TGIFOOD

DOWN ON THE EARTH FARM

A deliciously Wicked way of doing things

A deliciously Wicked way of doing things
We’re starting to appreciate food grown and produced in these better ways again. (Photo: Mike Crewe-Brown)

Sustainable food just tastes better. Even when you think the practice is hooey. At Wickedfood Earth Farm near Hekpoort everything is made from scratch with heirloom vegetables and happy hormone-free cattle ranging on the farm.

If you wonder, as I did, whether the Crewe-Browns’ Wickedfood Earth Farm was named for ye olde Wiccan pagan land practices, it is not. There was, says Mike Crewe-Brown, a time one or two decades ago when some food people, like Jamie Oliver did, would call dishes Wicked Chicken or a wicked salad. I suppose it was like the way some local, especially TV, chefs would refer to their food elements as Bad Boys, influenced by Jamie Olivier’s frequent use of the term. “Let’s put these bad boys to simmer in their juices.” There was a Wicked champagne and even Wicked crisps at the time. It was quite a cool name and does carry some magic. 

Mike and Cilla Crewe-Brown. (Photo: Supplied)

I’m deep-breathing the country air with Mike and Cilla Crewe-Brown and my food-traveller friend David at a very long wooden table outside the food workshops and kitchen building on the Hekpoort farm. It’s mild on the highveld today and Mike is waxing fascinating about what he knows a lot, foods, of course, their heritage, the best ways to unlock their flavours, their preservation and added values. On this farm, no matter the activity, it’s all about responsible use of sustainable resources. This building itself was a sustainability project. 

There are all the right words and many wrong behaviours when it comes to farming and food production, even cooking. There’s the much-wielded but poorly acted-on word “organic”. There are the words “responsible”, “sustainable”, “conscious”, “natural”, and “regenerative”. At this late stage in our so-called modern world, we’re starting to appreciate food grown and produced in these better ways again, especially when what we fork out for it is not very different, as is still the case in South Africa. Of course, many people elsewhere in the world have never produced food in any other way. They are now the exemplary ones. 

Mike asks if I know the Netflix movie The Biggest Little Farm. Looking at me, he nods for emphasis. It’s a much-awarded doccie about a real LA couple and their dog who, over almost a decade, turned an unpromising 200 ha farm biodiverse and eventually into their dream of sustainability. It was not easy and there’s a lot of heartbreak among the triumphs. It also has a pig in it and so does Mike have some I very much want to see. Mike’s and Cilla’s farm is 38 ha. 

Often there’ve been food students of all ages working this part of the food gardens but today we pass tomatoes and tomatillos, nasturtiums. There are particular signs standing out of the beds. I read Curry Tomatoes clearly written on one, for instance. I know there’s no such type but presume that’s a variety specially grown that behaves well in Mike’s curries. He grows eight varieties of tomatoes anyway and then three types of tomatillos loved by me for making green gazpacho.  

Incidentally, because all foods and Wickedfood Earth products are made from scratch, this is one place that doesn’t use perfectly nice tinned Italian tomato puree, no matter how inexpensive it is. Mike uses his own bottled tomato passata. It’s also for sale online or here. This a good example of the Wicked way of doing things, I think to myself. Mike Crewe-Brown is not one to budge on sustainability principles. There’s no inbetween. It’s got to be done right. There may be Wickedfood Earth instances that go against apparent odds but there are always odds, are there not?

Some of the herringbone patterned beds, brimming with the farm’s own almost black, loamy soil are waiting to be planted. Garlic is going in now, three types. Mike gives me two bulbs, telling me about the sweet and sharp differences. Garlic alone is a topic which Mike can teach anyone. He has 10 kinds of chilli growing, something I desperately envy, and so a special adobe paste he produces in jars for purchase that I’ll use later to accompany a burger that David Brunton will kindly invite me to lunch on, using some astonishingly tasty beef mince bought from Wickedfood Earth. The beef from the farm’s own grass and herbs eating Dexter herd is dry-aged for two to four weeks before it is ground. 

Mike also grows five kinds of aubergines and again, there’s a wow aubergine and lemon middle-eastern marmalade available to buy. Cilla’s family is Lebanese and the preserve is often eaten with tea or coffee by the spoonful but is wonderfully useful with cured meats or in a cheese sarmie. Here are four kinds of sweet potato, including a blue, along with the orange, yellow and pale ones. There are six kinds of beans and I’m not surprised to hear that Mike also knows my farmer friend, Siphiwe Sithole of African Marmalade. 

“We’re very much alike,” he says matter-of-factly. He, too grows turmeric and okra. He has artichokes, fennel, beetroot, cabbage and even makes his own tahini from his own sesame. 

Wickedfood Earth’s own Dexter cattle munch in the veld, free of growth hormones, antibiotics and stimulants. (Photo: Mike Crewe-Brown)

We move down to the animal camps, en route to the pigs, passing Wickedfood Earth’s own Dexter cattle, munching in the veld, free of growth hormones, antibiotics and stimulants. Here is also a small breeding herd of the indigenous fat-tailed Bapedi sheep, ideal for meat and their skins. I sniff the sweetish khakibos and other wild herbs around. Below the camps are the fruit trees, a veritable forest of 800 trees. The pomegranates have been picked and they’re already being turned into yummy pomegranate molasses. He has nine kinds of peaches, five of nectarines, four kinds of apricots, two kinds of their relatives, the almonds, that sound interesting, four types of plums, four different apples, three pears, a surprising six sorts of figs, different olives, persimmons, cherries and quinces.  

For a fiendishly extravagant brunch of a whole lot of fabulous pork products I’ll buy later, I’ll also have buttery toast with quince and lemon marmalade, a beguiling first for me, though I’m a huge fan of having cheese with quince paste’ll get lots of that at the same time. 

There are already 10 different kinds of berries and Mike wants to increase the amounts. I ask him if he’s going the superfood berry route. 

“I just like berries.”

I meet the pigs. Somehow naturally kept pigs always make me smile and put me in a wonderful mood. So it is here, heightened by the presence of the new future-breed piglets romping around their sow adorably. 

Piglets of a new breed to be called Sandveld Red, a cross between Duroc and Kolbroek. (Photo: Mike Crewe-Brown)

Mike is proudly breeding what will be called Sandveld Red, ideal for free, sustainable South African conditions, hardy and good porkers, the best of both types of pigs, the Kolbroek crossed with the Duroc. It is only the beginning but here are the first little ones. I feel as squealy as the piglets. 

At present, they are in large pens because of the birth, as is another sow, soon to farrow. They will later roam the lower fields as is usual. 

On the way back up, Mike shows us the beautiful ruby mielie he grows, called Bloody Butcher corn. “Part of the joy of planning dinner in the garden, not the supermarket,” is what Mike Crewe-Brown likes to say.  

Mike loves what he does. Its tough, though. He knows so much about it that he’s been honoured with Slow Food’s Food Heroes Award for the development of rare breeds and educating others about sustainable food and farming. He’s frequently asked to be a sustainability expert in the media and in other countries. That’s not the issue. One issue is still that of breaking the news to buyers that sustainable food is their future. 

I admit that whenever it looks to me as if people think these practices are unnecessary, new-fangled nonsense and that chemically or artificially produced foods are perfectly okay, I ask them to taste the difference between the foods because that’s how I first appreciated it. Sustainable food just tastes better. Even when you think the practice is hooey. 

It is the taste. When he does workshops about sustainability or ones about charcuterie making, Mike also likes to get people to cook some of the food so that they understand better why they’re doing this. He has the most interesting workshops. For instance, he does workshops for hunters and for chefs. The workshops have lagged a little because of Covid but he intends doing a charcuterie workshops tour around the country, to farming and produce areas. It starts next month, April. 

Pre-Covid, Wickedfood Earth Farm also featured a Sunday lunch restaurant and then picnics with safe social distancing. Originally, Mike was a teacher and photographer. He also published a food magazine called Bon Vivant but the longer he lived, the more he knew he should be doing sustainable food work. Just over a decade ago that’s what he and Cilla did. With the blows that they and so many people have taken over the last few years, they’ve had to downsize some of the operation. They are recovering and replanning, like so many others.  

There is of course, some heartbreak, as in the movie. The small-scale ethical farmer has more than financial difficulties. Another issue is that Mike’s original idea for having this farm, these facilities is still in his mind.  

The idea was always to create community upliftment, subscribing to the ethos of the responsible use of sustainable resources. So, one thing Mike is adamant about doing is passing on his skills. He wants to do more skills training, along with his butchery, charcuterie and cooking courses.  

Nduja toasts with spanspek-and-olive oil soup. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

His products are absolutely fabulous. Because he cooks so well and understands food, they are sophisticated and surprisingly interesting. Added to that is his charcuterie wizardry. The Wickedfood Earth Shop Online website features surprises and hard-to-find treasures. 

I don’t know anywhere else where one can find nduja for example. This very spicy southern Italian pork based spread has become an international favourite and was recently used, thanks to the visit by the friend, David, who accompanied me to the farm, when he served a rather phenomenal cold spanspek-and-olive oil soup with nduja toasts. 

Fried marrow flowers, wrapped in pancetta. (Photo: Mike Crewe-Brown)

Try and find properly cured nitrates-free belly bacon and pancetta that contain no brine or water so that they cook fat and flat. Such places can be counted on one hand. How about proper coppa, Thai, French, Italian, Spanish pork sausages, boerewors, pale German warthog sausages, brisket, pastrami, pretty much whatever you can think of? I loaded up with the most unusual relishes, preserves, bottled fruit vinegars and juices. There’s about nine tenths more to find on the site. 

It’s easy to see that Mike Crewe-Brown could have taken countless short cuts, cheaper cuts and less sustainable cuts along his way at Wickedfood Earth Farm, much as were the temptations on The Biggest Little Farm. He hasn’t. He just won’t. I don’t think he could ever be tempted to do anything the wrong way. After all, he created the Wickedfood way. DM/TGIFood

Wickedfood Earth farm shop, Hekpoort. 060 761 0885 

Bookings for classes and workshops: Cilla 076 236 2345 [email protected] 

The writer supports Nosh Food Rescue, an NGO that helps Jozi feeding schemes with food ‘rescued’ from the food chain. Please support them here.

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