Where tunnel vision is the solution, not the problem
In the beautiful Karkloof area in the KZN Midlands is The Old Mushroom Farm, where a creative community revels in cuisine and coffee.
The author supports The Seed Fund which provides two balanced meals a day for children living in Malacca Informal Settlement in Durban North. To help contact The Seed Fund.
As the Karkloof Road lures me further into the conservancy area and I start to contemplate whether I’ve overshot it, I spot the sign for The Old Mushroom Farm. I allow my car to gently bounce down the farm road that leads to a collection of domed brick “tunnels” that have had a Cinderella-esque transformation from fungi to a foodie haven.
People are sprawled on picnic blankets on the lawn, a toddler is sitting outside a tunnel drawing on a pumpkin from one of the vegetable garden allotments, and a new arrival delightedly exclaims, “Hello Lily!” as she fusses over a young Dalmatian. There’s an assortment of soft toys strewn outside which I eventually deduce belong to the motley crew of dogs who ride shotgun with their owners at work or are holidaying with guests staying in the various accommodations. An easygoing sense of community pervades the fresh country air and, joyously, there is no concept of time. Life at The Old Mushroom Farm is more like hanging out at a commune.
It is owner Nick Crooks who has fostered this sense of community and camaraderie. His qualifications are a delicious dichotomy of architecture and fine art, and both influences are strongly evident in the space, which is industrial with retro quirks.
In the era of instant gratification, The Old Mushroom farm has been allowed to develop organically. Nick Crooks has owned the property since 1991 when it was a fully operational farm, but after a management buy-out and subsequent failure of the business, he ultimately decided to repurpose it. The former staff accommodation was converted by him and his wife Mandy into self-catering units under the name 11 Karkloof, and this was later followed by the much more daunting project of converting the old mushroom-growing tunnels into an artisanal hub. With passion and purpose, Nick breathed life into the old farm and curated a like-minded collective of independent business owners.
The Old Mushroom Farm opened its doors six days before lockdown hit in 2020. “When people were allowed to come out, they came to places like this,” says Sandy Chowles, co-owner of Home Slice café and farm manager. “There are spaces here where you can relax. You can have a cup of coffee and sit for 20 minutes. Regulars meet other locals and the community grows as they network and you see friendships forming.”
Sandy tested her food concept at the neighbouring Karkloof Farmers’ Market before taking the plunge. She was the first tenant and, as the farm was still being restored and developed, she evolved into managing it too.
“The ethos is that businesses are artisanal and owner run. What is interesting is most people who align with us are new businesses,” she says conceding that often it’s people taking the plunge to pursue a dream. “It is also a place of education and we have the workshop space for small groups and we have done workshops on painting, macrame, how to grow your own mushrooms and lino printmaking. We also introduced First Thursdays and want to offer something different every time like live music or theatre.”
Home Slice (slang for a close friend in your ’hood) provides just that – it feels like mooching about at a friend’s house. The tunnel’s open doors frame a view that, on a clear day, stretches to Midmar Dam and at the entrance you’ll find a dog’s water bowl and a crate of picnic blankets. From a tiny kitchen comes a compact menu with a strong focus on vegetables. Think Thai flavoured sweet potato, spinach and chickpea curry topped with cashews and served with sourdough and chutney or, understandably, “Sandy’s Fave” which is a delicious falafel stack with hummus, caramelised onion, avo and two poached eggs topped with spicy mayo, sprouts, beetroot and microgreens. The café is manned by a super-friendly team but you help yourself to fresh-pressed juices from the fridge and can forage for the likes of dog treats, Italian biscuits and vegan snacks.
To me, the obvious starting point on arrival is Blue Bird Roastery … because coffee. Fanie Botes who mans the coffee machine is a competitive barista and, on this particular day, is pouring Migoti Hill Natural from Burundi. The beans are unwashed which starts a fervent conversation on his love for African coffee, the nuances of unwashed coffee, that caffeine occurs naturally as an insect repellant and how drinking from a takeaway cup with a lid makes coffee taste sweeter as it affects where the coffee lands on your tongue. The caffeine conversation is like foreplay and you want to throw yourself into another cup with abandon.
Blue Bird’s long tunnel is guarded by a coffee bar that demarcates the divide between retail and roastery. All their beans are for sale along with support items like hand grinders, brewing scales, moka pots, cups plus a range of Blue Bird merchandise, but most of the tunnel is dedicated to the more serious business of roasting, packaging and distributing. All of this happens under the watchful eye of affable, hands-on owner Dario Scilipoti.
“We started on our veranda at home in July 2018 with a one-kilogram roaster. I was a home barista and have a marketing background. We were running a fairly substantial business and a friend mentioned The Old Mushroom Farm. I fell in love with the tunnels and the idea of being in the Midlands and we opened here in February 2020,” he says.
He acknowledges that speciality coffee is a buzzword but, really, this is what they offer. Dario says they are a European-style roastery in terms of their style of roasting and green beans that they buy. “We directly facilitated to bring Volcan Azul beans from Costa Rica. It’s an exclusive agreement – they would normally go to Europe,” Dario explains. He is fiercely passionate about transparent fair trade, so he’s established direct relationships with farmers which allows them to earn more.
You’ll find Blue Bird coffee in select cafés and restaurants but online orders are the majority of their business. Last month they started shipping internationally and in two weeks their beans have been dispatched to California, Berlin, the Netherlands and Dubai. Roasting is done twice a week and orders sent off within 24 to 48 hours, so it’s a maximum of one week from green beans to receiving an order. Dario has also just invested in new technology that replaces the oxygen in the bags with nitrogen which means that the beans remain in just-roasted pristine condition for eight weeks (typically deterioration would begin after one week). Could it get any fresher?
If, like me, a perfectly light and flaky croissant makes you weak at the knees, once you have picked up your coffee, swoop into Doughm in the adjoining tunnel. Baker Sbu Ngcobo comes with serious credentials as he trained under Durban baker extraordinaire, Adam Robinson, and Sbu reincarnates his mentor’s signature bread like the potato and rosemary version. There’s an assortment of loaves but don’t overlook the sweet treats including cinnamon buns, gluten-free lemon ricotta cake or fig and blueberry cake. Check out the deli fridge where you can rustle up an alfresco lunch (or stock your pantry) – there are cold meats, cheeses from Le Petite France and an assortment of homemade pestos (ingredients from their allotment garden, of course), tapenade et al. Doughm also runs regular bread-making classes.
In one of the outside buildings, you’ll find The Spot Bistro which Victoria Souter opened in December. Surprisingly, it has tropical vibes (all the furniture is second hand or has been repurposed) and a record player with a vinyl selection set the mood.
“I began with pizzas as it was an easy way to start. My family used to sit around the pizza oven at home and we would have competitions to see who could make the best pizza,” says Victoria. The original pizza-focused menu came from a place of nostalgia but next month she is introducing new dishes like beetroot gnocchi with stinging nettle pesto (the indigenous nettle grows in the garden).
“I am an environmental scientist and was looking for a workspace for myself. I got tired of the cost of cafés and workspaces and no one was doing environmental sustainability. I am doing my masters and my thesis is on food security and smallholder farmers and their inability to access the market. I heard about The Old Mushroom Farm and needed office space, but decided to follow my passion for cooking and I could also support smallholder farmers. The pizza oven is slow, green energy cooking. I wanted to show people that you can have a full-on meal and you don’t need to use an oven or electricity in any way.”
The new kid on the block is Sally’s Midlands Mixes and granola never tasted so good! Sally Jackson has spent years making, tweaking and perfecting her homemade granola recipe. Her husband encouraged her to start selling to family and friends and she used lockdown to take to the kitchen which she eventually outgrew. The go-to granola is the cranberry one but the new apricot and ginger version is fast becoming a best seller and Sally loves the new “pocket rockets” (bite-size bars that give an energy boost). The shabby chic shop-cum-kitchen also allows you to take your own container and pay by weight. The wholesome mixes are all-natural, plant-based, gluten-free and vegan friendly.
The Old Mushroom Farm also offers other bespoke experiences. Home Slice shares a tunnel with Skew Space, a gallery that also offers wine tasting events, and Rock Paper Scissors, owned by Nick’s daughter Philippa Crooks, offers contemporary design-driven retail items (from greeting cards to art prints to clothing and kids’ toys) that are made by South African designers and craftspeople.
The Apartment is the only accommodation in the tunnel complex and I felt smug about my flash of brilliance to book a night and make the most of a gourmet getaway. “Apartment” is a surprising name for accommodation fashioned from a mushroom tunnel, but then you walk inside and the exposed brick and industrial fittings make you feel like you’re in an urban loft. On closer inspection you’re reminded of your environment – there is a small private vegetable garden (cabbage, chillies, spinach and aubergine) that guests can make use of, plus supplies of coffee and granola from nearby tenants. It doesn’t get more local than supporting producers who are three doors away!
Dusk set and so too did a stillness that can only come from the country. I surveyed a field across the valley where hay was rolled ready for winter, looking like Swiss rolls, and thought blissfully, I get to experience this all again tomorrow. DM/TGIFood
The Old Mushroom Farm is closed Tuesday and Wednesday.