Fire and the Forager

Thursday, December 7th, 2017

Few in Cape Town have done more to introduce foodies, chefs, distillers, brewers and tourists to wild food, particularly fynbos – the vast category of indigenous plant life that covers the Cape’s mountains – than forager/cook Roushanna Gray, whose interactive workshops fall under the name Veld and Sea. Roushanna makes foraged food look sexy, with dishes like edible flower and wild green spring rolls, spekboom and nasturtium quiche, and pelargonium carrot cake  – all aromatic and delicious. (Click here for a post I wrote about Veld and Sea coastal foraging).

But, last month, life threw Roushanna a fiery curveball: her family’s nursery and home were nearly incinerated by the intense Red Hill/Scarborough fire that wiped out a whole mountainside on the Cape Peninsula.

Image by Steve Benjamin
Roushanna and friends and community members cutting an emergency fire break behind the cottage.

This was Roushanna’s mountain. The special place that inspired her, and served as her rich source of sustainably foraged culinary plants. And, where she led her immersive fynbos workshops. Miraculously her home and most of the nursery were spared, although they are now surrounded by what resembles a bomb site. It has been exhausting and devastating but she remains positive.

After the fire.
Miracle cottage after the burn. Image by Bryan Little.

She is ready to rebuild.

Here’s where community comes in: there’s a campaign afoot to help Roushanna restore the mountainside that has been so abundant and giving to Veld and Sea, and its many students and partners.

And, it revolves around drinks…so everyone’s a winner, at least in my book. But first, the fire.

Fire is usually a good and natural thing for fynbos, which requires a good burn every ten to fifteen years for seeds to regenerate. However, last month’s horrific man-made blaze burned an area untouched by fire for 28 years, and because of high, constantly shifting winds and the masses of uncontrolled invasive species in its path, it raged for nearly two weeks. Eventually, it was brought under control, but not without a lot of assistance from fire fighters, community members, volunteers and choppers. And, a lot of drama for Roushanna and her family, who fought fiercely themselves on next to no sleep.

Image by Steve Benjamin

Fire in what’s considered the wrong season – just before the beginning of a long, hot windy summer – can create a dusty environment that is unwelcoming to seeds. In addition, if fire burns too hot (as it does when fuelled by invasive plants), it can be detrimental to seed biodiversity. “This kind of fire needs human intervention to deal with the aftermath,” says Roushanna.

Her main concern is the invasive Port Jackson trees. If you clear the land, the seed banks in the ground lay dormant. Fire triggers germination. “The first thing that comes up are all the little aliens: there will be hundreds and thousands of them if left to do their thing. They will dominate…and there won’t be enough room for all the special fynbos to grow back.”

How long will it take for the mountain to recover? Roushanna estimates it will be two years before we have an idea of how well it will recover. “It’s going to be a different mountainside than we’re used to when it grows back,” she says. There may be species unseen for years that pop up, and there may be some familiar ones that don’t regenerate. It depends somewhat on human intervention.

How to Help

As Roushanna is beloved to Cape Town’s food and drinks community, so it’s no surprise that two of her biggest supporters have launched a campaign to raise funds for the restoration of the mountain.

Five for Fynbos is an initiative started by The Botanist Gin (a Remy Cointreau product that has worked closely with Roushanna over the past two years, who has been its foraging guide and wild flavour consultant) and Theonista Products (a local kombucha and craft beverage company that sources a range of wild and cultivated indigenous herbal botanicals from the nursery for seasonal blend kombuchas).

During the campaign, which runs from todayFirst Thursday (December 7th to First Thursday, January 4th, participating bars and restaurants will tack on an additional R5 to special drinks using these products, which will go directly to Veld and Sea for the purposes of fynbos restoration (see more below)

At the end of the one-month campaign, its organisers intend to curate a ticketed event (generously hosted by The Gin Bar) with other professionals within the foraging industry, that will feature a masterclass on our local fauna.

Funds raised will be used for:

  • catchment nets to trap sand and seeds, minimizing seed loss
  • alien clearing after the summer, when aliens are large and widespread enough to clear. This will need to be done constantly for at least five years by a private contractor, to ensure it’s done properly and throughly.
  • fixing paths and infrastructure to the nursery which housed botanicals for propagating.

You can drink a delicious cocktail that will benefit Veld and Sea at a growing list of establishments which includes:

Cause & Effect Bar

The Gin Bar

Clarke’s Bar & Dining Room

Hail Pizza

For further information on this campaign and its participants, check the Instagram page: @fiveforfynbos

If you’d rather contribute from the comfort of your own home, you can do so at https://candystick.co.za/c/five-for-fynbos.


Also benefitting Veld and Sea:

The Studio H food design team will be hosting a series of three pop-up waterless dinners on 23, 24 and 25 January 2018.

The dinners will be cooked using salt tolerant crops, inspired by the studio’s speculative water project S/Zout that explores the use of sea water in agriculture. Agriculture uses 69% of the world’s fresh water resources.

There will only be 87 tickets available in total for the dinners, which is the amount of water (in litres) one person is allowed to use per day in Cape Town (current water rationing due to drought conditions).

All profits will be donated to Veld and Sea. For more information and to book, go to https://www.quicket.co.za/events/38586-studio-h-waterless-dinner/#/schedules

This time of year, Roushanna teaches coastal foraging classes, which have not been impacted by the fire. For more information, go to https://veldandsea.com/

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Featured image at the top by Steve Benjamin. All uncaptioned images are courtesy Roushanna Gray.

Written by Ilana Sharlin Stone

I’m a food writer, blogger and former chef who found her umami in Cape Town, South Africa.

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