"It has to be free, otherwise it's not revolutionary."
This is Roushanna Gray, local food pioneer and mother of two, talking about alternative food models and inclusivity. She runs Veld and Sea from the Good Hope Garden Nursery, located about 60km from Cape Town on the tip of the continent. As if that is not special enough, this family-run business is presenting a different model for living, where one can have time to enjoy the different rhythms of life. I met up with Roushanna at the Spier Werf Market on Saturday 31 October to chat about local food and its value. Her Veld and Sea stall was a bright display of natural blooms and locally flavoured cupcakes. Veld and Sea provides seasonal and sustainable foraging workshops combined with a cooking class to not only expose people to our edible landscape, but also educate and empower them to learn more about the history of plant use in the region.
I am inspired by how close you live to the environment, but even more so that it is an approach that is so place, history and culture specific. How did that start? What first piqued your interest in foraging?
A: My foraging journey came about through a series of events, the main one being when I moved to the nursery after falling in love with my husband and then fell promptly in love with the surrounding landscape. I opened a small tea garden at the retail nursery and started experimenting with a few interesting flavours like Rooibos and Honeybush in my baking - curiosity kicked in and I ventured into playing with the flavours and fragrances of Pelargoniums and Buchus and it grew from there. I read a lot of books, studied the plants in my surroundings, did a lot of recipe testing, always staying pure to sustainability and trying to learn the stories behind each plant.
How did the traditional ethno-botany and method of collection of the Khoi and San inform your workshops?
A: The First People or San held the knowledge of being able to identify hundreds and hundreds of edible and medicinal plants from such a vast area, never picking more than needed from a plant, leaving some for regrowth and some for the animals, ensuring there will be enough to come back to the following season. Through the workshops I hope to convey the sense of how powerful our indigenous edible plants are. We should be honoring them through learning their many medicinal and culinary uses - even if its just one plant - and passing that knowledge on to your neighbour, friends or your children.
Like many other family businesses, the Good Hope Gardens Nursery grew organically over time. Gael Gray, a horticulturalist and avid hiker, started the nursery 30 odd years ago, and today sells a big selection of indigenous and Fynbos plants wholesale and retail. Gael's son Thomas Gray owns Good Hope Gardens Landscaping, and creates beautiful indigenous gardens, hard and soft landscaping, roof gardens and natural pools. Roushanna's interest in food and local flavours slotted in perfectly with the existing nursery, and today the whole family works from the same location.
"It's very nice, I mean, especially with the kids. My mother in law used to live there but now lives just in the next town. So she is at the nursery every single day, and she can come and play with the kids and it just works. And all the different businesses that we have can feed off each other."
It's obvious that the advantages are not only administrative or economic - this business model makes it possible to involve the whole family and create many opportunities for quality time together even during the working day. It reminds one of traditional models of learning and care, where the young are taught by the older generation how to take care of themselves and their environment, and they return the favour by taking care of their parents and grandparents.
The nursery also houses a Veldkos Family Garden that is part of the project 10000 Gardens in Africa (read more about that exciting project here) and is used to provide educational workshops for school children. Roushanna offers seasonal and sustainable foraging workshops - Fynbos flavour foraging in the cooler months of the year and Coastal foraging in the warmer months. There are also flower workshops in spring, kids forage and harvest mornings in the school holidays, private functions, indigenous edible flavour consultations and pop-up wild food events.
When I tell people about Good Hope Nursery and your foraging workshops, they are usually astounded by the fact that edible Fynbos exists, they’ve never even considered it. Is that the usual reaction? What are the things people are most often surprised by when attending one of your foraging workshops?
A: I think the general interest and reception of our edible plants are a lot more well received now and everyone seems to be a lot more open to the idea than they were say, five years ago. There is a certain degree of skepticism still - especially with the concept of eating edible seaweeds - but once they are experienced in a meal or a drink, taking away the unknown and turning it into the delicious - that usually does the trick!
I love the idea of coastal foraging, especially because of the different natural cycles one has to consider - the seasons, the tides, the time of day. Do you have a checklist you run through before such a workshop? Or how do you prepare for it?
A: Sure. With the coastal forages, we only hold them twice a month in season, on the closest
to a Full or New moon and starting just before low tide to ensure maximum foraging time in the intertidal zone.
When did you start foraging the coastline for food, and what led you to start doing that? Who/what taught you and inspired you?
A: We had always collected mussels and sea lettuce seaweed but it took an amazing Japanese tourist, Hiromo Jimbo , cycling his way around the world, to open my eyes to the culinary wonders and bounty of our local sea veg on our doorstep. After cooking us a traditional meal using an array of seaweeds, I was hooked and my seaweed journey began. Professor Rob Anderson and his wife Hazel encouraged me along the way with helping identifying species and suggesting recipes, I was inspired by the history of seaweed use all around the world. I read a lot of books, spent a lot of time in the rock pools, trawled the internet for information and concocted a lot of "interesting" dishes before I discovered the best one I use today.
The recipes are very important because, as Roushanna explains, when you present an unconventional idea such as edible flowers or seaweed to a sceptical audience, the success of the flavours in combination with familiar foods such as a pizza, or a scone, can make all the difference between a novel idea and a sustainable one. I asked whether she thought that a person could become 100% reliable on veld food again:
"I think that is a very romantic and idealistic idea. Realistically our taste buds have evolved so that we cannot palate the bitter taste of a lot of the edibles available in the wild. You would have to lead a much much slower lifestyle, spending most of your working day finding or catching your next meal and not staying in one place but rather travelling around to get different in-season edible hot spots. Relying on carbs from underground tubers, bulbs or corms are not sustainable any more, so you would struggle there. You would also have to be able to identify your plant species 100% and have a very good aim with your bow. Our population is also far greater than what is was back in hunter gatherer days and if we all started exclusively foraging for our food we would quickly wipe out many different habitats, environments and biomes."
The obvious conclusion would be for people to start growing more edible indigenous plants. Not only are indigenous gardens more water wise and require less maintenance, but the propagation of indigenous plants will help enhance the biodiversity of our region even more. A simple start would be to replace all you exotic herbs with local ones, starting small and growing plants in pots. The other wonderful advantage are the myriad of medicinal uses of local fynbos. The three that Roushanna uses most often in their household are:
- Wilde Als or Artemesia Afra used for earache, surfers ear, sinus, colds and flu.
- Vroubossi or Geranium incanum used for calming, bladder infections, and menstrual pain.
- Carpobrotus leaf - used for spider bites, rashes, bee and blue bottle stings, burns, sore throats.
"I'm a lot less anxious. Now, when one of the kids are sick, I don't have to rush to the chemist. I can just go into the garden."
What are the plants you look forward to at the beginning of every season?
A: Summer: Sourfigs and numnum berries. Autumn: acorns and the start of wild greens. Winter: Veldkool and wild mushrooms. Spring: Seaweeds and edible flowers. My body gets a craving for these things now, you cant just walk into a shop and buy them - its a delicious anticipation and the magic of finding the first ones of the season never fails to be as exciting as finding it for the very first time.
"When I do catering, as well, I won't plan a menu in my head. I'll go into the garden, and that will guide me."
There are exciting times ahead for Veld and Sea, but keeping it small is definitely a priority. As Roushanna puts it: How much do you sell out before you start compromising on your lifestyle? She's focusing more on pop-up events, and maybe a recipe book. For those who are interested in the topic, Roushanna recommended some books that I will be reviewing in the near future:
by Renata Coetzee, an exploration of the cuisine of our country's earliest inhabitants.
Strandveldfood, A West Coast Odyssey by Kobus van der Merwe and Jac de Villiers. This unique recipe book is an artwork in itself, but is also a beautiful introduction to the culinary art created by Kobus van der Merwe at the Oep ve Koep restaurant in Paternoster.
Anyone interested in participating in any of Roushanna's workshops can join her mailing list by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, visit her Facebook page Veld and Sea or visit their blog Goodhopenursery.com.
Roushanna in her own words:
I am at my happiest when...
I am learning something new
If I didn’t live on the tip of Africa, I would live...
In a treehouse in Hawaii
My current food obsession is...
I feel closest to my environment when I...
Am in the mountains or on my surfboard
Three things I couldn’t live without are...
My family, coffee in the morning and a sense of humour
My dream for the future is...
That everyone has access to good healthy food
My six year old self is happiest when I...
Am exploring in the rockpools
The most important trait of humanity is...
Our quest for happiness and the ability to change