A Waterless Dinner

Wednesday, February 7th, 2018

I drive along beautiful coastline every day, yet I’m flushing my toilet with grey shower water, eating off paper plates and watching many of the presumably waterwise plants in my garden wither away. These days, daily life in Cape Town brings to mind that famous line from The Rhime of the Ancient Mariner: Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.

Cape Town has long been famous for its two oceans: the Atlantic and the Indian, which converge not far from the city. Now, Cape Town is also famous for its water crisis, with Day Zero – the looming and ever-fluctuating day when the municipal taps will be turned off, if current consumption doesn’t change drastically. Earlier this week, that date was estimated at April 16th . As of today, it’s been pushed out to May 11th. Cape Town is first in line to win the title of First Major City to Run Out of Water. Not a title anyone who lives here wants.

Yet, although the Western Cape – home to much of South Africa’s agriculture — is experiencing the worst drought in a century, it is no landlocked desert: it’s well-kissed by two oceans. Plans are underway – not quickly enough – to get desalination plants online for potable water, but it’s important to look at the many other ways that water is consumed. Water for drinking pales in comparison to that used for agriculture.

According to Hannerie Visser of Studio H, a Cape Town-based collective that designs experiences through the lens of food, 69% of the world’s fresh water is used by agriculture: for irrigation, livestock watering and cleaning, and aquaculture. Which begs the question, for Cape Town and the world, shouldn’t we be looking more seriously at seawater for agricultural use?

I recently attended S/Zout, one of three Waterless Dinners prepared by Hannerie and her team. The dinners stemmed from the S/Zout project, for which Studio H collaborated with Salt Farm Texel in the Netherlands, a company that has successfully grown certain crops using seawater irrigation. The produce that performed particularly well were lettuce, cabbage, strawberries, carrots and tomatoes. At Dutch Design Week in October, Studio H offered samples of ketchups, atchar, pickles and candies made from this produce.

The idea behind the dinners in Cape Town was to bring attention to the potential of seawater (or saline) agriculture, but more broadly, to get people to think outside the box about how we eat and drink. Hannerie is often pushing the food envelope, trying to get the public to consider more sustainable approaches to eating, drinking and living. And while the Cape Town vegetables were grown conventionally (with fresh water), no water was used in the preparation or cooking of the meal.

We started with a beautifully scented waterless anti-bacterial hand wash, made with aloe vera gel and thieves oil, and a shot of fresh carrot juice. Then it was on to the first cocktail. A waterless one.

Photo credit: Johno Mellish/Studio H

Yes, all three cocktails served during the evening were prepared without water, with The Botanist Gin; by its local brand ambassador Caitlin Hill. Besides this title, Caitlin keeps to her brand’s international commitment to choose locally grown and foraged ingredients to complement its gin. She has worked extensively with Cape Town forager Roushanna Gray (see bottom note) to expand her knowledge of wild plants and how they can be used in drinks.

The Hebrides Martini was made with The Botanist Gin, pale dry sherry and ocean water — served in a tin foil pie tray and kept cool with frozen river pebbles: a substitute for ice that is sheer genius. It was served alongside mussel shells filled with palate cleansing homemade kimchi (which used all the solids left over from juicing carrots and blending tomatoes for a drink paired with the main course).

Photo credit: Johno Mellish/Studio H

We sat at a long fantastical table with a bed of West Coast salt acting as table runner. Ready to be plucked from the salt bed were salt-tolerant crudités: carrots, endive, cherry tomatoes, which we dipped into a garlic cream dip. Beautifully crafted plates made of salt from a mould designed by  Italian design studio Tour de Fork were brought to the table, topped with goat cheese-stuffed red cabbage rolls.

Photo credit: Johno Mellish/Studio H

Note: It takes 237 litres of water to produce 1kg of cabbage; if using salt-grown cabbages for the dinner, Studio HV could have saved roughly 260 litres of water. We used the plates throughout the meal, along with recyclable cutlery, so there was no dish washing to be done. To season our food, there were three different salts, infused with tomato, cabbage and strawberry respectively.

We drank Zebonkey Poseidon, a Stellenbosch-brewed beer partially made from sea water.

Photo credit: Johno Mellish/Studio H

The next course was fresh mackerel rubbed with salt and black pepper, grilled over an open fire, topped with a tomato, onion, garlic and strawberry vinegar salsa and a dollop of thickened, tart ostrich yolk. Targeted fishing of top predators (such as billfish, sharks and tuna), eventually disrupts marine communities, causing increased abundance of smaller marine animals, such as mackerel at the bottom of the food chain.

The main course was salt-baked ostrich fillet, served with potato chips and cabbage, carrot and tomato ketchups. Each person helped themselves to a thin slice of a gargantuan fried ostrich egg that was passed down the table on a marble square. Note: Ostriches are drought friendly; they consume very little water. Studio H saved 38,537 litres of water per dinner by choosing ostrich instead of beef. As for the potatoes, it takes 287 litres of water to produce 1kg of potatoes…if cooking salt-grown potatoes for the dinners, 505 litres of water could have been saved.

Photo credit: Johno Mellish/Studio H

With the main course, we drank Kitchen Front cocktails served in repurposed carrot juice cartons, made from The Botanist Gin, lemon oleo saccharum, fresh lemon, carrot and searsia pendulina soda, with a strawberry, wild rosemary and agar agar foam. They were topped with a slow roasted tomato & fennel olive oil.

My favourite part of the evening, besides the fresh and innovative cocktails, was dessert. Who would have thought that strawberry camel milk ice cream could taste so good! I’d never tasted camel milk before, and I wouldn’t have guessed that the dairy for this ice cream didn’t come from a cow. Meant to be sprinkled on the ice cream (but I ate mine before the ice cream arrived), was a box of carrot fruit loops, made from salt tolerant carrots. As we all know, camels are known for their ability to go without water for long periods of time, so camel milk would naturally have a much lighter water footprint than cows’ milk.

Photo credit: Johno Mellish/Studio H

The final cocktail was Salt ‘N Fynbos, a mix of The Botanist Gin, African wormwood and watermelon soda, and fresh lemon juice, served in a vegetable tin with a foraged botanical salt rim. “I chose to use carrots, strawberries, cabbage and tomato in these drinks as these vegetables are successfully grown with salt water,” said Caitlin. “Watermelon was chosen as it already has a significant amount of water in the fruit, therefore hydrating imbibers without using fresh water.”

Hannerie tells me that the seawater irrigated vegetables she cooked with in the Netherlands do not taste salty at all; in fact, the carrots taste even sweeter than conventionally grown ones.

I admit that I was ready to down a giant glass of water by the time I got home, but I loved the challenge of reconsidering how we eat, which is still lingering with me two weeks later. It doesn’t take a genius to know that we can no longer carry the costs to the environment of conventional large-scale agriculture. When what feels like almost impossibly great change is broken down into smaller, tangible increments — like a waterless cocktail, or choosing ostrich over beef — it feels empowering, especially in the face of a dire water crisis.

We need this kind of disruptive thinking, as we come to grips with the fact that water is rapidly becoming our most precious commodity.

NOTE: Profits from the dinners went towards the restoration of fynbos at Veld and Sea (see my last post), the foraging centre that was impacted by the devastating Scarborough fire last November. To make a donation, click here.

All water footprint statistics in bold provided by Studio H.

Feature photo credit: Johno Mellish/Studio H Images. All uncredited images are mine.




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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