I've had 42 press releases from various publicists, begging me to take note of their product. These releases range from a heads-up about a new product, to lavish invitations to free lunches, to 'urgent' queries for my physical address so I can take delivery of the latest liqueur, cookie or boxed cereal. Or apron, oven gloves, bottle of wine, and so on. All manner of exciting products are dangled before my eyes.
I refuse these - with reluctance - because I want my blog to be independent, and because I see myself first as an impartial journalist and second as a cook and food writer. I'm not saying that accepting free products, or going to launches and openings, is any way dodgy: on the contrary, I'm always keen to read consumer opinions of products, and reviews of new restaurants. However, what I would like to say is that I think it's incumbent on a food blogger to declare, upfront, that whatever product, service or meal you're reviewing was offered to you for free.
And I add this piece of advice: if you're a successful food blogger, you are only so because of your talent and originality. Don't under-sell yourself. If a manufacturer, or his publicist, wants you to do a write-up on their product, don't do it for free. Charge them. Sure, it's nice that they sent you a free sample, but the fact is that they didn't do this out of a sense of love and altruism, and genuine admiration for your blog. They sent you that sample because they wanted free advertising.
In short: decide what you want your blog to be. And stick to that formula.
And finally, having said all that, I declare that I won't, henceforth, be featuring any Verlaque products on this blog because they've appointed me, in my capacity as a professional journalist, as a consultant for their brand.