A taste of fynbos – exploring South Africa’s indigenous culinary herbs

A taste of fynbos – exploring South Africa’s indigenous culinary herbs
Beakers of herb teas, cordials and infusions at the heart of the Cape Town Fynbos Experience, garnished with sprigs of spekboom, sour fig and bulbinella. (Photo: Patrick Heathcock)

Aromatic and evocative of the veld, a new palette of fynbos seasonings and herbs challenges and delights palates at a masterclass tasting experience with Giselle Courtney of South African Fynbos.

Spices have shaped our history and geography. Cape Town owes its existence to explorers and then entrepreneurial merchant ships. Hungry to satisfy the palates of the palaces of Europe (and make their fortunes), they sailed around the tip of Africa to discover a maritime spice route, trading in exotic culinary treasures that were often worth their weight in gold. Our spice racks today are routinely stocked with these once ruinously extravagant spices from the east: black pepper, cloves, cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg. The flavours of far-off lands are now taken for granted and part of our everyday cooking. But what about South Africa’s indigenous aromatics that could be ours for the picking, right here on our doorstep?

This conundrum exercised Giselle Courtney’s mind even before she moved to a little piece of fynbos and vineyard heaven outside Wellington, Western Cape, nine years ago. She’d used fynbos and rooibos for an exercise in team-building and diversity training that she’d headed up back in Joburg, and was excited by the flavours she discovered. When she moved back down to the Cape with her family, she delved deeper into fynbos lore and started a tasting at The Company’s Garden with the Cape Town Heritage Trust. But this was just skimming the surface, she says. “I thought, here we are sitting in the garden and there’s a display of all the spices of the world, but our aromatics are not represented here, this is not right.” She began what soon became a fully-fledged mission to make South Africa’s indigenous aromatics known and accessible to everyone.

From more than 7,000 fynbos species in the Cape Floristic region, Giselle identified 11 fynbos herbs that were edible and appetising, and started sustainably harvesting, drying and packaging them for culinary use. We’re now ensconced at a long table on her verandah looking over the Wellington valley for her Cape Town Fynbos Experience masterclass. An intriguing array of glass beakers, flasks, bottles and bowls are laid out in front of us, leafy centrepieces of fresh herbs, and sprigs and twigs strategically placed. It’s both logical and beautiful, science lab meets House & Garden styling.

Giselle Courtney leads our fynbos tasting encouraging us to experience each herb in turn and educate our palates to recognise these aromatic new flavours. (Photo: Patrick Heathcock)

Giselle starts us off gently with the familiarity of honeybush tea, its fragrant warmth and sweetness more intense than the tea bag variety, direct from Khoisan teas in Ysterplaat. Once we’ve sipped and considered its health benefits (phytoestrogens make it excellent for coping with menopause symptoms), Giselle shares some culinary uses. “It’s amazing to impress people in a French onion soup – use honeybush tea instead of water for the liquid, you get fragrant honey blossom, it’s unbelievable.” And it makes a wonderful icing for red velvet cake, she says, just blitz honeybush with the icing sugar.

“Now I want you to taste rooibos like you’ve never tasted it before. Take three sips and really slurp it round your mouth,” Giselle tells us next. “So what do you think rooibos could be used for with those caramel tones?” It’s got a huge amount of depth of flavour so you don’t need to use very much, and she recommends it for chicken soup. Using rooibos tea instead of water, the antioxidants in it make the soup even more healthy.

Before the first episode of this season’s MasterChef South Africa, Giselle was asked to give the contestants a training session on using rooibos in cooking and her herbs and salts were featured in that episode, “One of the best dishes they came up with was a creamy rooibos sauce to go with veggies. Then Dr Harri mixed rooibos with curry and got kicked off. Dr Harri and I are going to have to have a little cookathon to make up for that,” she laughs.

Honeybush and rooibos aren’t pushing the flavour boundaries very far, but next we move onto aromas that we’re more used to smelling on mountain hikes than tasting in our kitchens.

Sipping a buchu tea, our palates struggle to associate these new flavours with familiar ones – adjectives come to mind but aren’t quite spot on… Liquorice? Blackcurrant? Mint? Eventually my brain decides that black fruit pastille is the closest equivalent in my internal taste reference library.

The pretty pink flowers of buchu, or agathosma betulina. The dried leaves used in cooking work as a natural aromatic, drawing out the flavours of meat. (Photo: Patrick Heathcock)

Giselle tells us buchu acts as a flavour enhancer, “It’s like a natural Aromat. It finds the flavours that are in something and it draws them out.” It’s easily used as a dry marinade on something like a lamb or a beef roast. “The flavours soak in but it’s not strong once it’s cooked. You do need to use it sparingly, but it brings out the flavours of the meat like never before.”

Giselle’s immersion in the lore of the plants connects with a sense of KhoiSan ancient history that she’s always aware of here in this Wellington valley – they regularly discover stone age tools in the earth around their farm. She says, “The early people, when they were walking in the mountains and smelt an aroma like buchu, it meant there was something luminous or sacred nearby, there was a god in the vicinity. They’d keep buchu mixed with butter in tortoise shells hung around the neck to protect themselves from insect bites. So buchu powder has been around forever. It’s very precious.”

A note of caution here – there are two buchus in commercial production: agathosma betulina (with a broad leaf) is edible, while agathosma crenulata (long oval leaves) contains higher levels of pulegone, which is potentially toxic in concentrated form, and is more often used in the perfume industry. So if you’re buying a buchu essential oil for use in cooking (1 drop of essential oil to 1 litre of olive oil for drizzling over a steak to enhance the flavour), make sure it’s labelled as edible.

Much of Giselle’s research was based on books published by Professor Ben-Erik van Wyk at University of Johannesburg. “He and his team really wish that people would do more with the knowledge they present as professors of botany and were very helpful. I read up about what we can eat and cross-referenced their books with what Margaret Roberts had to say, and read the scientific background, then I started cooking and trying out the tastes on all my friends. It kind of evolved.” During lockdown she took her kitchen experimentation to a new level and came up with a flavour wheel for the 11 herbs, a useful reference tool for novice fynbos foodies.

Twenty percent of the weight of the rhino bush plant is from the resin that covers the compact leaves. That veld-scented resin melts into the seared surface of meat, or into cheesy dishes such as croque monsieur or pizza. (Photo: Patrick Heathcock)

Now our tasting is veering off the beaten path for me. Rhino bush is resinous, dry, quite subtle, nothing special on its own, but Giselle tells us it is amazing in Ottolenghi’s wok-seared cabbage recipe, or on pork kebabs as a marinade. On seared meat or anything cheesy the resin melts into it, adding savouriness and a true taste of the veld, she says.

This and the next herb we taste, snowbush (also known as kapokbos or wild rosemary), are commonly found in the Swartland renosterveld typical of this area. “We have an 8 hectare patch here, but it is critically endangered. If you look far and wide you won’t see any more, it’s all wine and wheat.”  

The snow bush has fluffy white seeds that led to its Afrikaans name of kapokbos. To the right are the bitter legume-type leaves of cancer bush. (Photo: Patrick Heathcock)

We all rather fall for the snowbush – it’s not like regular rosemary at all, but has a similar intense but fragrant quality that makes it easy to imagine cooking with as part of a bouquet garni, with lamb or potatoes, or in a fresh tzatziki.

The next on the list, cancer bush, is a hard sell. Our faces pucker at the initial bitterness. “Keep going, sip three times, there’s a sweetness at the end,” Giselle encourages us. “It’s from the legume family, you’ll start to taste mangetout, peanut…” It’s one of those acquired tastes, for sure. “As we get older we look for new tastes,” she continues, “something that’s umami, more bitter, out of the ordinary – cancer bush adds another layer of flavour, especially with fatty German foods like bratwurst.” This is another herb with useful medicinal properties as an immune booster, but it’s going to take me a while to gamble on it in the kitchen.

Rose and mint pelargoniums are much easier to love. Floral, citrussy rose as a relaxing tea or cordial or, Giselle suggests, with a malva pudding, then the mint with white chocolate in any creamy dessert, for a cool, fresh mintiness that isn’t overpowering.

Although Giselle is primarily concerned with the culinary side of the herbs, she shares lots of the medicinal benefits, many of them anecdotal observations by Margaret Roberts, including that a mint pelargonium leaf rolled up and put in your ear is great for unblocking ears and clearing sinuses – of course we have to immediately try this out. And we end up looking like the Roman soldiers in the Asterix books, marching through the forest with parsley in their ears, including the one joker who puts it in his nose. We have that person at our table too… cue much hilarity.

Now we’d tasted all the basics it was time to put our brain connections to the test, guessing which herbs flavoured which of the cordials, then moving on to the herb vinegars. Finally we get to the infused alcohols, brandy, gin and vodka, and another guessing game – I won’t spoil it for you by telling which one was which. Finally we got stuck into some mixology, combining the flavoured alcohols, teas and cordials for a personalised fynbos margarita. Let’s just say that I won’t be adding mixology to my CV skill set just yet, but some of the others came up with some delicious results.

Infusing the fresh herbs in vinegar for two weeks is a simple way of using aromatic fynbos herbs in vinaigrettes and salad dressings. (Photo: Patrick Heathcock)

Once we’d quaffed our experimental cocktails it was time to eat. We moved into the kitchen where Giselle’s behind the scenes team had laid lunch out beautifully. The whole range of eleven herbs in shakers and herb salts in grinders were placed in the middle shared between two people so that we could put our new acquaintance with edible fynbos to the test. Starting with thick slices of freshly baked bread slathered in butter and then sprinkled with herbs and salts, we launched ourselves on a taste adventure. Giselle suggested various combinations using the bowls of tapas ingredients, olives, cheese, chickpeas, pecans. And we sampled two more teas – Cape mountain sage and nutmeg pelargonium – and enjoyed a thoroughly good tasting time.

Loaves of freshly baked bread and bowls of tapas ingredients become an experimental canvas to try out flavour combinations of the various salts and herbs. (Photo: Patrick Heathcock)

Sated with new flavours and brain-weary from building new taste synapses, we took a stroll up the farm track past Giselle’s gardens, planted out with buchu, cancer bush and pelargoniums, through the renosterveld where we identified the rhino bush and snowbush and Giselle gave us a handful of the fluffy seeds of the latter.

Swartland renosterveld is critically endangered, as much of it has been cleared for farming. It doesn’t look very exciting, except when flowering in late winter and early spring, but is full of unique plants, including the snowbush and rhino bush that often grow alongside each other. (Photo: Patrick Heathcock)

Strolling along the spine of the hill, with views dipping towards Paarl on the one side and Wellington on the other, Giselle sums up what it’s all about for her, “It’s very important to me that it’s known as South African fynbos, rather than just Cape fynbos – it’s part of the national identity, in the same way that  the Kruger National Park is part of our national identity – that might be located in the north but it’s part of our country’s cultural heritage. What gives us more of a sense of identity than eating our own botanical flavours? What makes us truly South African and connects all of us at an essential level? It’s the plants and what we eat.”

After the tasting we each chose a herb, herbal salt or tea to take home, as well as a bouquet of the fresh herbs that had decorated the tasting table, and Giselle kindly gave me the whole Fynbos Foodie Kitchen Kit to try at home. Over the next few weeks, having joyfully discovered that we actually have snowbush growing on our smallholding, I experimented with the herbs in my regular day to day recipes. Snowbush is easy to fit in – on mushrooms for an omelette, mixed with paprika and coriander on a spicy grilled chicken. Rhino bush went well with bacon for a spaghetti carbonara (some rooibos in the eggs for this also added a new depth) and I tried it successfully in a pot of mince along with some honeybush. Then just putting a selection of the salts on the lunch table to grind over an avo or some focaccia makes an ordinary meal more interesting. TGIFood Editor, Tony Jackman, has also been experimenting with these fynbos herbs, check out his observations and a recipe for a fynbos herb rub.

Tasting these fynbos aromatics is like discovering that a paintbox that you’ve been using for years has another layer of colours hidden below the first. Shades you’ve never come across before, that relate to the ones you know but open a whole new way of looking at colour. It pushes your palate to explore and adds new interest to a jaded one. There might be certain similarities to the spices and herbs we know from European and Eastern cuisines, but our fynbos aromatics are essentially different, delightful to play with, and inspiring. The only problem I now have is where to keep them. I need a whole new shelf on my spice rack for them to become part of my regular library of seasonings whenever I’m cooking. DM/TGIFood

Read more about the masterclass and fynbos herbs South African Fynbos

Follow Kit Heathcock on Instagram @kitheathcock

The writer supports Ma’s vir Wellington serving the children and the community in Wellington with early childhood development programmes that include feeding, clothing, and providing a caring environment for pre-school children and their families.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

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

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options