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Botanical Inspiration: Cape Town’s Veld and Sea Workshops

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Botanical Inspiration: Cape Town’s Veld and Sea Workshops

November 29, 2017

In the middle of the fynbos, en route to Cape Point—the iconic crescent of peninsula plunging into the ocean an hour’s drive from Cape Town—is Veld and Sea, where local forager Roushanna Gray teaches botanical flavor classes. Her only neighbors are the surrounding mountains and a roaming troop of baboons. A sense of remoteness prevails, despite the relative proximity of a city of millions.

Steep slopes, a rocky shoreline, and the curved footprint of Table Mountain National Park, which stretches from the city to the needle nose of rock piercing the breakers at the tip of the Cape of Good Hope, make Roushanna’s wild-food enterprise a special place, and she has tapped its potential in a way that resonates with local as well as foreign visitors.

Veld and Sea’s seasonal roster is packed with wild experiences, collaborative workshops, and intimate pop-up dinners:

Photography by Marie Viljoen, except where noted.

Watsonias by Marie Viljoen

Above: Veld and Sea’s unusual location owes its existence to the foresight of Roushanna’s mother-in-law, Gael Gray, a pioneering and renowned indigenous plant expert and grower. Her Good Hope Gardens nursery has occupied this spot since 1985, when she discovered this “elemental and wild slice of heaven,” as Roushanna puts it. “Everyone thought she was crazy…”

There was no water or electricity and the land then was covered in invasive alien vegetation (an ongoing threat to biodiversity in Cape Town, as well as a fire hazard), which was cleared over the next 15 years as Gray established a homestead and nursery.

Veld and Sea’s origins lie in Roushanna’s marriage to Gael’s son, Tom, a designer of indigenous landscapes. Ten years ago she started a tea garden at the nursery to serve dedicated nursery customers, who drove a long way to purchase plants. Fueled by Gael’s mentorship, her interest in indigenous and aromatic plants grew, and she branched out from baking rooibos-flavored cupcakes into teaching wild flavor encounters for kids. In 2013 she launched land forage and harvest classes, and coastal foraging for adults.  This remote horticultural outpost is now a beacon and destination for novice foragers and culinary explorers.

Veld and Sea workshop table by Marie Viljoen

Above: A repurposed cabin on the nursery grounds is the site of workshops, classes, and pop-up meals. Roushanna’s deft botanical hand and gimlet eye transform the space to reflect each event’s emphasis. Topics range wildly and widely from edible flower gathering and garland making, to booze-forward indigenous mixology, to botanical story telling, to nearby coastal forages where Roushanna and her guests (armed with shellfish permits required by law) scour the shoreline for edible seaweeds and molluscs. Many outings culminate in a shared, communally prepared meal, a hands-on and sensory highlight of each class.

Veld and Sea workshop by Marie Viljoen

Above: The workshop space combines whimsy with mementos from past classes, a trove of preserved forages, and a practical backbone of  local botanical reading.

Above: Before everyone settles down for a class all eyes are on the signature cake—a flower-decked, herb scented confection—on a boozy sideboard. The forager has not lost her baking touch.

Above: Botanical classes begin with a table side introduction to the species under discussion, with samples of local flora such as aromatic pelargoniums and agathosma being passed hand to hand and sniffed appreciatively. The surrounding fynbos is one of the biomes within the Cape Floristic Region, the smallest of the six Plant Kingdoms on the planet, and also relatively the richest. Many fynbos plants are intensely aromatic and have enormous culinary potential. Others have an ancient history of use in traditional medicine and as food. South African distillers, brewers, and chefs are beginning to look again at what is growing under their local feet. Roushanna often guides them on their explorations through her tailored flavor consultations.

Above: A stroll through the nursery grounds and example gardens yields a domestic forage of edible weeds like nettles and sow thistle, and vegetables pulled straight from the vegetable garden (within snorting sound of the pig pen).

Above: On an early spring forage a local delicacy abounds: Trachyandra ciliata (top), known in Afrikaans as veldkool, or field cabbage. The immature flower buds are a delicious cooked vegetable. Below it is Portulacaria afra (commonly called spekboom—meaning bacon tree), a carbon-sequestering superstar whose natural native habitat lies to the northeast of Cape Town. Its succulent leaves are packed with sour punch. The fat leaf below is soutslaai—translated as salt salad, it is Mesembryanthemum crystallinum, whose plump leaves are reservoirs for pops of juice.

Above: After all the forages are washed, the cabin classroom is transformed into a communal kitchen.

Above: Over the course of the next hour a meal of several courses materializes, bolstered by good butter and local bread. The nourishing weeds become a green, fortifying soup.

Above: When in doubt, pesto.

Above: In a pretty denoument to the meal, aromatic and infused digestífs are served from a collection of vintage glasses.

Above: And at last that cake is cut—dark, moist, marmalade-y, with hints of rose-scented pelargonium.

The finishing touch to the class I attended was a visit to Gael’s nursery, next door, where the cost of our workshop ticket included a choice of any plant we fancied. This is indigenous diplomacy at its best. See the plant, taste the plant, enjoy the plant. Then pick up the plant and carry it home to plant.

Above: Very recently, the fynbos and land surrounding the property were burned in a wildfire. The combined efforts of volunteer fire fighting crews, South African National Parks, water bombing helicopters, and friends who hacked back an emergency fire break saved the property’s structures and Roushanna and Tom’s home, now the only speck of green in a blackened landscape. Fire is an essential part of the fynbos biome’s growth and regeneration cycle, and is needed every five to ten years. But this land last burned 28 years ago, and the fire burned too hot and too deep. Why? The invasive plants still growing on the surrounding land. The Grays’ pleas for controlled burns over the years were not heeded. It remains to be seen how the fynbos will regenerate, but already fire lilies have appeared, where they have not bloomed since 1990. They are a magical but clockwork response to a local burn, and gorgeous evidence of resilience.

Photograph by Roushanna Gray

Above: The fire brought an unexpected gift for an inquiring forager. Watsonia corms have been smoked and burned. Corm remains at archaeological sites indicate that they were an important food for the original foragers at Africa’s southern tip. I ate – or tried to eat – roasted watsonias and found them inedibly bitter. Roushanna’s experience has been the same. But a serious fire changed that. “After the fire they smell totally amazing, “she says, ” like braai’d [barbecued] Turkish delight, sweet smelling and smokey deliciousness… Who knew I just needed the help of a raging veld fire!”

Photograph by Roushanna Gray.

Roushanna’s enterprising spirit is not diminished. In Cape Town the Southern Hemisphere’s summer is kicking into high gear, and Veld and Sea’s focus has shifted of the season to shoreline forages and to teaching from the preserved example gardens at Good Hope Nursery.

If you visit that beautiful city, put a Veld and Sea excursion at the top of your to-do list. It will be an unforgettable experience and will offer you a taste of the Cape as nature intended it.

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