Grow Plants Rather Than Forage

Tuesday, December 8th, 2015

It’s kind of funny, not to mention retro-Homo Sapien, that foraging for wild food, which goes back some 200,000 years, is trendy in the food world. After spending all those hundreds and thousands of years learning to grow seedless watermelon and mass produce perfectly sliced white bread!
Yet digging deeper, it makes sense to look local for more sustainable food sources. Especially when home, the Cape Peninsula, hosts one of the world’s richest and most diverse plant kingdoms, as well as a sizeable population that is hungry.

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Loubie Rusch of Making KOS thinks we should not only be eating the many varieties of plants that grow wild along Cape Town city sidewalks and beaches…we should be growing them. She is of the belief that there are more plants that you can eat than not: you just need to learn which ones are kosher, so to speak. A landscape designer for 30 years before she decided to specialise in indigenous edible plants, Loubie holds regular wild food talks and walks around Cape Town.
The one I attended recently in Kalk Bay was like a botanical/culinary magic show: Loubie waved a magic wand over a long table covered with over 30 samples of mostly unfamiliar plants which looked a lot like weeds, and poof…they became a whole new range of fruits and vegetables. Well, it wasn’t quite that immediate…she did talk about each, explain what it is, where you find it and how to cook with it.

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Representing the Cape Peninsula, there were sour figs, a completely different intensely flavoured animal than Mediterranean figs (more on that later); wild sumac, a tart flavour enhancer when sprinkled on food (Loubie uses it to flavour gin and vinegar) and veldkool, which looks like a cousin of asparagus and is “absolute culinary excitement.” There was tandpynwortel, a plant with feathery carrot-like leaves and buchu, which comes from the Cedarberg but can grow in the Cape, from which Loubie makes buchu lemon cordial – “It brings out the high notes in food.” And slangbessie, Loubie’s new favourite, which comes from the same family as the goji berry.

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Then, there were the Cosmopolitan Weeds, which sounds like a paradox… or a rock band. These are weeds that have come from elsewhere and now grow everywhere: they can be picked with wild abandon in the Cape. Plants like common mallow, whose leaves Loubie uses to wrap dolmades; nasturtiums and wild mustard (from the brassica family) for salads and pestos.

Before going any further, I’ll cut to the chase and state, as Loubie did, that it’s illegal to forage for plants in the Cape wilderness. It is not illegal to forage for them on city streets, and while there is already a lot of edible stuff growing alongside pavements (as we later saw when we walked the street with “edible” eyes), Loubie would like to see “city pavements covered in an edible carpet.” Nor is it illegal to grow them at home and ultimately commercially, which is really her aim, with Cape supermarkets stocking num nums, slangbessie and spekboom. Foraging for these plants, she says, is just not sustainable.

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Loubie had her first taste of foraging when she was eight. Her mother was assisting in translating a book in Vermont (South African coastal village, not the US state), where Afrikaans writer Jan Rabie was actively foraging wild mussels and plants. This ignited something in her, which grew, when she went on excavations in the wild with her archaeologist stepfather.
“I look at the environment around me and cannot believe we don’t eat from it, yet we eat a whole bunch of food from everywhere else. We don’t even realise there are edibles around us.” This is what drives her, along with the fact that growing these plants is “about re-enlivening local food and making it modern and sexy. We have a rich resource here from which people could make a livelihood.” And, she says: “This is an easy platform for diverse people to come together. We all love to eat. South Africa has a long way to go in its healing process and sitting around a table together is one meaningful way of doing so.”
Other than her talks and demos, she is involved in too many exciting projects to mention, from working with community gardens in impoverished areas to introduce indigenous edibles, to creating Living Libraries of indigenous plants. She’s even part of a Think Tank, started by the Department of the Economic Development and Hortgro, which is looking for ways to stimulate the growth of the indigenous products industry in the Western Cape.

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Loubie’s talk ended with a wild food walk around the neighbourhood. The keener eyes spotted some of the plants we’d just seen laid out on the table. Afterwards, we tasted some of the products she makes: things like her delicious homemade wild rosemary crackers paired with sour fig and pickled onion.

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That’s when she tells me a great story about the sour fig, a fruit that is picked, dried and sold by the side of the road here. Last year, she attended the Slow Food Terra Madre Convention in Italy. With her, she brought a number of indigenous plants. At a stand, she watched a Greek woman combining bottarga (red mullet roe that was cured and wrapped in beeswax) with interesting flavours, like white chocolate. A lightbulb lit up over Loubie’s head, and out of her bag came a sour fig, which the woman opened and tasted, before saying with a smile: “Ah, umami!” Sour figs are sweet, sour, salty and savoury, all at the same time. With the bottarga, it was a most unexpected flavour explosion.

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In 21st century South Africa, it seems to me that for most people who’ve had to go hungry, it’s unlikely that a weed or a wild berry will trump a box of KFC and a packet of fries. Perhaps, this is part of the reason that South Africa is such a fat nation: our children are the third fattest in the world. At least the country’s urban population has lost touch with these valuable plant assets.
Yet, what Loubie is saying is that is encouraging to see how urban farming is developing in the Cape. “It started out as a way for grannies to feed their grandchildren. Now, younger people have become involved, and we are seeing diverse interest: different age and racial groups, and levels of education.” She is amazed at the interest she is seeing in indigenous plants, across the spectrum of Cape Town’s population, and believes that the stigma attached to eating wild foods among low income earners is not what one would think.
Above all, Loubie is not advocating that people change how they cook; she’s just encouraging us to explore and substitute some of these local ingredients. She says that as a culture, South Africans have somewhat lost their taste for the bitter, which is linked to good health and prevalent in many of these plants. “There’s a complex layering of flavours that can happen here, with bitter upon sweet upon salty, and it’s very exciting. We need to get braver,” she says.

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Interested in attending one of Loubie’s wild food explorations or learning more about some of her projects? Go to the Making KOS Facebook page or e-mail Loubie at makingkos@gmail.com

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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