Find me, wag my dog, eat my food
Some years ago, near Ballito and with his sister, Eugene Botha ran what was then ranked as one of the country’s top restaurants. Now, same area, smaller kitchen, this time with a tail-wagging partner, things are cooking again. So what’s the story?
You might figure Eugene Botha doesn’t want you eating his expertly prepared mushroom and Parmesan risotto, indulging in his taste-of-the-wild prawn chowder, biting into his finger-licking gammon and gherkin isinkwa. Thing is, you kind of have to stumble upon his casual but thoughtfully curated itty-bitty out-the-way eatery at its Sheffield Beach farm location near Ballito.
Then comes the spontaneous welcoming greeting from him. The tail-wag smile you get from Moya, his four-legged bestie and sidekick. “He’s as much part of this place as me. He swims with me. He hikes with me. He lives at the beach with me. We go on our missions together. When I forage, he comes with me.”
His introduction to Moya is followed by the sharing of food stories. Stories, too, about the personalised space he has created. The old Life magazines you can browse. The set of very old National Geographic mags and the beer bottle label collection his grandfather left him, in his Will. The labels, strategically arranged beneath the kitchen hatch, are from beers his granddad quaffed during WW2 when not in the air doing what was required as a navigator flying in planes.
It was in late November that I stopped for a chocolate sourdough wood-fired croissant and coffee at Breadologie, the farm-based country bakery at Sheffield Beach (read our TGIFood story, A quest for bread making’s Holy Grail). Before I left to drive back to Durban, having popped around the side to where the loo is, I literally stumbled upon Mfino, Botha’s place. He was all set to open the next day.
We chatted. I learned that he and his younger sister, Talya Botha, had together, some years before, run the restaurant, Umami (which later became Ray’s Kitchen), at Dunkirk estate in nearby Salt Rock, ranked at the time among the Top Ten in the country.
Last weekend, having given him three months to settle, I returned. Easy to find, now that I knew where to look. Went back to hear the current story and the backstory of Botha and Mfino, which like so many had its origins in Covid.
After Umami closed, Botha got into the niche boutique-wine business. The wine business which, as we all know, hit a wall with lockdown alcohol bans and restrictions. When everyone seemed to suddenly know someone who was selling under the radar. “And people were saying to me, why don’t you? But I didn’t have cheap wine. I had wine which I wasn’t going to flog for nothing. So, to be honest with you, I drank a lot of wine at the time. Good wine.”
He laughs. We sit. A great big handsome preening golden-orange cock struts by, crowing loudly. An extended family of vervet monkeys play on the distant wooden jungle gym, set up for families visiting what has become an off-the-beaten-track but easy to reach mini-destination for coffee, food and occasional events and happenings. This since Breadologie and it’s founder-owner, David Henry, moved in with good ideas and started what has grown into this semi-rural escape about 10 minutes along the freeway from hectic Ballito. Put in electricity too, he did, which was key to Mfino’s genesis.
Mfino. “It’s the generic Zulu term for wild spinach. Not just one type, but the name covers a number of crops that grow wild, some of them weeds, which can be foraged.” For instance, there is New Zealand spinach, which grows abundantly close to the house on the beach he shares with Moya, about 10 minutes from where he’s set up his little eatery. “Not restaurant,” he stresses.
He has a table at which five people can sit. A couch and armchair to accommodate another three. A comfy perch for two. And five specially made picnic blankets, which can be used in shaded areas beneath the trees. “Everything on the menu, you can take away or have here.” Or order, then pick up, which he encourages.
New Zealand spinach, I read when I Google, is considered both an heirloom vegetable and an invasive species. The natural habitat is sandy shorelines and saline ground. “With the New Zealand spinach, I make a really nice mfino pesto: Parmesan, garlic, naartjie juice, cashew nuts, a vegetable oil and olive oil. It’s got a bit of a wild taste. I like the wildness coming through in my food.
“So for example, the prawn chowder I make,” where he gently poaches the prawns in ginger, garlic and wine, “I add a dash of the nasturtium pesto I make, in place of pepper. You have to be careful not to put in too much, but a little gives a different dimension, a wildness…
“Nasturtiums grow wild, for much of the year, all around my place. I will garnish with nasturtium flowers but only if I have used nasturtium pesto or oil in the dish. I don’t garnish for the sake of garnishing.”
Back to mfino, butternut stems, he says, also fall into this grouping. “You peel off the furry outside skin, chop and you can sauté them with potato, onions and things like that. My mum used to make boereboontjies (a mashed bean and potato side-dish). You can use butternut stems along with or instead of the beans.”
He has three “sandwich” options on his menu. The rolls he makes, he refers to as izinkwa, isiZulu for bread. “This is Africa and I am not going to call it a panini, but it is a ciabatta-style roll. And the three options: I do a fillet with a sake reduction, mayo and spinach; a gammon with sweet mustard, Swiss cheese and baby spinach; and a prawn option with a home-made aioli, egg and rocket.”
Botha has created a small menu, which he tweaks and which he can manage as a one-man band. “I see this, what I am doing, as an extension of my lifestyle,” he says. In part this is reflected in the decor. The surfboards. The vinyl record collection. The comfy couch. “If people come to eat, I want them to know they can relax, play music, read the magazines. I need to cook the food and it’s not likely to come in a hurry, unless it has been ordered ahead of time. But there is lots for people to do here while they wait.”
Botha knows about flavour. And ingredients. And what he’s good at doing and importantly, what he wants and likes to do.
“I’ve decided to focus a lot on my risottos because, you know, there is a fine line between a really good risotto and a bad one and many people and even Italian restaurants often don’t get it right. I know how to cook the rice. It’s quite a process.” He talks about the ingredients, the liquid content, the “perfect amount of time”.
“A lot of people try to cut corners. Then a risotto doesn’t work. There is a fine art to making a really good risotto and I pride myself in doing that.” He doesn’t sound boastful with this statement. Just matter-of-fact.
“I’m a little governed in what I make by being totally alone. The menu I will change as I go,” and he has tweaked it and it does (change), “but people will have something, and then return and want to have the same again. So I do stick to certain things for a while. And some, like the prawn chowder, have been so well received, I will keep on the menu.
“But it will change slightly every week. So for example last week I made snoek stock for the chowder’s base and this week it was rockcod stock.”
If you choose to picnic, you have your meal, “then come back and get an ice cream afterwards”. Another thing he loves to make. And that he’s been experimenting with. “I am making an unbelievable one at the moment. It’s incredible and I don’t think anyone else has done it, ever. A mathungulu ice cream.” With foraged mathungulus. Which is a wild fruit many in KZN will know by that name, although when I Google I find them referred to as amathungulu and amatungulu (isiZulu), noem-noem (Afrikaans), Natal plum and by other names.
“The response has been overwhelming. The word has spread. I made more yesterday. It tastes almost like frozen yoghurt. I put in cinnamon, which adds a sweetness to the slight tartness.”
Botha says he learned to cook from the women in his family, his mum and two sisters, and from experience while travelling, mainly in Europe.
“When I left school I travelled for a long time.” He hitch-hiked and walked, for the most part, from London to Portugal. “I had a tent and would camp in the fields in the evenings, pack up and leave early in the mornings.”
He got a lift in the rain once in France from a man who turned out to be an apple farmer. Botha ended up working for about a month on the apple farm, living and eating with the family in the farmhouse. He spent several weeks in Peniche, about an hour north of Lisbon. Hung around the docks and learned a lot about Portuguese sardines and the preparation of them from the fishermen there.
He stayed with people. Ate with people. “When you travel like that you actually get to know people and places. So different from when you fly in, get into a hired car and head to a hotel. I’ve learned so much about food through experiencing life and other cultures. If you get involved with culture, you get involved with food.”
He’s travelled through Egypt and Israel. Sailed the Nile on a felucca. There are abundant stories. Many involve food.
He and Moya, he says, walk the beach most days for about two hours in the morning. They swim. He surfs. They forage.
Getting back to Mfino, his little restaurant, he is adamant that he has no plans or desire to expand.
“This is it. I might extend to make a little vegetable garden space, but I will never be a 50-seat restaurant.”
In fact, he has no plans to add to the seating at all. “For two reasons. I want to keep it small. And physically, I cannot do more. So yes, I want people to enjoy it. And I too want to enjoy it.” So there are the logistics, and there’s the personal expression and satisfaction part.
“Honestly, when you’re sourcing all the food, preparing all the food, making all the food from scratch, washing all the dishes, doing the orders, wrapping the food, taking the money. And still trying…” He searches for the words to explain. “People, friends, when they’re here, want to be semi-entertained.
“To be honest with you it’s doable, but it’s a long day.” He laughs. His eyes twinkle. When I write that, I realise it sounds like a cliche. But it’s not. They do. He looks happy. Moya yawns. Gets a pat. Wags his tail. Looks like he agrees and is happy too. What is it they say about a dog’s life? And man’s best friend? DM/TGIFood
Visit Mfino on Instagram.
Follow Wanda on Instagram wanda_hennig
Daily Maverick © All rights reserved