TGIFOOD

NURSERY STORY

Not-so-secret gardens, hidden gems and edible delights

Not-so-secret gardens, hidden gems and edible delights
Eggs Benedict with muffin and hollandaise made from scratch and viola flower-power at Hingham Nursery Tea Garden. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

Hingham, Birds, Nature Company: three atypical culinary gems as different in mood and flavour as their needle-in-a-haystack nursery locations around Durban.

Word of mouth. How one finds out about hidden gems. Places one feels excited to have come upon. Want to return to and share with friends. In this case, three places with flower power in common given that this week I learnt that, if I suddenly develop green fingers and have the inclination, I can grow, garnish with and eat: dianthus, viola, lavender, snapdragons, rose petals, marigolds. And nasturtiums, which is one I think we all know, although “make sure you keep them for spicy salads and savoury dishes because, being peppery, they don’t work so well for sweet things”, to heed the words of Laura Venter.

Venter runs the Hingham Nursery Tea Garden in Durban North. Her chef daughter, Danielle Venter, who in her “day job” does all manner of interesting foodie things with Unilever Food Solutions, created, devised and just last month, revised the menu.

A doggy menu too, given that an essential charm of all three places (perhaps not for everyone so, whichever tree you bark up, good to know) is that they are pet friendly.

“I’m the owner,” the younger Venter says. Although not that young. “I was a late bloomer,” she laughs, telling me she did a bit of law and psych, and spent a few years in sales. Then scratching an itch of passion, enrolled at the Fusion Cooking School. Graduated. Spent four years lecturing at the Capsicum Culinary school, training “500 or 600 chefs”. Did a lot of consulting. 

“In 2009 I took over here, just after I graduated. In the beginning I was doing it on my own and as a backbone to other jobs, then got Mom involved. She manages it. Some of the kitchen staff have been here for 11 years. We’re a full female team.”

Hingham Nursery has been going for 50 years at the same Durban North location, where nursery owner and landscaper, Julia Scragg, lives in a house that has been in her family since 1863. Excuse me for not having known about the nursery or the café before I met Scragg when writing last year about the Mozambique-themed #258 on Florida Road, where she had been asked to deliver 200-plus pot plants.

“A nursery needs a tea garden,” says Scragg, who shares stories of its origins and history from when she initially made a space for it more than 20 years before the Venters’ took over and “Danielle brought a professional side, developed recipes, trained staff, brought in her mom who likes to cook and is a great people-person.”

Chef Danielle Venter and waitress Nomcebo Mthembu with the specialty Hingham bobotie, a burger and garden salads. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

One snag with it being called a tea garden, says Laura, is that people expect it to be like the erstwhile kind-of-basic Durban Botanical Gardens volunteer charity set-up, known for its scones, crumpets and the hadedas that would land on your table and snaffle your spoils. “People are always surprised when they come the first time. And let me tell you, I make the best oxtail soup in Durban. I’m just notifying you!” she says, laughing. “And the best salad, international and adventurous.”

“We are one of the few places in Durban that makes a proper Afrikaans bobotie,” says Danielle. “It’s a lunchtime favourite. Our cheesecake has no eggs, no gelatine. The eggs Benedict, we make the Hollandaise and the muffins from scratch. Cheval farm eggs. And we use Huberto’s, the best ice cream in Durban. 

“We plant all our own herbs and edible flowers.” Salad greens too. “We buy seedlings from the nursery, grow them in the area we have here and also in our garden at home. Pick them as needed.”

The carrots, Laura pipes in, “we grow only for the leaves that go into the salad”. And for garnish.

My observation, given the entertainment value and stories shared during my exploration of nurseries with cafés, is that the concept seems to attract eccentric people, as in quirky, whimsical and funny. Also warmhearted, which given the ways of the world is maybe a little eccentric, too, these days.

To share the Venter back story as a “for instance”.

“My grandfather, who lived in Welkom in the Free State, built a 62 ft (19m) ferrocement boat in his garden,” says Danielle. “The story went round that he was Noah. When he finished it, he brought it by road to Durban. They had to lift electricity lines and do all sorts of things to get it here. When he put it in the water, he forgot to put the plug in and it started to sink.” But in the nick of time, they corked it. Saved!

“He then set off with my gran and my mom and my dad and some other family, no sailing experience, round Cape Point to the Med with just a sextant and the stars. Then they carried on sailing, all over, for about 10 years.”

Until her mom “unexpectedly fell pregnant so she had to come home to have me. She took me back to the boat and I sailed with them till I was five, when she had to bring me back to start school. My first solid food was olives as we were in Greece at the time”.

“The Welsh rarebit with a twist on the menu was a family recipe they did on the boat, which we’d grown to love.” Laura’s “international and adventurous salad” was inspired by the travels.

And, Danielle adds, “my Mom is the bonsai queen of Durban. She has hundreds. She has a bonsai hospital here and a bonsai day-care, if people are going on holiday.” This on top of welcoming budgies and parrots and rabbits and many dogs over the years. And “I couldn’t say no to the man who came the other day with a big yellow snake around his neck, reminding myself we say we’re pet friendly. Although when he sat down, all the other customers got up and moved to the other side…”

The brekkie bagel special with bacon and avo at Birds Tea & Coffee in its garden centre setting. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

Birds Tea & Coffee (T&C) opened after Covid lockdown. Co-owners and partners are Jocelyn Seemann and Michelle Rautenbach. The pair met at the Umhlanga market some 20 years ago. Michelle was selling rusks, crunchies and choc-chip cookies. “To my horror, Jocelyn asked to share my table to sell her meringues. It was my table!” But not for long… “Because yes, I very kindly shared,” she jokes playfully.

“We then branched out, together, into the big world of the Essenwood Saturday market in its heyday,” says Jocelyn, who concentrated there on cupcakes, shortbread and mini-Pavlovas. “I call Michelle the queen of biscuits.”

“And I call Jocelyn the posh one,” is the rejoinder.

“We were there for years. Won prizes for best decorated.” Had a regular large fan-base. Then, when that market started to slip, they took themselves and their baked goods to the I Heart Market when it first opened, opposite the long-gone but then-legendary Beanbag Bohemia at the foot of Florida Road.

Along the way Jocelyn made her meringues and Michelle her crunchies and rusks for the Ras twins at wonderful Sprigs in Kloof. (Read our TGIFood Sprigs story here.)

Then they gave up on markets. Jocelyn managed and baked at the coffee shop at Antique Cafe, when it belonged to Sarah Owen, who subsequently built and opened the Grand Exotic in Ballito. More recently, Michelle helped out at Fat Frog, a Durban coffee shop and kitchen.

Cream scones at Birds where roses are a feature of the Spade Design Centre location. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

Birds is in Durban North, as out-of-the-way as Hingham until you’ve been there, in Spade Design Centre, a nursery that owner, Denzil Burmester, who once did a stint at Hingham, set up from scratch 10 years ago. She specialises in succulents, grasses, indoor plants and has a rose maintenance business.

Jocelyn and Michelle would sometimes meet for coffee and a catch-up at a now-closed café at Spade. They hadn’t connected for an age when Jocelyn popped in, saw the vacant space, called Michelle and twisted her arm into opening, together, what would become Birds T & C.

When Michelle “threw in the towel” on her reluctance to commit, saw the potential and decided “maybe I’m meant to be here”, they spent two months setting up the place. Brought cutlery and treasured old crockery from home, given that “kids don’t want that sort of thing these days”. And customers love it. Now, when downsizing, people often bring in and contribute a bit of Wedgwood, a bit of Spode, so they can be used.

The pair decided Michelle, who loves people, should be more front-of-house and Jocelyn, “better in the kitchen”, should focus more of her attention there. “I trust her baking and cooking absolutely. She’s the real deal. I’m more passionate about people,” says Michelle.

Home-baked carrot cake, coffee-caramel cake and cheesecake; favourites at Birds. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

They had no stove the first year. Baked what have become their famous cream scones, their carrot cake, coffee-caramel cake and cheesecake at home. Cooked in the back on two hot plates.

Now they’ve grown, have a proper set-up and kitchen help they’ve trained. People come for their soups. The breakfasts are legendary among their many regulars. 

When Google maps got me there the first time and Michelle recognised me from the year she spent at Maris Stella (school) many lifetimes ago when she was new in Durban from Mauritius, they had just had their weekly egg delivery. Five children spill from a large vehicle each Monday morning along with their mom, who brings the eggs from a farm in the Dargle. 

And don’t imagine this is only a local hangout. The word has spread. I bump into former journo friends who have come for brunch from Cowies Hill. An erstwhile food writer from Umhlanga tells me she’ll be there next week. 

The wife of a friend, one of several who have waxed lyrical on the merits of Birds T&C for some months now, suggests when I bump into her there that they change the T&C part of the name to Therapy & Counselling. Michelle has already told me, “I think I could get a degree in psychology after this.” All the chatter. All the sharing. All the lives connecting. Why, one wonders, would anyone go “coffee” in a mall when there are nurturing spots of conviviality, conversation – and escape – like these?

Amid some of their ‘collectable’ plants, a pancake stack garnished with sacred basil at the Nature Company café in Kloof. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

Buddha tranquillity and happy tail wags were my welcome to The Nature Company café in Kloof last week. My initial word-of-mouth for this haven of good flavours, nature’s colour swatches and repose, along a winding road and up a steep driveway in what to us Durban townies is a remote part of Kloof, came a couple of years ago via (should I be embarrassed?) a blind date who invited me to go hike Kloof Gorge and bird-watch with him.

He stopped en route for us to have coffee and brekker at what I would learn is Peter Bosman and Edward Palm’s beautiful created-from-scratch nursery of “collectables”. Orchids, bromeliads, dyckia. No seedlings here. Although the four types of lettuce, the three types of basil, the rocket, the sorrel, the parsley and nasturtium leaves, the chive flowers; all the salad greens come straight from the garden. 

They purchased the property, a hillside of gum trees, a little over 10 years ago. Worked flat out for three years setting up, landscaping, making and then laying what must be several hundred cobbles and building the structures, including the café with its small functional kitchen where the two cooks, life partners since 1994, can work side by side.

On their YouTube channel, The Fantastic Life of Ed and Pete, you can see videos with titles like “What we gave to run a coffee shop”, where they share snippets about their transition from what was a super-successful fashion design business and some of their 20-plus trips to Thailand when in the fashion industry, which manifests in the Buddha imagery they have and sell from their nursery garden.

They are, they admit, self-taught cooks. And passionate.

Both lacto-vegetarians – no eggs but they eat cheese and milk products – they are happy to bring you the bacon, which comes with their traditional brekker, with their scrambled eggs, their rösti breakfast and their bacon and cheese tramezzini, made from scratch by Ed. They have paninis with steak strips and three cheeses and a panini cheese and bacon burger.

Ed Palm, Pete Bosman, Buddha calm and tail wags welcome guests for a toastie and a garden salad. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

The scone recipe – and they, too, have a large cream scone following – is from a hand-written family recipe book that dates back to times “when if you wanted to increase the heat, you put in more wood”, says Ed. Their crumpet, topped with butter and syrup, covers a dinner plate. Their four-deep banana crumpet stack garnished with sacred basil and prepped with or without eggs is light as air. (We shared the one I photographed.) The cakes, chocolate, black forest and Bar One, and a deconstructed apple crumble “lots of apple, not sweet, not for kids” all have their origins in the same family heirloom recipe book.

“We used to make sourdough,” says Peter. But “to stay in business” they switched to a good low GI seed bread for their toasties. 

My tail-wagging greeter when I arrived last week was a border collie. Then I spotted a second that looked like a twin. But no, she is blind and I would feel remiss not to share a brief version of her story, which I know Ed will flesh out if you visit and enquire. A successful and award-winning fashion designer who dressed politicians, a Miss World contestant and many others in previous chapters of his life, he follows a border collie rescue WhatsApp group.

Four years ago, after he saw pictures and the story of a young, blind rescue in Gqeberha (then PE), he was haunted by the vision. Couldn’t sleep. After a couple of nights, said to Peter, “we have to go and get her”, which meant an overnight drive followed by a wait till the doors opened. At which point the then-sad and sickly puppy, which they would name Ting Tong (“the Thai word for crazy”), “walked straight to me, like she was waiting”.

When they decided they needed to get out of the fashion industry and actualise the vision they’d been talking about of “whiling away our older years with a nursery”, Peter enrolled at Unisa to study horticulture. Not a big jump as he had lived in Kloof and been growing plants since he was a kid.

Hingham, Birds, Nature Company: three atypical culinary gems as different in mood and flavour as their needle-in-a-haystack nursery locations around Durban. Worth seeking out? You decide. DM/TGIFood

Visit Birds Tea & Coffee on Facebook and on Instagram. Visit Hingham Nursery Tea Garden on Facebook and Hingham Nursery on Instagram. Visit The Nature Company on Facebook and on Instagram.

Follow Wanda on Instagram wanda_hennig

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