Social media connections set me on the road North to forage in the Free State this month.
Along the unkempt road verges beside chemical drenched, ploughed up, bare fields (used for growing sunflowers, maize, sorghum, and soya), our indigenous poppy Papaver aculeatum was blooming. I adore this little flower and for all its delicacy, admire its resilience and ability to make use of disturbed ground. The young leaves are cooked as a pot herb by rural communities.
My first stop was Parys. I have visited before and was not impressed – you can read that old story here. However, this time around I thoroughly enjoyed myself – having an enthusiastic local as guide and coordinator makes all the difference. Danie Venter (whom I know from the Self Sufficiency and Sustainable Living group) asked me ages ago to do some workshops for his community. He was absolutely determined to show me the best side of Parys!
First, I wandered along the touristy main road, which is very pleasant. Lots of shops catering (I imagine) to bored Gauteng folk escaping for the weekend. Beneath the ‘Eiffel Tower’, I found a variety of tasty greens – and other curiosities – much to the amusement of the dress shop owner.
Later, I checked into a little wooden cabin on the opposite bank of the Vaal River owned by Bee Keeper and all-round interesting person, Francess Hutton. It was so dark, so quiet, so starlit, so lovely.
I had planned a day to settle in, so was in Danie’s capable hands.
Workshops were to be held in the Parys Dorpstuin – an organic treasure on Boom Straat. Leida Schuman (who runs it) had kindly stopped all weeding a few weeks before, so I was thrilled at the variety of wild edibles I found among the veggies. Head gardener Willem Mokoena plucked a big bunch of carrots from the ground for me, cut a couple of artichokes and I helped myself to Italian parsley, celery, fennel flowers, and spring onions. Danie added garlic and pecans from his garden.
I found sourdough bread, butter (from Klerksdorp) and handmade pasta at Meyer’s Deli on Bree St – where I could have bought little sacks of maize meal (but resisted) and Kaptein Brandt’s spice sauce (also resisted), instead adding a selection of spices at the utterly charming Spice Box along the road. A hawker offered me huge plastic bags of tomatoes for R20 – he boasted that they were ZZZ 0 (easy to resist). I stopped hopefully at the almost 100-year old Trading Store owned by the Jalalpal family, but the only food for sale was canned baked beans – alongside light bulbs and bicycle wheels. I could have bought a mincer with a biscuit-making attachment but didn’t think I’d use it much. I had a lovely conversation with the owner instead who told me his wife cooked wonderful biriyani. There is always good local food if you look for it. Bon Appetit Parys!
Then it was time to explore the banks of the mighty Vaal River.
The Vaal / Egweni River (over 1000 kms long) rises north of Ermelo in Mpumalanga and flows through the town of Parys on its way to confluence with the Senqu. It is magnificent – despite the river banks completely invaded with honey locust, cestrum, honeysuckle, gum trees, and with water hyacinth bobbing happily along in the current. While fish eagles call and darters duck and dive, it is obviously a river in distress. I didn’t see anyone swimming, but it is still popular with canoeists.
Local artist Deon TerBlanche had created a beautiful sculpture beneath the bridge of a Yellowfish to highlight the plight of the river ecosystem. Another local, Graham Addison pointed out that the pollution was mainly industrial and mining chemicals and that the river is generally quite clean in this region due to reed banks, rapids and water hyacinth. Only when there is a sewage spill from Parys, or dumping of farm waste, is the water really toxic.
I was fortunate to have Danie lead me along the hidden paths, help pick prickly pears (he came prepared with secateurs to clear the path if necessary), show me the perfect flat rocks for a picnic and the waterworks that still supplies lei water to fortunate residents in part of the town. Danie was astonished at finding tons of stuff on the banks that he didn’t even think was remotely edible.
Parys Dorpstuin hosted two weed workshops. A new weed for me was dead nettle aka henbit. It might have looked minty, but it tasted nutty. There was heaps of glorious purslane (Omega 3 for days!) which is wonderful with yoghurt or cucumbers (or both) and a big stand of wild rocket abuzz with bees.
Participants seemed to thoroughly enjoy themselves, enthusiastically nibbling the leaves I handed them. Afterward, I served some pre-prepared tastes on local sourdough, with cups of cordial.
Mash one well-travelled KZN avocado with finely chopped Fleabane / Erigeron / Conyza sumatrensis. The leaves are peppery with notes of garlic and chilli. There is absolutely no need for any other seasoning.
- 1 cup of fresh flowers
- 400 ml water
- 130g sugar
Combine all the ingredients in a wide necked jar and stir to dissolve the sugar. Cover with a piece of muslin kept in place with an elastic band. Stir the mixture every day. You will notice bubbles starting to form after a few days. Then it is ready to strain and bottle. I keep my bottles in the fridge so that the fermenting stops and there are no explosions.
I was completely enchanted when little Mila-Ann Leeuwner told me I love your food! Once back home, her mom said she set off immediately in the rain to forage for morogo for supper. Jenny Booth drove down from Joburg with her husband. Weeds will never be the same! she declared. Jenny asked me to identify the common purple groundcover on the verges, saying she had noticed people collecting it near her home. It is Verbena aristigera, and while I couldn’t find any references for it particularly, plants in the verbena family are often used to treat liver and kidney complaints. I hope Jenny stops and asks next time she spots someone foraging.
One of my food heroes Siyabonga Mngoma ( aka Abundant Wholesome Foods) who is on a mission is to empower all South Africans to reclaim their health by making better food choices, attended. She happily tucked into childhood taste memories of imibilikicane and her favourite imbuya, and was very surprised at the fruitiness of fresh khakibos.
I was gratified to receive lots of lovely comments from participants, but eloquent Danie took first prize.
This woman is truly a walking breathing treasure trove of knowledge who has perfected the art of completely changing one’s perspective and viewpoints. Not only on the gardening front but also in regards to many social issues facing us today on so many levels. One topic Nikki frequently touches on and which is perfectly on point is how modern agricultural practices have managed to absolutely destroy our topsoil adding to the increasing effects felt by climate change, desertification, and the ecological wastelands. These practices saturate the soil with excess nutrients, insecticides, and herbicides as seen all over the Freestate fields that at this time of year lie absolutely bare and useless, getting blown away bit by bit with each passing season.
While everyone has declared war on weeds and tries to eradicate as far as possible, weeds have the potential to help solve this ongoing loss of fertile topsoil being destroyed, by simply leaving it be – since weeds are pioneer species in nature which bond the soil. Soil that is covered with vegetation is by far better ecologically, has a greater diversity in microbial organisms and nutrients – this gradually and constantly added instead of being constantly removed, which in turn creates the need to replace it with artificial fertilizers.
It is beyond astonishing how many overlooked nutrient-dense food sources surround us on a typical day no matter which season and time of year. On my way to the garden this morning I noticed a patch of ribwort on the sidewalk dead smack in the center of town (Nikki had asked me to collect for her workshop). Naturally, the looks from people passing by were quite amusing, to say the least. This is sad for they don’t realise that foraging was part of every culture on this green Earth at one point, perfectly normal and they don’t know that they have been robbed of their health and food security, by simply being disconnected from their immediate surroundings.
Kellé Alberts joined the morning workshop and invited us to visit off-grid, eco-lodge Witklipfontein, which she manages, in the afternoon.
It was hard to spot the lodge as we drove towards it – clever architecture and a living roof blended seamlessly with the landscape. Evidence of the passion of the artist and architect who created this space is everywhere – from the reclaimed materials, the clever views, and North facing aspect. More recently, an old barn set for demolition was repurposed into a greenhouse using sandbags filled with local soil and discarded scraps of granite for pathways. Despite being so early in the season, the basil bushes were waist-high, crystal apple cucumbers hung from the vines and they even had a few coffee bushes looking perfectly happy in their Free State home! Guests are welcome to forage in the gardens, collect fresh eggs for breakfast, and hang out with the cows, goats and ducks. I filled my pockets with pea pods and white bean seeds…
For supper, on a gloriously long Free State evening, I stopped at The Stash StreetFood tuck outside Liewe Koffie on the main drag manned by Natasha, Dan and adorable Elija. The only vegetarian food in town actually. I foraged in the flower pots for a handful of oxalis leaves, which they kindly added to my meals. Thanks Danie for these pics.
Karen Addison of Otters Haunt was our knowledgeable guide today. 2000 million years ago a meteorite hit this area creating the geological marvel known as the Vredefort Dome. As we hiked through the hills at Thabela Thabeng we found shatter cone rocks bearing scars of the impact. We wandered into hand-excavated gold mines finding real treasures – tiny bats, fast asleep. Lots of Velvet Bushwillow and cool forests of Wild Olive, rock-coloured agamas, shiny black beetles, and chattering birds. I was intrigued by a subtle yellow flower on a twirling vine, which my friends back home Karen Zunckle and John Roff kindly identified as Dalechampia capensis (Wild Hop).
On the way back to town, we stopped at a disused quarry, where giant blocks of granite were scattered about. The pseudotachylite formations (dark veins) were spectacular – but honestly, do you need a chunk of this koppie in your kitchen? Drill holes had filled with water and made marvellous marimba sounds when we tapped our hands over them. Rock Music in Nature!
We walked early to avoid the heat of the day, which meant I could spend the afternoon on my veranda as waves of thunderstorm, wind and hail swirled about. It was an exhilarating day in an ancient landscape.
I was thrilled to find that wild asparagus season was not yet over in the Eastern Free State. After checking in to the delightful Modderfort cottage on the edge of town, I explored the gardens and verges and picked handfuls!
In the kitchen was Niel Stemmet’s cookbook Sout en Peper which I paged through on the stoep as the sun settled behind the hills. Neil believes that our grandmothers and great-grandmothers understood how to cook simply without artifice or over-elaboration. I do believe that when we start foraging for food, we awaken memories that are stored in our bones of how to find food. It is not so long ago that we all ate this way. I was delighted to find the recipe for emily se morogo in the book.
Supper was at the brand new restaurant in the village – The Service Station Wine Bar (previously an actual service station and workshop). What an incredible treat that was. With my host (and uber organiser), Hanne Koster, I joined a table on the stoep with other interesting local residents to feast on Asian delicacies. Just look at the menu! The potstickers were heavenly.
At the first workshop, I met a longtime social media friend and fellow Slow Foodie, Mafusi Molefe. It was wonderful to have her heritage knowledge to add to the mix. In Hanne’s wonderfully re-wilded garden we found plenty to eat. An exciting new taste for me (pointed out by Mafusi) was motsoka pere – Tragopogon dubius – Yellow Salsify or Yellow goat’s beard. The seSotho name means horsetail. Under the peach trees, beside last season’s khakibos stalks, we enjoyed a few nibbles and drinks.
Khakibos and lemon cordial
Make a lemon cordial with equal parts of lemon juice, water and sugar – eg 250 ml of each.
Dissolve 1 cup of sugar in 2 cups of water in a large jar and infuse with khakibos seeds for a week.
Mix the two together and serve diluted with fresh water.
My free day in Rosendal was windy and wet. Exceptionally windy and wet. However, I was determined to explore the natural landscape so set off into the hills at Mosamane, getting absolutely drenched in the process.
It was worth the effort. Impromptu waterfalls dashing across the flat rocks, forests of ouhout, Rhus, Euclea crispa and lots of Myrica serrulata beneath the cliffs, and copper coloured grasses glowing in the grey light.
Wilde roos (wild rose) shrubs are everywhere – probably a garden escape now naturalised here. The sundried rosehips from last summer were delicious to nibble on as I walked. Apparently, rosehip extracts (very high in vitamin C) and rose essential oil is big business in these parts.
As serendipity would have it (nothing surprises me in this magical world), friends from the Midlands were hiking the Sungazer Trail and spending the night in Rosendal. I asked Frik (whom I had already met as he was a friend of another Midlands friend) if he would mind if I gatecrashed their supper, and, of course, he said yes. A jolly evening of many courses at Benjamin’s, where I particularly enjoyed the handmade pasta served with marogo/wild greens. While there, I met his rescued donkeys Baljan and Oscar, and bought a painting of the pair by celebrated Rosendal artist Michelle Nigiri.
The second workshop was held in the garden at Oppidam Restaurant. This restaurant uses as much local food as possible (a happy flock of chickens outside provided the eggs for my frittata). Hennie and Rudi were keen to include a little wild meal for participants to enjoy after we had wandered about their garden looking for free food. I collected heaps of Chenopodium album (serue/misbredie/fat hen/lambs quarters) for them, which they turned into spectacularly green soup. With homemade bread, they served a variety of pestos – one with wild rocket, another of nasturtium leaves, and a pretty salad using all the leaves I could find – topped with clover flowers and wild strawberries. Rudi made a vinaigrette using my khakibos cordial which was perfect with the slightly bitter leaves.
Nasturtium Leaf Pesto
4 cups nasturtium leaves
1 garlic clove
Half a cup of sunflower seeds
1 cup olive oil
Blitz or pound and top with a cheerful orange flower
4 cups of lambs quarters/misbredie/serue
1 large potato
1 garlic clove
salt and pepper
Prepare and cook as you would any green soup. The addition of a dollop of yoghurt produced from cows who live nearby, was perfect.
Hanne Koster thought that it was a most joyous and interesting experience!
After the unbelievably potholed 40km drive into Rosendal, I was dreading the trip to Fouriesburg. It was glorious! The road was not too bad and the views of the Maluti Mountains were exceptional. Absolutely classic eastern Free State.
I stayed at Jackal’s Hill Fromagerie, where artisan cheesemaker Valerie Kneppert had invited me to do a workshop. As I arrived, I encountered a large field full of mallow. A delectable feast. I gathered a basketful (much to the consternation of the calves in the field, who were hoping I had brought them a bottle to suckle on) and we made pesto to go on the cheeseboard.
1 can of chickpeas, drained
20 fleabane leaves finely chopped
100ml olive oil, salt and a squeeze of lemon juice
6 cups of mallow leaves (remove the stalks)
1/2 cup of olive oil
2 cloves of garlic
plenty of salt and lemon zest
Such a lovely group of women joined me and appeared to enjoy listening to me rabbitting on about letting lawns go wild, adding greens to our deficient diets, and why we really cannot eat imported capers. Astrid from Clarens loved every taste and thought the weed salad on the cheese platter was like inhaling the veld. Wanita from Fouriesburg was amazed, declaring you have changed my whole perspective on food. Ronel, who had been trying to rid her lawn of many of the tasty plants we nibbled on, was astonished. She will be changing her ways.
I was really pleased to find so much delicious food (and wannabee weed-eaters) in the Free State – certainly a lot different from one of my first forays there 10 years ago.