One can’t write a cookbook about the Cape West Coast without inciting interest about local flora and how it has flavoured the foods of generations past. I spent a sunny Saturday foraging with Roushanna Gray of Veld and Sea in the final fynbos forage of the winter season in the hope to come across indigenous plants I could use in my recipes. Having shot about 90% of my cookbook’s content so far, there was one green goodie that had been eluding my efforts to find it and so I jumped at the chance to join the Veld and Sea team on a forage.
Veldkool or wild asparagus grows prolifically in coastal areas and begins sprouting after the first winter rains. It’s a common ingredient up the West Coast and has been used for years in a stew with beef or lamb. Since I would be unable to complete my recipe list without it, my desperation for some veldkool of my own had reached fever pitch. Fortunately Roushanna has had a bountiful crop of this rather rangy plant up on the mountainside behind the Veld and Sea kitchen near Scarborough and so there was more than enough to go around.
But more on Veld and Sea – I had first heard about Roushanna through a mutual friend who had met her up the West Coast during a foraging roadtrip to Elands Bay. After doing some serious stalking on her Instagram page, I immediately resonated with her way of life. Roushanna is the kind of individual that radiates warmth, her demeanor online offering up the same positivity as she does in person – a detail that is so rare in this age of social media posturing. After about a month of chatting back and forth over Instagram, she very kindly invited me to attend the final fynbos forage of the winter season, knowing how stressed I was about my various unsuccessful veldkool foraging attempts.
A meandering drive around the coast led me to Good Hope Gardens nursery – where most of the Veld and Sea workshops are held. A cosy cabin filled with all manner of curious objects and two large tables pushed together was the congregation point and a place of keen interest as Roushanna and Gemma – the resident “wild chef” – have filled it with samples of dried herbs, flowers and seaweed. Skeins of sheep’s wool dyed with natural pigment hangs from the rafters and bottles of various pickles, syrups and cordials line the shelves. Having had previously worked in the stressful environment of pleasure yacht kitchens, Gemma has found her nirvana amongst the space and the surf found along Cape Point. In preparation for our foraging workshop, Roushanna had put together a batch of sugar cookies containing edible flowers ( a recipe from her much-anticipated cookbook!) as a welcome snack and got the wood-burning pizza oven stoked up for lunch later in the day. After an introduction around the table (where we also met Gael, Good Hope Gardens nursery’s resident botanist), Roushanna took us through each plant that we would be using to cook with so as to better make us acquainted with what the surrounding veld had to offer. Truly a sensory experience, I recognised a few familiar plants whilst also discovering a whole host of flora that I had never seen before. Being currently involved in a cookbook about the West Coast meant that the savoury herbs were of particular interest – the garlic buchu (Agathosma Apiculata) and the wilde salie (Salvia Chamelaeagnea) inciting inspiration for new dishes. I also learned that the buchu family is a distant cousin to citrus and that a single leaf from a spekboom plant contains your daily dosage of vitamin C. We have a wild mint that pairs deliciously with dark chocolate, a local stinging nettle that is a little-known superfood, the stem of the small yellow flowers or suurings can be used as a straw and the confetti bush that is known on the Weskus as aasbossie (bait bush) is because fishermen rub the plant between their hands to rid them of the scent of fish.
What with over 9000 kinds of fynbos plants growing in the Western Cape alone, it goes without saying that when foraging, certain rules apply. As Roushanna and Gail explained, the general decree is what grows together, goes together – complimentary flavours can be found alongside one another. Other rules include the essential one of being 100% sure of what it is that you’re picking. Also only harvest what you need and always allow the plant enough flowers or leaves to regenerate itself. Roushanna herself is sure to rather pick leaves or flowers from multiple plants instead of just one so as to prevent any environmental impact – great or small. Foraging close to highways or city parks is often not a good idea, as the surrounding plants take in whatever emissions are present in the air around them. And when it comes to foraging on reserves or private property, they are just that – private. Best to ask permission before you pick.
After meeting the plants which we would need to create lunch with, teams of guests braved the chilly Northwester on a short hike up the hill to the foraging grounds. While there was a range of interesting plants to be spotted, admittedly I had a one-track mind and after spotting the small dish of veldkool on the table during the introduction. Fortunately the flighty stuff seems to grow abundantly on the slopes above Veld and Sea and after checking that it was okay to do so, I filled my basket with tender green shoots. While veldkool itself appears very similar to asparagus, the plant from which it grows is a rather unattractive low-growing shrub with long rangy leaves. But after a few months of stressing over the stuff, to me it could have been a prize orchid!
Scouring the cliffs of Cape Point for edible indigenous plants is no easy feat – fortunately Good Hope Gardens nursery came our our aid with their extensive produce gardens, both indigenous and exotic. Parsnips and carrots where harvested from the traditional veggie garden whilst I found my wilde salie and garlic buchu along with bushes of wild garlic (Tulbaghia Violacea) and wild rosemary. Wilde salie is of most interest to me as it’s tough, serrated leaves have the most addictive savoury scent not unlike the meat of Karoo lamb. Wild rosemary or kapokbos has a softer, less aromatic scent compared to Mediterranean rosemary and I was told by another guest that it pairs well with pork. Wild garlic looks very similar to traditional garlic except that the bulbs are small and feisty – slice them thinly before adding to a dish as they can be pungent. The leaves and flowers of wild garlic also make for a delicious alternative to garlic chives. Garlic buchu may not be as obviously garlicky as the Tulbaghia, but it is no less fragrant an addition to roasts, soups or stews.
Having harvested our fill, it was time to prepare lunch. On the menu in the Veld and Sea kitchen was a selection of seasonal treats including edible flower spring rolls, homemade ricotta with pesto made from veld greens, a wild salad, nettle and veldkool soup, wood fired pizza with foraged toppings and fynbos-infused gin cocktails. The latter were made with Bloedlemoen gin and featured the soft pink hue of the num-num berry and the fresh green notes of pelargonium and African cucumber (not foraged but utterly delicious!). We all chipped in for the preparation and were rewarded with a lavish spread of foraged eats followed by a pineapple and carrot cake made earlier by Gemma and decorated with edible flowers. I left with a brown paper bag full to brimming with veldkool, wilde salie, garlic buchu and wild rosemary that I later used in two recipes – a sage-stuffed whole chicken smoked slowly over the coals for my book and braaied Atlantic mackerel with foraged herbs and veldkool sautéed in a bokkom butter.
Unquestionably the most enjoyable workshop I’ve attended yet, I can’t stress enough how wonderful my experience at Veld and Sea was. Keep an eye out for upcoming workshops through Roushanna’s Instagram or on the Veld and Sea website.