An increasing number of passionate foragers – many of them chefs – are now heading to the hillsides, forests and coasts of the southwestern corner of South Africa. And for good reason.
“In the Western Cape we are in a biodiversity hotspot that is full of edibles — it’s an edible landscape,” says wild foods expert Loubie Rusch, who has been foraging extensively in the region since 2011. “Unlike many other parts of the world, the land is holding so much food and it is growing itself.”
Until recently, this bounty had long been neglected: a result, Rusch says, of urbanisation, migration and colonialism – which eschewed living from the land for industrialised agriculture.
Although the last decade has seen foraging increase in popularity across the globe, driven by high-profile, often Scandinavian chefs such as Sweden’s Magnus Nilsson (head chef at the two Michelin star restaurant Fäviken) and René Redzepi who has served up foraged ingredients in his Copenhagen restaurant, Noma (judged four times as The World’s Best Restaurant by Restaurant magazine), Hannerie Visser, founder of Studio H, a Cape-based culinary-focused design studio, says that, “The rise of foraging in the Cape should come as no surprise as local chefs reconnect with their heritage, exploring the crafted, slower ways things were done in the past. Ethical practices are becoming embedded in the way many of them source their ingredients: there’s an emphasis on local, on minimal-impact and on avoiding waste – three boxes that responsible foraging all tick.”
An hour’s drive north of Cape Town lies the fishing village of Paternoster — a cluster of dazzling white-walled cottages huddled up against the stormy Atlantic. Inside one of these storybook-like buildings works Kobus van der Merwe, the chef-patron of Wolfgat restaurant, who, for the past seven years, has cooked with ingredients he’s found on Paternoster’s coast.
“The past few years, the foraging concept swept through the international restaurant scene like a wildfire, says van de Merwe. “For me it has never been about being on trend. Cooking with endemic wild edible plants is about establishing the genius loci of the restaurant, and sharing that with our guests.”
Each exquisitely plated dish served up in Wolfgat’s rustic-chic surroundings therefore presents an opportunity for diners to authentically taste South Africa’s West Coast. Van der Merwe combines, for example, a sour succulent called soutslaai with raw fish and seasonal citrus. He twins kruipvygie, a mild green succulent, with limpets and venison, while a fish broth gets a sprinkling of wild sage and mussels arrive with sea lettuce and dune spinach. He loves the trachyandra plant family which growing rampantly on sandy dunes – in particular veldkool (Trachyandra cilliata) which has the appearance and texture of an asparagus but with nutty and grassy flavours. Although they’re traditionally cooked in a bredie (stew) with lamb, he says, “They’re quite delicate, so I like to use them raw or treat them more gently by lightly pickling or flash frying.”
Foodies not content with simply tasting coastal flavors, however, can even get their feet wet foraging on their own in the company of Roushana Gray, who leads coastal foraging classes along the Cape peninsular. After several hours of exploring rock pools and picking edible seaweed and shellfish under her guidance, her apprentices then transform the fruits of their labors into a hearty lunch.
“Foraging is an exciting and delicious way of connecting with your food,” says Gray. “Keeping in tune with nature this way, and eating seasonally and locally, is nutritionally perfect for your body. So not only is it a culinary experience but a medicinal one too.”
“It’s amazing how much food there is in the intertidal zone – and how nutritious it is,” says Rusch, who – having previously focused on land-based wild foods – recently participated in one of Gray’s classes. Having made various products (including cordials, chutneys, pickles, jams) over the past five years with foraged terrestrial plants, the class has inspired Rusch to now experiment with making pickled kelp in her own kitchen – she loves how it has “a lovely crunch”.
Gray, who with her family runs the indigenous plants–focused Good Hope Gardens Nursery near Cape Point, also offers foraging classes focused on fynbos. Forming part of the Cape Floristic Kingdom — the world’s smallest, and one of its most diverse — these intensely aromatic native shrubs can be used in gins, infusions and bitters.
The Cape Town–based Charles Standing, who goes by the moniker “The Urban Hunter Gatherer,” also offers coastal-focused foraging and cooking classes for groups on an ad-hoc basis.
“Kelp is about as sustainable as anything we can ever eat,” he says. “I have been making Asian-style salads and kelp lasagne, where I layer sheets of kelp instead of lasagne noodles. Along the Cape coast we have bountiful porphyra (the seaweed the Japanese use to make ‘nori sheets’ to wrap sushi in); it’s delicious dried in the oven and enjoyed as crisps. My new favorite seaweed is Slippery Orbit, which is yummy just steamed and seasoned.”
Moving inland to the heart of the Cape wine country lies the postcard-pretty village of Franschhoek (“French Corner,” so named because of the French Huguenots who settled here in the 1700s). On its bustling main drag sits Foliage restaurant, established by chef Chris Erasmus after stints at Le Quartier Français’s The Tasting Room and Pierneef à la Motte — two acclaimed Franschhoek eateries.
Erasmus says foraging is “a great way to keep the balance between the long kitchen hours and some alone time in the forest. It’s the best place to reflect on menu ideas and to be close to my ingredients.” His dishes are ultra-seasonal, changing “whenever mother nature throws something new at us,” he says, adding that “Squirrel just hit the menu.”
Along with an army of fellow tattooed and bearded chefs armed with gum boots, baskets and foraging knives, the mushroom-mad Erasmus hunts for his favorite: the elusive porcini. “The oaks under which they grow are way out up high in the mountains – it’s a climb,” he grins.
He rattles off a list of others currently on the menu: pine rings, bovine bolete, saffron milk caps and slippery jacks. Foraged herbs also appearing in dishes include goosefoot, amaranth, dandelion, African wormwood and wild peas.
At the elegant Faber restaurant on Avondale, an organic farm in nearby Paarl, chef Eric Bullpitt [who is now head chef at Pierneef a La Motte] also creates dishes inspired by his surroundings. “[Foraging] connects me with nature, our land and soil; it’s our roots and where a lot of our life begins,” he says.
“There are so many edibles everywhere,” adds Bullpitt, “and once you start noticing them, you really start seeing how readily available they are.”
This article first appeared in the January/February issue of Selamta, Ethiopian Airlines’ in-flight magazine.