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Sandkool & Brakslaai: Indigenous food comes to market

Sandkool, official name Trachyandra divaricata. (Photo: Loubie Rusch)

Loubie Rusch’s passion for the cultivation of indigenous edible plants has been growing for years, culminating in the release of a range of locally farmed wild foods and a book about how to grow them at home.

There’s a small, wild sandkool growing in our garden. Closely related to veldkool, it is edible and good in salads.

This is what Loubie Rusch told me when I sent her a WhatsApp photo. I just wanted to be sure that the surprise growing out of the lawn was okay to eat.

Loubie knows plants and she knows wild edible plants. Ask her anything about local indigenous edible plants and she’ll introduce you to an abundant wild pantry.

The sandkool looks a little like long stem broccoli: it has slender wavy fronds, with tiny white flowers, and they have a crunch and sweetness to them. They’re almost too pretty to eat but I cut them up and sprinkled them over a simple salad. Pretty delicious.

Throw sandkool into a salad, advises Loubie Rusch. (Photo: Loubie Rusch)

Loubie’s passionate about wild indigenous foods and she’s been cultivating that passion for years. She’s a familiar face on the Slow Food circuit and generously shares her knowledge about edible wild foods with fellow gardeners at workshops and tours.

The launch of her book, Cape Wild Food: A Growers Guide (Sustainability Institute), and the availability of farmed wild indigenous food is the culmination of years of research, collaborative effort and determination.

“I knew what I wanted to see but didn’t know how to get it all together,” said Loubie at the launch, held at the Food Jams studio in Salt River.

Loubie’s dream was to find a way to introduce small farmers to the cultivation of wild indigenous food, to take to market. Today, small farmers from different areas, including the Philippi Economic Development Initiative (PEDI) Agrihub, are growing wild foods to sell, thanks to Loubie’s efforts.

Chef Adél Hughes, from Oep ve Koep in Paternoster, collaborated with Loubie Rusch for a weekend workshop incorporating wild foods. Dishes included fire roasted beetroot carpaccio and seared blesbok loin (dune crowberry was used in the blesbok rub) served with pickled veldkool and fresh sea pumpkin leaves, as well as borage blossoms and fennel fronds. (Photo: Loubie Rusch)

How did it all come together and where did Loubie’s passion – perhaps obsession is a better word – with wild edibles come from? 

Born in Stellenbosch, Loubie moved between South Africa, the United States, UK and France when she was a child, attending many different schools.

“I have Danish and Dutch ancestry on my mother’s side and a Belgian dad and we moved a lot,” said Loubie. “It taught me that what we are taught is very relative, it made me less inclined to accept the norm in a situation.”

Introduced to searching for food at an early age, Loubie recalled foraging for waterblommetjies when she was a child.

Loubie Rusch made a red onion and chilli quick pickle in fermented kei apple vinegar with salt, topped with soutslaai, brakslaai and sea pumpkin. (Photo: Melanie Farrell)

She switched from architecture to landscape design when she started working. This evolved into wild food cultivation. “I felt uncomfortable creating gardens for the privileged in South Africa when the reality of our country stands in such contrast: there was so much poverty,” said Loubie. “When I left landscaping I started exploring food, my other love, a common language to every one of us.”

Loubie discovered a fascination with wild edible foods, ideally suited to the Cape climate (wet winters, dry summers). “Wild foods have traditionally been foraged for millennia and in Cape Town, so full of ‘foodies’, there is a growing interest in foraging,” said Loubie. “But the Cape floristic region is already under threat (from agriculture and urbanisation). The only way we can reduce this threat is to cultivate some of these indigenous plants and encourage people to change their behaviour around what they eat. People are aware that they need to change how they live.

“Many young people are especially aware of climate change and are keen to connect with the soil whereas others see wild foods as ‘poverty’ foods. The legacy of colonial thinking has made us look north for ideas and influenced our aspirations deeply. There’s an ‘elsewhere is better’ way of thinking when it comes to what we think it is cool to explore in food.

Chef Adél Hughes, from Oep ve Koep in Paternoster, collaborated with Loubie Rusch for a weekend workshop incorporating wild foods. Dishes included steamed Cape Bream with fermented kei apple (wrapped in a fig leaf and baked in a paper parcel) served with herenbone and dune spinach balls on kei apple and makataan chutney accompanied by roasted tomatoes and slangbessies, garnished with shredded dune spinach. (Photo: Loubie Rusch)

“We’re very fortunate that in the Western Cape we have an incredible biodiversity of plants to explore making use of in a climate variable world.”

Pre-Covid Loubie spoke at Slow Food gatherings in Europe and her vision grew. Networking led her to Oribi Village in Cape Town where she went through an intense incubator programme to figure it all out. “We are here today to celebrate the growers, the incubators and the innovators who have all worked together to make local, sustainable, indigenous ingredients available,” said Loubie at the launch, postponed once due to lockdown levels and super-festive, perhaps, because of the postponement.

Watch this video by Oribi Village about indigenous foods and farming in the western Cape.

It’s a parallel universe of the plants that I know. There’s wild parsley, wild spinach, sea pumpkin and ice plant. And unfamiliar things like veldkool and brakslaai. Loubie told us to help ourselves to the “pantry” of Wild Foods and some regular pantry staples. “Taste the wild foods, ask for help, experiment,” said Loubie. “And make lunch!”

Sandkool works well as a pickle, says Loubie Rusch. (Photo: Loubie Rusch)

Loubie has sorted the “farmed” plants into indigenous leafy greens, succulent leaves and wild aromatic herbs. 

Indigenous leafy green: dune spinach

“Dune spinach is a lightly textured leaf that is very versatile to use in raw as well as cooked recipes,” said Loubie. “Leaves can be included in Mediterranean, Asian as well as African style recipes. Add them chopped fine or blanched whole to salads or use them cooked in the same way as spinach or chard in soups, braises, or fillings to pies or omelettes.”

Succulent leaves: sea pumpkin, spekboom, brakslaai, ice plant 

Sea pumpkin has pale, smooth juicy lemony leaves that can be used raw as well as cooked,” said Loubie. “Spekboom, with its plump sour leaves that are high in Vitamin C, can be used raw as well as cooked. And brakslaai has very juicy salty-sour leaves that can be used raw as well as lightly cooked. 

“Their succulent texture and the mix of salty sourness will add a pop of interest to many dishes. Use them whole or chopped into salsas, in leafy green, grain or vegetable salads or added to tzatziki or pesto. Try them lightly cooked in stir fries, in a simple braise, as tempura or add them to a fish cake.

“Dried brakslaai has an umami flavour and can be eaten as is like vegan biltong, or can be chopped and added to garnishes, pesto or salsas.

“Ice plants with their very juicy salty-sour leaves are best used raw. They will add a pop of interest to many dishes. Use them whole or chopped into salsas, in leafy green, grain or vegetable salads or added to tzatziki. They make a good addition to raw juices or soups such as gazpacho.” 

Wild and aromatic herbs: Wild rosemary, Bushmanland wild rosemary, African sage, sea parsley

“Wild rosemary has slightly furry, needle-shaped leaves while Bushmanland wild rosemary has much smaller, stiff but equally aromatic leaves,” said Loubie.

“African sage has blue flowers and greyish leaves that firm up in summer and sea parsley has very curly leaves that become rather crunchy in the summer months.     

“These herbs can be used in much the same way as their conventional herb counterparts, substituting them into your favourite recipes. Pair them with the same foods as  you would rosemary, sage, or parsley. Add them whole or chopped to flavour to soups, stews, sauces, stuffings, butters, salts or marinades or to infuse oils or vinegar.

Rose geranium has textured, slightly furry and fragrant aromatic leaves. Infuse leaves into water, milk, alcohol or sugar or use to garnish teas, cocktails or desserts. The flowers can be used as a pretty and edible garnish.”

I decided to watch and learn as cooks went wild.

Portia Mbau and her daughter, Lumai de Smidt, from Food of Africa, started putting a dish together, looking confident.

Lumai and her mother are early adopters of some of Loubie’s wild foods. “We have already begun using sea pumpkin and brakslaai in our condiments,” said Lumai. “The flavour is distinct and delicious, but it also adds a nutritional punch to our food which is the most important factor for us.

“We believe eating local, environmentally friendly and sustainable foods is essential for South Africa’s culinary future. We understand education is necessary for more people to demand these products from restaurants and grocers, and that takes time. However, as a chef, it feels like a natural progression to start innovating with these succulents and herbs.” (Watch Lumai’s video of the event.)

Karen Dudley steamed/blanched beans, veldkool and sandkool. The topping had caramelised crispy onions and a wild herb crumb with dried brakslaai. (Photo: Melanie Farrell)

Chef Karen Dudley (formerly owner of The Kitchen in Woodstock) is another early adopter of cooking with Loubie’s wild foods. She set to work, making a dish with steamed/blanched beans, veldkool and sandkool. The topping had caramelised crispy onions and a wild herb crumb with dried brakslaai.

Michele Mistry from INDIKAAP Vegan Ayurveda at Makers Landing looked equally at home, adding her Ayurvedic flavour to fritters and an eye-catching salad of roasted cauliflower and spekboom leaves.

“My interest in wild foods is to look at them from an Ayurvedic perspective,” says Michele, who I interviewed in 2019 (see Ayurvedic chef makes potent food poetry). “In Ayurveda we classify vegetables and herbs according to the digestive qualities they have. A lot is known about the properties of Indian herbs and plants but I want to apply the same type of classification to local, indigenous plants.

“I’ll be trying out some of these wild foods in salad bowls for summer,” said Michele, “so come and try one at Makers Landing.”

I hitched a culinary ride at the Sustainability Institute table where I recognised student Stella Hertantyo who welcomed me with an eye-smile (we’re all masked). They were making pizza and Stella was busy with a dune spinach/red cabbage salad to go with the carbs.

When we sit down at a long table to eat together there’s a low hum of appreciative noises. 

“Who made the dune spinach/red cabbage?” asked Loubie. Stella smiled and lowered her head and I made a mental note to follow up and get the recipe. 

The overwhelming impression of our wild lunch is that of freshness. Unfamiliar tastes that were redolent of other flavours. Difficult to describe because it was all new to my tame taste buds. 

After lunch, I asked Stella to share her dune spinach salad recipe. “I can’t take full credit for the salad, because I had a lot of guidance from the private chef at Food Jams,” said Stella. 

Stella’s dune spinach and red cabbage salad

Stella Hertantyo, from the Sustainability Institute’s table, made a dune spinach and red cabbage salad (with help from a Food Jams chef). (Photo: Melanie Farrell)

Ingredients

½ red cabbage, thinly sliced

1 small red onion, thinly sliced

Handful of chopped dune spinach

8 leaves of dried brakslaai, finely chopped

Salt for seasoning

Vinaigrette: 2 Tbsp forest grape cordial and 1 tsp fermented kei apple vinegar

Top with handful of lightly toasted chopped almonds

Method

Lightly fry the cabbage and onion. Combine with the dune spinach and brakslaai. Mix the forest grape cordial and kei apple vinegar for the vinaigrette, and pour over the warm salad. Sprinkle the almonds on top.

After the discovery of my tiny sandkool I cordoned off the patch of lawn it had emerged from. I’m thinking of putting up a sign: “No trespassing on the sandkool.” And I’m thinking of buying Loubie’s book to see what else will grow with minimal effort from me. Let’s grow wild. DM/TGIFood

Loubie Rusch runs workshops and walks regularly and she will be running them monthly from the Oranjezicht City Farm Market at Granger Bay. Fresh and bottled indigenous produce is available for home cooks to buy at the market on a weekly basis. See @makingkos on Instagram to keep up to date with workshops and walks.

The writer supports Clovelly CAN which helps the communities of Wesbank and Ocean View with fundraising and soup kitchens. See Clovelly CAN on Facebook.

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