The world of food blogging easily leads one from curious reader to devoted follower. It reveals a realm of visual feasts, delightful descriptions and hilarious anecdotes, and connects food lovers from across the globe.
Food has always served as a meeting point, and its appreciation is increasingly moving from the tabletop to the desktop. This comes as passionate foodies offer up an interactive slice of life where they share great recipes, helpful advice, and a special sort of fellowship.
The food blogging scene has exploded around the world, as the Web becomes people's second home, and SA is no different. Jane-Anne Hobbs Rayner, creator of Scrumptious SA, says the local food blogging industry has grown into a thriving community since she started Scrumptious four years ago, when she had the field almost to herself.
"The past two years or so have seen a mushrooming of food, wine, restaurant and cookery blogs in SA. Some of the more recent cookery blogs are of a very high standard and attract astonishing volumes of traffic, considering that they're written by 'unknowns' in the food industry."
Hobbs Rayner, who works as a freelance journalist, editor and author, estimates there are around 60 active food and cookery blogs in SA, and many more wine and restaurant blogs.
"As the quality of these blogs has improved, so has the level of competition. I've found that I have had to work harder, post more recipes, and be more innovative in the recipes I develop in order to keep up with the 'new kids on the block'," she adds.
Jeanne Horak-Druiff, whose blog Cook Sister made the list of the world's top 50 food blogs, is a South African living in London. She says the industry has undergone astonishing growth since she started Cook Sister "at the dawn of food blogging" in 2004.
"It seems that everybody with an Internet connection and a camera has tried their hand at food blogging, with varying degrees of success."
You know that when McDonalds starts selling macarons, something is wrong in the universe.Jeanne Horak-Druiff, Cook Sister
Alida Ryder, creator of Simply Delicious, which won 'Best food and wine blog' in last year's SA Blog Awards, says the Internet has revolutionised the way people approach food, with many turning to search engines rather than cookbooks for help.
"This has opened up the food industry, because in the old days, only professionals and food icons had a space to share their food know-how. "Now everyone can be a food author, which is not always a good thing."
Ryder adds that with food and cooking becoming more accessible, it's getting people back into the kitchen, after many turned to the drive-through, take-away culture of modern life.
"Suddenly, people who would never dream of picking up or buying a recipe book have access to a wealth of recipes and food info on the Internet, and this has made people far more adventurous in their cooking and eating habits," says Horak-Druiff.
"I also think the ease with which online friendships can be forged with people from other countries and cultures is tremendously positive. It encourages people to make and taste food from other cultures, and food is often an easy way into beginning to understand another culture."
But there are some drawbacks too, she adds. "I think the Internet and social media can give certain foods cult-like status, sometimes unnecessarily - think the fetishisation of cupcakes, macarons and whoopie pies. It promotes a kind of sameness at the fashionable edge of food throughout the world. And you know that when McDonalds starts selling macarons, something is wrong in the universe!"
The other major change Horak-Druiff has noticed is the rise of the professional blogger. "When I started out (long before the days of Google AdWords), it seemed totally inconceivable that anybody could make money out of this blogging thing."
Slowly but surely, however, people woke up to the commercial possibilities, and started selling advertising and getting book deals, says Horak-Druiff.
"These days, people look at you aghast if you do not have a brand strategy and a business plan for your blog. Of course, there are still people who blog purely for enjoyment, but the fact that so many people are blogging to make money, or to launch freelance careers has meant the standard of writing and especially photography on food blogs has skyrocketed."
Recipe for success
So, armed with the ability to knock an impressive meal (and a few sentences) together, what does it really take to start a food blog, and more importantly, keep it going?
According to Hobbs Rayner, setting up and posting recipes is easy enough - anyone can do it. "But turning out a well-written article with an accurate, appealing recipe that actually works is a real labour of love," she adds.
"I test all my original recipes two or three times, which is time-consuming and expensive, and it takes me several hours to write up and polish a blog post."
The biggest single challenge for food bloggers, however, seems to be photography, says Hobbs Rayner.
"A blog post without a crisp, mouth-watering photograph of the finished product has little chance of attracting a good audience. These days a blurry snap of dinner, taken with a flash on a cellphone or a 'mik-en-druk' just cannot compete with the fine photography featured on the best local food blogs."
For Horak-Druiff, time is the main frustration for bloggers trying to maintain their blogs and generate new content. "Food blogging is a very time-consuming hobby - you spend your time researching recipes, buying food, cooking food, photographing food, eating food, writing about the food and then putting it all together in an elegant, witty post. And then you go back and do it all again."
Apart from the editorial elements, there's the IT side of starting a blog, which Horak-Druiff says is surprisingly simple, and doesn't require knowledge of programming or HTML. "Most of the blogging software platforms have very easy to use interfaces and you just tick boxes to choose the layout, fonts, colours and so on."
She adds, however, that the longer you blog, the more customisation you're likely to want, which can make the technical and design aspects more challenging.
It's the intimate, cosy, chat-around-the-kitchen table atmosphere that makes food blogs so appealing.Jane-Anne Hobbs Rayner, Scrumptious
Like in most other spheres, success comes after much hard work, time, and a bit of networking. Horak-Druiff, an advocate by profession, says when she started, the site only received around 20 hits a day. "Nobody but other food bloggers were reading then, and there weren't that many of us," she explains.
"For a very long time my stats were a couple of hundred hits a day but in about 2007, I started trying to post to a schedule and reach out to other bloggers, which promoted my posts a bit."
By January 2008, she was getting 25 000 page views a month. The following January, this had grown to 40 000 page views per month and since June 2010, she hasn't had fewer than 50 000 page views per month.
Despite these stats, Horak-Druiff says she doesn't make much from blogging. There's an ad banner on the site, but it's not hugely lucrative. "My previous sponsor paid more but changed their payment structure so that only US-based page-views would count towards payment and this only accounts for around a third of my traffic. Put it this way: I can't quit my day job."
Horak-Druiff does get paid for freelance writing and photography, but says this might cover the cost of a couple of meals out, or a new camera lens over the space of a few months.
Ryder's stats for April show around 48 800 visits to the Simply Delicious site, with 39 000 of those being unique visitors, and 80 000 page views for the month. Ryder works more directly with advertisers, although companies usually approach her. "I like to work with every advertiser individually and we normally work on something quite fun to introduce the brand," she says. "I offer advertisers the usual banner ads, but I've also done recipe development and competitions to launch new products, ranges and so on."
Hobbs Rayner declined to reveal her readership stats, and says she doesn't make money off her blog. "I don't, on principle, sell advertising space on the site, nor do I endorse brands in exchange for cash, freebies or services."
She does, however, earn an income from secondary work arising out of the blog, such as recipe development and consulting. "My only costs are ingredients, and my time."
In 2008, Horak-Druiff set up the South African Food and Wine Directory, which started out with 23 food and 13 wine blogs. It now boasts 91 food and 26 wine blogs - and those are only the listed ones.
"I think South African food blogs are in a very, very healthy state," says Horak-Druiff. "When I started in 2004, there were maybe two South African food blogs - now we are in triple figures. I think it's an achievement to be hugely proud of."
She adds that the standard of writing, photography and design on local food blogs has rocketed. "Looking at the quality of the content on our blogs, we are up there with the best in the world."
The only thing she'd like to see among the South African food blogging community is greater cultural diversity. "We have the most astonishingly rich selection of food cultures in SA and we should be celebrating this with a feast of different niche food blogs."
Nonetheless, Ryder says there's nothing like a home-grown favourite, even if it's mainstream, to get people's attention. "I've noticed that when I put real South African food on the site, the hits go through the roof. South Africans love traditional food - melktert, bobotie, malva pudding - and when they see these recipes on the blog, they're quick to tell all their friends."
It's not only local palates that appreciate SA's unique cuisine. "Since the World Cup, people everywhere are into South African cooking," she adds.
While the influence of blogs may be growing in the professional world, it seems the major draw card for readers remains that sense of familiarity - the ability to relate to bloggers' lives.
"I think for followers, the appeal of food blogs lies in the fact that there is an authenticity which is lacking in recipe books," says Horak-Druiff. "You know Nigella [Lawson] did not make up this recipe alone in her kitchen with her baby on her hip, older kids needing help with homework, and her husband watching TV nagging about when dinner will be ready.
"Food bloggers are people just like their readers, with budgets and families and ordinary suburban kitchens, and I think that makes them less threatening to readers than a glossy recipe book that has been edited into perfection by a team of stylists and editors."
For writers, says Horak-Druiff, the appeal lies in the ability to instantly put one's material on the Web, without publishers or other obstacles, and the immediacy of feedback from readers.
"Good food blogs share their triumphs and their failures, and are pleasingly interactive in the sense that readers can leave comments offering their opinion or asking for advice," notes Hobbs Rayner. "It's this intimate, cosy, chat-around-the-kitchen table atmosphere, I think, that makes food blogs so appealing."
She adds that blogs offer a free platform on which anyone with a love of cooking and some basic computer skills can share their recipes and photographs with a potential audience of millions. "Sure, food blogging is a form of vanity publishing, but it's the very best form, because in most cases it's offered from the bottom of the heart, with no expectations of monetary reward."
Ryder says the support and comments from readers make all the hard work worth it. "I make a point of replying to messages from readers on the blog and Twitter, because I used to be that person commenting; and I don't want to let them down."
The transition from blogger to paid food consultant, however, is still difficult to achieve, notes Hobbs Rayner. "In spite of their considerable audiences and influence, the better food blogs are still largely disregarded by mainstream media."
Even when food bloggers are asked to write for the print or online media, they are usually expected to do so for free, she adds.
"I would like to see the more influential and hard-working food and wine bloggers being accorded the respect they deserve in the food industry and in traditional media."
Hobbs Rayner would also like to see good bloggers earn an actual income from their blogs, in the form of online ad placements.
"However, this is unlikely to happen while the lines between product placement and editorial remain so hopelessly blurred. Why should an advertiser pay for a campaign on Blog A when Blogs B, C and D are writing gushing advertorial for free, or in return for a 'gift' of oven gloves or a case of wine?
"I think food bloggers in this country tend to underestimate their own value and influence."
* Speak your mind: Should bloggers make an income from their blogs?
Our bloggers share a few of their favourites from around the world:
Chocolate and Zucchini
My French Kitchen
The Amateur Gourmet
What's for lunch, honey?
What Katie ate
Drizzle and Dip
I'm no Jamie Oliver
My easy cooking
Sardines on toast
The South African food and wine blog directory
South African Food Bloggers Showcase