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Is Foraging for Indigenous Plants Sustainable?

By Kit Heathcock

The appeal of foraging is easy to see – a nostalgia for a rose-tinted childhood, wandering country lanes and chewing on the refreshing acidity of a wood sorrel stem, or biting the pointy end off a peppery orange nasturtium flower to suck out the heady trace of honey-scented nectar. Foraged items on a restaurant menu conjure up images of the chef and kitchen team out on mountain slopes at dawn, gathering mystical leaves with the dew still on them, and perhaps a speck of rainbow dust and unicorn horn into the bargain. It has an element of magic, and we demand magic on our fine-dining menus, a wave of the wand on top of the culinary mastery, that assures us of an out of this world experience.

Foraging for Indigenous Plants - Abalimi - Blackjack
Photograph by Kit Heathcock

Don’t get me wrong – I think foraging is fabulous. I picked a few nettles this morning for a tea, munched a couple of spekboom leaves in passing, and it felt amazing to be using what is considered a weed and getting all those valuable nutrients for free. Foraging done by a few knowledgeable people in wide open country spaces is eminently sustainable – Chris Erasmus and Darren Badenhorst in Franschhoek, Kobus van der Merwe in Paternoster, even Ryan Cole on that slip of wild mountain below Salsify between Kloof Nek and Camps Bay. But what of city-bound chefs and home-cooks, where can they forage and how long until the number of people foraging in dwindling wild spaces makes it unsustainable? Picture herds of early morning chefs on the mountains and beaches, converging on the last known patches of wood sorrel and edible kelp, kitchen knives at the ready to defend their wild harvest ...

Okay a step back from absurd dystopian imaginings to what is happening right now.

Recently I took part in a fabulous cook-up as part of Abalimi Bezekhaya’s 40th anniversary celebration (which I wrote about for Daily Maverick here Spinach and Nettles a Storming Cook Up with Abalimi).

Community farmers growing organic vegetables, together with chefs from top hotels and township pop-ups, and a sprinkling of media, in eight teams of four, were challenged to cook two dishes each with the riot of fresh vegetables and leaves grown by the farmers. Among the familiar were labelled baskets of gloriously fresh indigenous leaves such as dune spinach, sea pumpkin, blackjack, wild rosemary and more. All cultivated by some of the farmers present.

Foraging for Indigenous Plants - Loubie Rusch
Photograph by Kit Heathcock

Loubie Rusch of Making Kos was the co-curator of this challenge to work with wild ingredients. Her long-term mission started with planting a wild food garden in 2016. “For millennia these plants have traditionally not been cultivated, just picked in the wild. I wanted to make sure that we start to know and use these Western Cape winter rainfall foods again. But picking them in the wild, I didn’t see as sustainable.”

Unable to interest a farmer in growing them for her, she found her own space to experiment with growing them. “Moya WeKhaya (one of the community gardens in Khayelitsha supported by Abalimi) welcomed me onto their land. I got some money from the Sustainability Institute and for 2 years I ran a wild food garden.”

Since then several of the Abalimi farmers have continued her work and produced the baskets of beautifully fresh and crisp leaves on the counters today. “Some of these ingredients are the ones I was growing then, and there are some additional ones.” And the ultimate goal for her and the point of today’s event, “this is the beginning of building the market, with farmers growing them, and chefs putting them on the map to get them better known.”

Loubie presented each of the farmers and chefs with a copy of her book, Cape Wild Foods: A Growers Guide published with the support of the Sustainability Institute, with detailed notes on cultivating 20 different wild edible plants and herbs. She’s currently working on a companion book, a cook’s guide on how to work with these indigenous ingredients (due out on Heritage Day and now available for pre-order).

Foraging for Indigenous Plants
Photograph by Kit Heathcock

I was cooking alongside Nomalanga Ruiters, of Sunshine Organic Farm and Nursery, who had grown several of the indigenous ingredients. As she made a pesto out of blackjack, something most farmers consider an invasive weed, she told me that her kids quite happily eat all these unusual greens “I just make it fun for them.” Among her produce here today is milk thistle, which she often uses in a stir fry, and sand kool or wild asparagus that tastes a bit like fresh green beans and which we make into a vegetable curry with potatoes and tomatoes. As well as farming, she teaches others in her community to grow their own food gardens, and has studied the principles of permaculture design. “I’m teaching people to look at weeds differently – stinging nettles are pioneers and you can learn about the soil from how they are growing,” she says. “If the root goes straight down it's poor soil, if it has lots of little side roots that means the soil is good and fertile.”

Loubie’s vision strikes a chord – indigenous ingredients should be better known and more widely accessible – not limited to those who can afford fine-dining prices. And the way the community gardens that are members of Abalimi operate, the farmers feed themselves and their families first, supply their local community affordably and then sell the excess to Cape Town restaurants. A path to good nutrition and food security one small garden at a time. And now South Africa’s indigenous ingredients are becoming part of that equation – the future already looks greener – and very tasty!

Where to source

Get hold of these organically cultivated indigenous ingredients through PEDI - the distribution partner for all the Abalimi farmers. Contact Obert Gurira on 083 430666

More about Loubie’s book Cape Wild Foods: A Growers Guide through the Sustainability Institute or on instagram @makingkos