The Queen of the Night and the Khoisan herb savant

The Queen of the Night and the Khoisan herb savant
A starter platter full of delight for the Karoo palate. Photo: Tony Jackman

If you thought Nieu-Bethesda was only about owls and remote charm, Barbara Weitz and Neville Swiers are there to invite you into the mysteries of ancient Karoo herbs and their healing ways – and then amaze you with Barbara’s innovative ways in the kitchen.

For a shy and humble man, Neville Swiers sure waves his arms around a lot. You may find him at a roadside stall outside the Owl House in Nieu-Bethesda, where you’d be a fool not to buy one of the agave plant pots he carves with his own slim hands. But we found him as we stepped out of the door at the Ibis Lounge, a block away, where we were to return for a late afternoon tea ceremony. Our host Barbara Weitz had asked him to take us on a riverbed forage for wild herbs.

Living in the Karoo means smelling the local herbs wherever you go. As a hobby cook, I’m eager to learn which can be used for cooking and which will send you to hospital. Like mushrooms, they’re not going to apologise if you’re ignorant enough to eat the wrong one “because it looks so pretty”. Which is where Neville Swiers comes in. He was taught about medicinal herbs in particular by his venerated Oupa, who is now long gone but is remembered in his grandson’s mind’s eye as if he were standing right next to him. It’s clear the old man remains a mentor to, and beloved by, the now 49-year-old scion.

Born in Nieu-Bethesda, he will die there one day, it is quite clear. This is the entire world to Neville Swiers. Every part of every road in Nieu-Bethesda has the memory of his footprints on it. And off the footsteps go towards the Gats River, to trudge along the now cracked riverbed, stopping every few metres to exclaim with boyish excitement, look, here’s a wilde-als; see, there’s a kapokbos.

But Neville’s feet did once take him very far from here. In search of adventure and a living, he ventured to Port Elizabeth for a bizarrely different life at sea, on the chokka boats. Madness. He came to his senses and knew that he had to go home to the stone owls with their glassy eyes and the strange square mountain they call Kompasberg. Where now he leads us on to a part of the river that is made of sand. Barbara carries a mandjie, in which Neville puts sprigs of wilde-als (wild wormwood) and kapokbossie (wild rosemary), wild mint and veldtee. These will later be brewed in a tin teapot on a gas burner on a dining room table in Barbara’s guest house/restaurant. Wilde-als can keep your winter cold at bay and soothe your asthma or headache; kapokbossie helps with heart, kidney and bladder issues; wildkruisement (wild mint) aids digestion, sinusitis and other respiratory conditions. But less is known about veldtee, unique to this part of the world, which Barbara wants to investigate as a detox aid.

Neville Swiers at the serious business of a tea ceremony using wild Karoo medicinal herbs. Photo: Tony Jackman

Most of the herbs Neville picks are medicinal, but a prized few (from my perspective) can be used in cooking. Chief among these are the wild rosemary/hartbossie (another name for kapokbos) and the slightly worrying wilde-als/wild wormwood which really should not be ingested in any quantity, according to Veld Medicine from the Klein Karoo by Salamie de Jager. But Barbara smilingly explains that she uses minimal amounts of the wormwood in her cooking, so we should survive. Considering that the herb can cause confusion, convulsions and coma, well, we put our faith in the chef.

And that – her cooking – turns out that evening to be a great and happy surprise. The woman cooks like an angel. Honestly. Her Ibis Lounge (run with her husband Johan; until two and a half years ago they’d been in Tanzania for 15 years in the tourism business) should by rights be a destination restaurant for anyone looking for delectable, intriguing and elegantly different Karoo food. She used kapokbos later in a cranberry and port sauce to be served with a beautifully medium-rare ostrich fillet. She added a whiff of wilde-als/wormwood to a devastatingly perfect panna cotta with the cheekiest little wobble ever.

And she made – now sit down and pay attention please – roasted garlic ice cream which I can say with conviction is the most delicious ice cream I have eaten since the utterly perfect homemade vanilla ice cream I grew up with all those decades ago, when ice cream was about texture as well as flavour. The wilde-als panna cotta may not have sent me into a coma, but this one sure did. In a good way. Just ridiculously good. She needs to patent it. I’ve had, not to put too fine a point on it, ice creams at top award-winning restaurants which would struggle to compete. Now then. Backtracking to that riverbed.

Who knew that duwweltjies – those impossible-to-contain low-slung thorn plants that cover the Karoo – are used to make a tea as a general tonic which can be gargled for a sore throat and used as a wash for sore eyes. That wild mint/balderja calms the stomach and heartburn, colic, indigestion and other less speakable conditions. And that the roots of the Karoo violet or brandbossie, with its pretty violet flowers, can be used as an infusion to heal burns. Most peculiar, perhaps, is the oondbos/oven bush, the leaves of which were once used for sweeping ash and coals out of old oven ranges. During the ‘flu epidemic of 102 years ago, it was a widely used treatment, and it’s said to be a boon for clearing the lungs.

But it’s back at the Ibis Lounge, in its beautiful garden to the rear and along the wall in front on the street side, that the monarch of all Karoo plants dwells. Not the seedy nightclubs and the smokey bars for her. She bides her time and shows herself only when the heavens allow it. Her few blooms only ever open once. As the sun dips, her flower opens slowly until its spectacular white splendour is revealed to the stars and the fireflies. For one night only. Soon after dawn the bloom unfurls to drab brown, and dies. 

If we are lucky enough to find her and see her when her finite solitary hours of hidden glory finally come, she rewards us with unbridled splendour. Then disappears. Forever. Gone. And she was flowering that very night.

Queen of the Night in bloom, soon after dawn. Photo: Tony Jackman

And indoors, once I’ve photographed the shy bloomer at the height of her majesty, we sit at a courtyard table in the still Karoo night as Barbara shyly – her shyness is palpable, her sweet nature infectious – brings us an amouse bouche of garden beetroot hummus with a tiny pickled spekboom leaf and garnished with a wild garlic flower, which packs a real pop. Then sets before us a Karoo starter platter of skilpadjies (lamb’s liver wrapped in caul fat), perfectly grilled roosterkoek with melting farm butter and homemade quince jelly, and a cute pickled agave bud made by Lize Murray of nearby Graaff-Reinet.

Butter Chicken Curry and Ostrich Fillet. Photo: Tony Jackman

While I relish the perfect ostrich steak, Di devours the butter chicken with its rice spiced with cumin, coriander, turmeric, mustard seeds and dried onion.

Desserts by Barbara Weitz at the Ibis Lounge, Nieu-Bethesda, infused with wild Karoo herbs. Photo: Tony Jackman

Faultless, from amuse bouche to this point. So any old dessert would have done, really. Yet nothing could have been a more fitting end to this day of wild herbs, a Khoisan sage and two Queens of the Night – the second being our hostess – than a panna cotta subtly infused with wild wormwood, served with chrystallised wilde-als and a honeybush coulis. Except perhaps the roasted garlic ice cream alongside it with its wilde-als and veldtee ‘Karoon” (a play on macaroon and Karoo)…

But then there was … the Royal Sorbet. Made from the fruit of the Queen of the Night cactus. And I had thought the roasted garlic ice cream was good.

Seldom in my memory has “We’ll be back” had more meaning. DM

The Ibis Lounge is at 1 Martin Street, Nieu-Bethesda. Call 072 110 6524.


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