Salty as the sea, savory as a stiff breeze – that’s what South Africa tastes like. Now proponents of the wild-food movement are rediscovering the edible joys of nature.
It’s always a race against time. Only twice a month, when the moon draws the massive waters of the Atlantic Ocean far enough out to sea, can chef Roushanna Gray collect her ingredients from the tidal rock pools left behind. Here, on wild Scar-borough Beach nearly 50 kilometers south of Cape Town, she gathers edible algae, kelp and mussels for her sea foraging workshops. As the word “foraging” suggests, it’s all about searching for food out in the wild. “We need to hurry, the tide is coming in,” warns Gray, handing out bags and gardening shears to a dozen rubber-booted helpers.
The workshop participants balance precariously as they step across the wet, glistening rocks in search of just the right edibles. Gray wades through the icy water barefoot, bending down here and there to inspect the dense growth. Bushes of algae wave fern-like to and fro and bluish-black mussels shimmer beside bright, colorful anemones. “You need to twist and pull to get the mussels off the rock,” explains Gray as she slips a handful into her bag, elegantly sidestepping an oncoming wave.
A salt-laden mist hangs over the ocean and jagged mountains flank the beach. It was here, 350 years ago, that Dutch settlers spotted the Khoisan, indigenous South Africans, foraging for food. They called these curious little people strandloper (the Afrikaans term for “beach walker”). Recent archaeological finds suggest that the Khoisan are directly descended from homo sapiens; the fertile vegetation of the Western Cape provided modern humans with the ideal environment in which to develop. When the first Dutch ships cast anchor, the Khoisan were still living as hunter gatherers, much like Stone Age people. The land on the Western Cape was so fertile that for thousands of years, they required no technological developments in order to lead a good life. Foraging in the sea today, following in their footsteps, few South Africans realize how closely interwoven with nature indigenous people’s lives actually were. Most of the Khoisan died of imported diseases or were enslaved and so denied access to their natural habitats, so their precious knowledge of the edible landscape of the Western Cape all but lost.
Gray, 37, founded the Veld and Sea organization to raise a new awareness for nature’s wealth by reviving it with special cooking experiences. When she and her husband left Cape Town for the country and went to live at the Good Hope Gardens Nursery near Scarborough owned by her husband’s parents, Gray didn’t know much about cooking and knew little about botany, but her curiosity drew her to investigate her natural surroundings. Very soon, she was overwhelmed by the variety of flavors she found in the plants growing all around her. “I fell in love with this edible environment,” she says enthusiastically.
In addition to sea foraging, Gray also teaches people how to identify and gather wild herbs, flowers and mushrooms. She passes on what she herself has learned from archaeologists and botanists about the edible potential of her surroundings. The more scientists discover, the more they realize that – contrary to their reputation as “simple” hunter gatherers – the Khoisan possessed a very complex knowledge of nature. At the nursery, an idyllically located spot almost in the middle of nowhere, Gray teaches this complexity in a playful way by foraging and cooking with her groups. The “Playground for indigenous plants” is announced on a weathered sign at the entrance to the driveway. Gray’s guests can experiment to their heart’s content here in her cozy kitchen amid wild gardens and nursery plants. “Foraging opens our eyes to our unique natural environment and connects us with an important part of our history,” says Gray. The province of Western Cape, which surrounds the city of Cape Town, ranks third in the world for its biodiversity, and it’s this incredible diversity of nature that Gray wants to help her workshop participants to appreciate.
A fascination with plant diversity was also behind the Botanical Bar in central Cape Town, whose unusual cocktails contain extracts of endemic plants, i.e. plants that grow nowhere else on earth. Kenan Tatt, 29, who is part of the team behind the unique bar concept, recalls: “None of us knew much about botanicals. So we decided to go on a big trip.” They drove around the country in a van for two weeks, interviewing botanists, traditional healers and environmentalists. En route, they picked up typically South African flavors. Back home, they immersed their finds in local spirits or apple vinegar, pressed them into concentrates and poured them into large glasses. These colorful mixtures – the team’s “aroma library” of botanicals – now adorns the bar. The main items on the menu are four cocktails named for the regions they toured: Kwazulu Coast, Cederberg, West Coast and Hawequas Mountains each reflect a specific region, like the arid Cederberg Mountains where the sweet honeybush grows or the tropical Kwazulu Coast, known for its full-bodied rum.
The barmen’s personal history is also reflected in the cocktails. Former working musician and passionate surfer Tatt developed the West Coast cocktail. “I wanted to conceptualize something which would remind you of this feeling you have when you walk with cold feet over warm rocks,” he explains. The main ingredient is Amari Atlantic Ocean Gin, a Cape Town gin distilled with seawater and seasoned with plant extracts from the West coast. The beaten egg white is reminiscent of sea foam and the oddly shaped glass in which it is served lies in your hand like a stone smoothed by water, its rim rubbed with a mix of seaweed and sea salt, conjuring thoughts of the ocean with every sip. “These days, we bring back new ideas from every walk,” says Tatt. “Using endemic plants to mix drinks, we can give people an experience that they would not have anywhere else in the world.”
I wanted to conceptualize the feeling of walking over warm rocks with cold feet
Guests at the slow-food restaurant Wolfgat, which made the best restaurant lists in South African restaurant guides after only one year in business, also get to taste things they have never tried before. Wolfgat is in Paternoster, a fishing village and sleepy oasis in the middle of a barren, sun-scorched, windswept landscape 160 kilometers north of Cape Town. Chef Kobus van der Merwe uses the fruits of this harsh environment to create a seven-course menu. Cooking lies in the van der Merwe family, but only after working for years as an editor for the South African restaurant magazine Eat Out, did Kobus eventually trade in his laptop for a stove. The 39-year-old has been living in Paternoster for ten years and that’s where he developed his “hyperlocal” cooking style. “The thing with the West Coast landscape is, you have to notice the detail,” he says, laying out the spoils from his morning round on a large counter. Van der Merwe wants his guests to understand what they are eating using all of their senses, so instead of turning plants into sauces or pestos, he plays with taste, structure and texture, but still maintaining their natural characteristics. For example, he beds oysters, to which he has added Cape fig juice, in the succulent plant’s own fleshy leaves. Raw soutslaai, a low-growing plant, is served with fish because its natural saltiness and acidity obviate the need for lemon juice. The tender leaves of the kiesieblaar plant are roasted in the oven and served whole like baked chips.
“The menu is a snapshot of our natural environment. The dishes change from day to day. They are affected by the seasons and the weather,” explains van der Merwe, who was experimenting with wild flavors long before foraging became a trend. He had always been interested in sustainable living and sustainable economics in a country that needs to make radical changes after many years of intense drought if it is to be able to feed its people in the future. Agriculture, the way it is practiced in Europe, has its limits in South Africa, where water shortages are only likely to become worse. The local plants are adapted to the climate, require far less water and no pesticides. That’s why van der Merwe is so interested in cultivating endemic wild plants. After all, if every South African went out to forage for food, there would soon be nothing left. The amounts you can pick are already strictly regulated and poaching carries a heavy fine. Van der Merwe doesn’t gather plants in the dunes in front of his restaurant either, but on abandoned properties or in his own garden. His dream is for cultivation to turn what’s now a trend into a sustainable lifestyle. The fact that his restaurant is so successful gives him hope. “Many people feel disconnected from nature due to the modern way of life,” he observes. “For many, it’s a romantic idea to live off the land like our forefathers did.”
Explore nature on the Cap
Try your hand
Blend indigenous plants into teas and oils at a Fynbos Experience workshop.
Enjoy a nature walk on the Phyllisia circuit in the Cape Point Nature Reserve.
Indulge in a massage to the sound of the waves – on the Twelve Apostles’ terrace.
Come and marvel
Join the South African National Biodiversity Institute for a tour of the Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden.
Lufthansa is operating up to five weekly flights from both Frankfurt (FRA) and Munich (MUC) to Cape Town (CPT) in January. Use the app to calculate your miles: www.miles-and-more.com/app