First Thing, Daily Maverick's flagship newsletter

Join the 230 000 South Africans who read First Thing newsletter.

From homemade nougat to inventor of fine things

TGIFOOD

NOUGAT & NOSTALGIA

From homemade nougat to inventor of fine things

The magic ingredients for nougat and the finished product. (Photo: Supplied)

Gilly Walters began making nougat in her kitchen in Hilton in the KZN Midlands to make ends meet and created a confectionery legacy.

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.

Serendipity is a wonderful thing. One minute you’re ambling around a charming country development called Piggly Wiggly in the KZN Midlands, stepping over the tracks of a miniature train, and then bam! It’s as if you’ve been transported to Paris and find yourself staring longingly into the display window of a confiserie. Welcome to nougat and nostalgia. 

The Wedgewood Nougat emporium is a tactile experience extraordinaire. Pretty pastel-hued boxes have been carefully curated on shelves. Mini hat boxes filled with bon bons are adorned with hand-tied bows. Petite boxes are sealed with 2D golden bees. The sensory overload renders you momentarily incapable of deciding where to start, but then you’re brought back to reality with a warm African welcome from manager, Paddington Ngwenya. Looking dapper in a formal white shirt, black tie and tailored apron, he patiently talks you through a tasting of the free samples, and his delight at the gentle oohs and aahs they elicit is obvious. 

Everyone loves a rags-to-riches story, and this charming store pays tribute to matriarch, Gilly Walters, who began making nougat to support her family financially when her husband Taffy became ill with cancer. 

Wedgewood founder Gilly Walters and production supervisor Anna Khuzwayo. (Photo: Supplied)

“We didn’t have money, we lived from hand to mouth,” explains Paul Walters, Gilly’s son and CEO of Wedgewood. “My mom is an inspiration and has a flair for food. She would host classical music revival concerts with (concert pianist) Christopher Duigan at home and would serve tea or coffee and snacks, or do seated dinners for 50 people. She decided to try nougat and it took her six months to perfect it. My mom is a tenacious old bat!” he says fondly.

“When dad got cancer, we sold our farm. My folks then bought a wedge-shaped piece of land between two forests so, when they made nougat, it was named Wedgewood after the house. It was like a kibbutz – they got friends together and built nine houses on about 60 hectares. It is now a conservation estate,” says Paul, who lives there with his family.

Gilly’s honey nougat was such a success with friends and family that she began selling it at the Pietermaritzburg Farmer’s Market in 1999, and shortly thereafter added a traditional shortbread biscuit to her repertoire. By the following year it was stocked in two local supermarkets and in 2006 exports began under the label “Walters”. Nowadays it is readily available in national food stores and chemist chains and their online platform showcases a full range of products. Paul’s artist wife, Zoe, created the dramatic black floral design that is used as wallpaper in the emporium and has also inspired the beautiful packaging, gifting and hampers.

It’s always been a hands-on family enterprise with all three sons also working in the business over the years. “I remember my dad would heat the blade of a knife to hand-cut the nougat which gave him callouses. He passed away three years ago and my mom decided to let go of the reins and do succession planning,” says Paul.

Their flagship store at Piggly Wiggly opened in November 2019 and is, for now, the only one in the country. Perhaps it seems like an unusual location but it’s close to the original home Gilly started the business in and also to Wedgewood Farm, a decommissioned dairy farm that has been home to their “bakery and makery” for 15 years. It’s a small detour off the beaten track but there’s a shop and small coffee bar with sweeping views of the rolling countryside. If you’re lucky, you might even find some samples on offer from the test kitchen. 

Wedgewood is a self-proclaimed “inventor of fine things” and the most recent nougat-inspired creation is ice cream. Those familiar with the restaurant The Farmer’s Daughter, in Howick, will know that owner Jen Pretorius has an enviable reputation for making ice cream. Her business closed down during Covid-19 and she recently joined Wedgewood where she’s reincarnating their liquid nougat into ice cream flavours that include peppermint, white chocolate and butterscotch ripple, and hazelnut nougat-chino. Unfortunately, the ice cream is only available at the emporium where it often outsells its original nougat counterparts. 

Ice cream is the newest addition to the Wedgewood range. (Photo: Supplied)

“South Africans eat a lot of nougat. I have travelled around the world and we are one of the largest consumers per capita of nougat. In America they don’t know it except on the east coast in the Jewish, Greek, Spanish and French communities. Our export markets are Australia, Denmark, Germany, UK and some African countries. They like our nougat because they are not as sweet as the European ones. We use 10% honey – which is more honey than our competitors – to get the flavours right,” says Paul.

Gilly’s original nougat recipe is still used today and remains free of artificial flavours, colours or preservatives. Variations include macadamia, almond, and an almond and cranberry combo. There are also more exotic choices like dark chocolate and orange nougat bars, or white chocolate and strawberry nougat bon bons. Wondering if it’s a closely guarded secret, I ask who the keeper of the recipe is? “It’s up there on the wall,” says Paul waving towards the “makery” (factory) area located behind the farm shop. I feel somewhat deflated at the lack of mystery until Paul clarifies further. “The method is as important as the recipe. That’s a work in progress because the natural ingredients can change, like honey changes from the start to the end of the season and so do the levels of fructose and glucose.

All nougat is handmade in small quantities. (Photo: Supplied)

“Nougat is handmade in small batches. A team of 20 in involved from ingredient prep through to cutting it. A trained artisan oversees the recipe and supervises a team of four who make the nougat. You can’t feel with machines. It needs to be the right texture – you have to do it slowly, the old-fashioned way,” he explains. The entire process (with the exception of one automated aspect in the wrapping line) is done by hand, from the cracking of 70,000 eggs per month to tying ribbons on packaging. And at least the extra yolks are utilised in making their delicious range of shortbread biscuits and ice cream. 

Honey is an integral ingredient in the nougat but also tricky to source as more bee hives are sustained for pollinating crops than for honey production. Wedgewood supports emerging beekeepers in northern KZN through training, providing hives and purchasing honey, but their honey is mainly sourced from Zambia. Here it is sustainably and organically farmed and also has EU approval which is required in order for them to export. 

Wedgewood has faced challenges sourcing macadamia nuts which are expensive and South Africa only produces 2% of the global crop. “At the end of 2014 we had to do product recall because the nuts were rancid. It was a costly recall and I thought there had to be a better way to keep macadamia on the shelf,” says Paul. A farmer friend on KZN’s South Coast had a batch he couldn’t sell due to insect damage, and they bought the lot which ultimately led to the creation of a macadamia nut cracking facility on the farm. Instead of buying only export grade nuts, they now buy in bulk and sort on site. “We separate good quality kernel and now have the best quality nuts we have ever had! We extract oil from poor quality nuts as it qualifies as cosmetic grade macadamia oil.”

Aside from featuring in nougat, the nuts are showcased in “macalettes” which launched in 2020 and are only sold online or in the Wedgewood shops due to their more delicate constitution. Whole macadamias are wrapped in an indulgent layer of either milk or white Belgian chocolate and you can find them in mochaccino, peppermint and orange flavours, but the showstopper is the salt version. They’re the perfect balance of sweet and salty, smooth and crunchy. 

Macalettes, a heady mix of Belgian milk chocolate and macadamia nuts. (Photo: Supplied)

Paul’s background is in conservation and Wedgewood is involved in different environmental and social responsibility programmes. The macadamia shells fuel their hot water supply; they are plastic neutral (for every one kilogram of plastic they bring in they donate R3 to a local company that upcycles non-recyclable plastics); they employ physically-impaired staff to hand-make their hat boxes, and also support various conservation projects.

And, in a rural area that has high unemployment and HIV/AIDS rates, Wedgewood staff are provided with their own bus, access to mobile clinics and daily vitamins at work. After all, charity begins at home … and that was the very foundation on which a resourceful woman built a family legacy. DM/TGIFood

Wedgewood Nougat

Gallery

Comments - share your knowledge and experience

Please note you must be a Maverick Insider to comment. Sign up here or sign in if you are already an Insider.

Everybody has an opinion but not everyone has the knowledge and the experience to contribute meaningfully to a discussion. That’s what we want from our members. Help us learn with your expertise and insights on articles that we publish. We encourage different, respectful viewpoints to further our understanding of the world. View our comments policy here.

All Comments 5

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted