Free State Food?

It is not often that I head for the highway, but early on Monday morning I did just that.  Past the contented cows to the surprisingly calm traffic on the motorway.  Everyone appeared to be travelling at 100kmph and I wondered if all had suddenly realised that Peak Oil was upon us?  Unfortunately, the further north I travelled, the faster things became, so I don’t think so.

I was on assignment to write stories about the interesting characters along the N3 so shouldn’t have been thinking about food, but I was.  Would there be anything for me to eat during the next three days? 

My favourite part of this route is through the scrubby hills surrounding the Tugela River valley and across the Sandspruit.  On Van Reenen’s pass I was fortunate to be stuck behind a big truck. This gave me ample time to admire the hills, observe birds nesting in the tops of the thorn trees lining the road and smile at construction workers eating apples and sending text messages in the middle of the road.  By the time I reached the top I was in need of a cup of tea.  Rubi’s turquoise shack on the road side beckoned me over.  Hot, strong tea with powdered milk in a polystyrene cup – welcome to the Free State!

Things did perk up when I met Annie Grant-Smith who had just collected a big bag of beautiful wild asparagus, and gave me some of her famous Stukkende Tannie Fig Preserve.

I spotted spinach growing in the top of a stone wall at Highlands Eco-Estate, and then headed to Oaklands which had been recommended for its food. Quite likely the only place I would find anything vaguely vegetarian for miles.  A salad of beetroot, halloumi, avocado, and rocket followed by butternut ravioli and fat asparagus spears (unfortunately, not wild), revived my spirits.

In Grootvlei I met a charming doctor who told me (over another cup of very strong tea) that she and her family like to braai many times a week and that ‘nutrition’ was only one page of her medical degree!  I bumped into a farmer’s wife in Villers delivering lunch to her husband on his way to the fields- two pies and two cokes.   Fortunately, I knew I was heading back to Oaklands for Thai-style curry later.

After a delicious breakfast of poached pears and a poached egg (not together), I stocked up on local biltong for the dogs and some interesting Plum AND Strawberry Jam at the local tourism office. Elsa Human quipped “there is no recipe in Van Reenen” – clearly not!

My destination was Refilwe Food Tunnels outside Harrismith to meet Mantombi Mbele and her friends, who grow food in the most difficult conditions.  Their spinach seedlings were only a couple of inches high and their beans had all been hit by a late frost.  My thoughts about not getting what I wanted to eat for a couple of days seemed pretty embarrassing.   

Growing up in the Free State and Bergville in KZN, Mantombi learned umthetho wesizulu from her father – all the rules and traditions of Zulu culture, knowledge she is very proud of.  She also learned from him how to farm – how to plough with animals, how to treat them when they were ill and how to grow great vegetables.  Her mother was interested in traditional medicine, so shared that knowledge with Mantombi too.   As a young woman, she went to live with her grandfather in Johannesburg and even there found small spaces to grow pumpkins, mielies and spinach. She says “I know both ways of gardening – location style and homeland style – and now I know tunnel gardening too.”

Mantombi told me knowingly “Life doesn’t every day go straight. We struggle sometimes.”  Their determination to keep gardening and feeding their community in such tough conditions was humbling.

I was very grateful to be able to head back down the hill to my little green piece of paradise, brimming with food.

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