In search of the Cape’s authentic flavors.
An increasing number of passionate foragers 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.”
Until recently, however, this bounty had long been neglected — a result, Rusch says, of urbanization, migration and colonialism, which eschewed living from the land for industrialized agriculture.
Indeed, the last decade has seen foraging increase in popularity across the globe, driven by high-profile chefs such as Sweden’s Magnus Nilsson (head chef at the two-Michelin-star restaurant Fäviken) and Amsterdam’s René Redzepi (who has served up foraged ingredients in his loudly acclaimed Copenhagen restaurant, Noma). And most recently, the movement started rapidly picking up ground in South Africa’s southwestern province.
“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,” says Hannerie Visser, founder of Studio H, a Cape-based culinary-focused design studio. “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 ticks.”
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 that grows rampantly on sandy dunes, in particular, noting how veldkool (trachyandra cilliata) has the appearance and texture of an asparagus but with nutty and grassy flavors. Although it’s traditionally cooked in a bredie (stew) with lamb, he says, “It’s quite delicate, so I like to use it raw or treat it 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 herself recently participated in one of Gray’s classes. Having made various products over the past five years with foraged terrestrial plants (including cordials, chutneys, pickles and jams), the class 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.
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 up high in the mountains. It’s a climb,” he grins.
He rattles off a list of other fungi 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.
Eric Bullpitt, chef at the elegant Faber restaurant on Avondale — an organic farm in nearby Paarl — perhaps captures the spirit of this burgeoning movement best: “[Foraging] connects me with nature, our land and soil; it’s our roots and where a lot of our life begins.
“There are so many edibles everywhere,” he adds, “and once you start noticing them, you really start seeing how readily available they are.”
Alexander Matthews is a writer and editor based in Cape Town. Although he’s got an adventurous palate, he leaves foraging to Lucy, his Weimaraner, who loves sniffing out intriguing edibles when they go for walks in the forest.