Meet me at Notties Earth Route Market
Farmers. Food. Friends. The meandering Midlands. It’s all there at what is becoming a destination farmers’ market for visitors and a community gathering place for locals. Then there’s the eco challenge. And it’s all ‘a bloody miracle’.
Produce at the peak of freshness. Meeting the folk who grow your veggies, bake your bread, roast your coffee, age your cheese and charcuterie, turn out your pork pies. Make your Saturday breakfast roll with its Kamberg-laid egg, fried to perfection, and crispy locally sourced bacon. And hey, this is 2022. The Age of Aquarius and constellations has long been replaced by the Age of Allergies and consternation. So even in the countryside where the air is fresh and wholesome things sprout, there must be – there is – the gluten-free breakfast bowl.
“We are a Mecca of pristine farmland. Why were we taking what is grown here in this beautiful environment and transporting it out of the area to then buy back from supermarkets?”
The “here” Jennifer Hindle is talking about is the KZN Midlands. At its heart, often referred to as the gateway to the Midlands Meander, is the historic town of Nottingham Road, familiarly known as Notties.
It was almost 20 years ago that Hindle and her husband drove from Joburg one February weekend to swim the Midmar Mile at the eponymous nearby dam. And went home having purchased a farm.
Two years ago the passionate educator-activist-entrepreneur with the embracing comfort-food manner, inspired by the many village markets she has been to on jaunts to France, spearheaded the move to amalgamate with a minimalist farmer’s market, which was kind-of limping along in the nearby village of Rosetta. “They had a market there, but it was battling. The position was not good. I approached the girls running it. Could we have one here, on the Saturdays they were not having theirs? They decided it was better here. That we should just have one and put all the energy into it.”
They call it the Earth Route Market, kind of as a tribute to all things earthy and eco-friendly. More about this as you read on. “That we opened up and are thriving is a bloody miracle,” Hindle laughs, between sharing stories of shutdowns and lockdowns and rejigged plans and adaptations. “From the start we tried to bring in all the local producers to stop the drain of produce from the community.”
Also, to create community. Inclusive community at many levels and in many versions.
Zette Hardie is on the market organising committee along with Hindle. She has lived in Rosetta for 20 years and was part of the “old” Rosetta market, with Thembi Sithole, who during the week is the Hardie family housekeeper, domestic and cook. On Saturdays at the market, turned business partner. Sithole does the prep and runs things when Hardie can’t be there in an arrangement that has worked well for some years.
Hardie doesn’t eat much gluten, as in bread products, “hence the breakfast bowl” – which has scrambled egg, bacon, falafel, crunchy roasted veggies, hummus, roasted seeds, avo, a home made tomato relish and a “green goddess” sauce. “Everything,” not surprisingly, “made from scratch”.
The market hall has a large central area, the community stall, which is set up with tables and counters. Here, farmers, bakers and other local suppliers who timewise cannot spend the morning at the market are invited to drop off their produce. A small team of regular helpers, sponsored by the market as part of their community upliftment programme, earn a percent of all they sell, as does the market. The rest goes to the source supplier.
I am told by the enthusiastic young market-sponsored croissant and veggie vendor, when Hardie introduces us, that she has paid student fees and bought a house on the proceeds of her Saturday market gig.
The freshest asparagus and artichokes, shiny red cabbages and beautiful beets with leaves fresh enough to cut into any salad, straight-from-the-ground turnips and carrots. Free-range eggs, goes without saying, and Midlands garlic and ginger. Fudge. Berry jams made in farm kitchens.
It is hard to imagine why anyone who can take a basket and do a market run on a Saturday morning would think to troll through the aisles of a supermarket in a mall. Although, as Hindle tells me, “The only supermarket around here is a Spar and they are big community people, very supportive.”
The Earth Route Market, which is becoming a destination like Howick’s Karkloof Market, which you can read about here, is more an “of the people and for the people” market than many. And like much in this area — Fort Nottingham with its fascinating little museum is about a five-minute drive from Nottingham Road, which Hindle tells me, “we love and adore” — it has its own unique history, for those so inclined.
The market venue is the Nottingham Road Landowners Association (NRLA) building, formerly the Nottingham Road Farmers’ Association, one of the oldest agricultural societies in the country, founded in 1887 in what was then the Railway Hotel, now the notorious (said appreciatively) Notties Hotel. “The NLRA don’t charge us to use the building or to use their oven,” says Hindle.
Farmers. Food. Friends. This is the theme of Earth Route. “The social aspect is key,” says Hindle. “It is wonderful to gather round and our intention from the start has been to have locals come regularly.” California-based journalist and academic Michael Pollan, best-selling author of eight books, which mainly focus on food and our relationship with it, has called markets like the Notties one, “the new public squares of community health”. And don’t we all need this, especially right now.
“People, locals, come here for breakfast and to meet friends. The breakfast component is great. And a lot of both our visitors and locals go spinning (at the gym) and then come here. You see? The gym clothes?” I do.
They also have an eco-trail. “It’s like a Park Run. It is a 5km run, on Saturday mornings, to the Crane Foundation. The Bill Barnes Crane and Oribi Nature Reserve is right here! You register at the market, sign in and out, so it’s monitored. But then you are on your own and do it in your own time.”
People also come to the market to chat with their favourite purveyors. Franco Esposito, for instance, who makes bee-you-tee-ful charcuterie in the Kamberg (link through to read last week’s TGIFood story on him), was at the old Rosetta market; moved on to this this one. “You must taste these sausages, which have bush pig in them and are as good as what I bought in Italy,” a customer carrying a bag overflowing with leeks, or perhaps spring onions, tells me when she sees me taking a picture near his table.
He, meanwhile, bubbles with good things to say about Hindle. The community upliftment, the education projects she’s got going in the area. Her personal business, which is not the market.
“I grow lavender and essential oils. Indigo Fields, since 2003,” she tells me when I ask. “It’s a boutique health spa with accommodation farm stays. We up-skilled 20 local women. Brought in therapy providers. The spa has been going 15 years. Now our kids are involved in the business.” Freeing up her time.
Before that fateful Midmar Mile swim, her husband was working in Joburg as an engineer, she as a teacher. She still owns and runs a preschool there,
Staying true to her training commitment, this year she will have her second Notties area preschool up and running, for vulnerable children who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to go to school. All through co-ordinated private sponsorship.
Ashley MacDonald, meanwhile, makes her traditional pork and other pies in a cottage in Greytown. She is an Italian-trained former professional chef who previously owned and ran restaurants. Just happens to be passionate about artisanal produce so gets her pork from Winterton-based Loving Hams, who pride themselves on abattoir hygiene, animal welfare and product traceability.
Audrey Mbuyazi is a soul singer and entrepreneur who, when not entertaining at one or other local venue, creates board games, makes cheese courtesy her goats in Rosetta, and bakes her acclaimed Norwegian cheesecakes, which recipe goes back a long way. To the times she visited friends in Norway. “Whenever I made it as dessert, people said, ‘You should sell that!’” So now she does.
Robin Marnitz, meanwhile, claims to make the best Chelsea buns in the world. Or was that just the Midlands?
Shane McMurtrie brings his deboned rabbit, deboned chicken, deboned pork and also quail from Cato Ridge. To this market because “this is the area my wife, Sue and I, who farm together, I want to be in eventually”.
Then there is Jabu Mabhida, whose bacon and egg rolls and pancakes are key to the market’s success. Eggs from the Kamberg. Bacon from Linga Lapa, the trusted local butchery. Rolls from Spar.
She, too, started at the Rosetta market “four or five years ago. I love people. I was a housekeeper. I wanted my own business. I am still a housekeeper.” This at an estate in the Kamberg where her husband, Michael, also works, doing the maintenance.
“I do the breakfast rolls on my weekends. My husband, Michael, the best husband ever, helps. This business has helped us buy a car. Pay for food and school for our twins. We’re building a house. My boss at the estate, initially I got into this helping her. Then I took it over from her.”
Mabhida tells me she loves making the eggs. “When people want them soft, or medium. All those things. And talking to people. I’ve got to know many regulars over the years.”
Vana Mannilall and Ashika Isaac bring their curry, samosas, biriani, roti — and the best chili bites ever — from Howick each week. It had been whispered in my ear that their chili bite secret is an added touch of baking powder. But when I ask Mannilall, she just laughs and says, no, “it’s our hands!”. Plus that fact that everything they can, they grow in their garden. “We use our home-grown spinach, spring onions, our coriander and green chillies. Everything home-made, from scratch.”
The Just Cheese peeps bought their cheese company from their former Dutch neighbours. “My parents learned from them,” says Russell Anderson, whose folks make the cheese in Greytown with milk from a neighbouring dairy farmer.
“From the start, our commitment was to try to have everything come from within 100km of Nottingham Road,” says Hindle. And to be here, you have to meet three of five criteria. Be within 100km. Use plastic-free, recyclable packaging or be packaging free.
Be pesticide free. Use earth-friendly farming practices. Sell your own products, homegrown or home made. And materials, what you use, must be 100 percent traceable.
The Midlands Meander started in 1985 as a concept of a rolling exhibition, which would be held a couple of times a year. It grew into a collective of creative and hospitable people geared to tourists, tourism and a gentler lifestyle in a beautiful and unique country setting. A magnet. A sprawling destination that is also home to many.
The Earth Route Market is a relative newbie on the scene. And we’ve only touched on some of what’s available. I have a gorgeous container of olive oil in my kitchen. A gift from friends for sitting their cat. Only this week did I learn they bought it from the Earth Route Market. “It was the best place we found in Notties to buy gifts,” they told me. Edible gifts, that is. And let’s face it, who would want any other? DM/TGIFood
Follow Wanda Hennig on Instagram Wanda Hennig.
The author supports Food Forward SA, committed to a South Africa without hunger. Please support them here.