Nourishment: Wild at Heart

At first glance, Roushanna Gray’s immediate living and working environment is harsh and unforgiving, but this passionate wild food forager loves sharing just how rich in edible treasures South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope surrounds are.

If provenance is the food world’s holy grail, then Roushanna Gray’s Veld & Sea classroom is a temple to the movement. Veld means “field” in Afrikaans, but a more accurate description is “wild, untouched vegetation.” This is especially true of Cape Point, the most southerly point of the famed Cape of Good Hope where Gray and her family live. Part of the Table Mountain National Park and home to one of the most biodiverse indigenous plant kingdoms in the world, this protected reserve is characterized by a treacherous coastline, a landscape carpeted in indigenous fynbos (the local term for the “heather-like flowering plant covering”) and wild, wild winds. One is truly at the mercy of the elements here.

CRYSTAL RICE PAPER SPRING ROLLS | 6 rice paper spring roll wrappers, 1 bowl of water, A selection of edible flowers, 1 avocado, sliced, sprouts, 1/2 cup red cabbage, sliced, 1/2 cup carrots, julienned, 1/2 cup sweet peppers, julienned METHOD: With all your ingredients at hand, soak a rice paper wrapper in the bowl of water until soft. Place on a wooden board and fill with ingredients. Think about how you want the design to come out by working backward. For example, I start with the pretty flower petals first and then layer with vegetables. Fold the top and bottom sides over the filling and then fold the left side and then the right until you have a snug package. Serve with a sweet chili dipping sauce.

SPRING GREENS SALAD | For the salad: 1 cup Kale, chopped, 1 cup baby spinach, chopped, 1 cup mixed lettuce, chopped, 1 cup nasturtium leaves, whole, 1/4 cup green nasturtium seeds, A handful of nasturtium and marigolds, For the dressing: 2 tbsp honey, 2 tbsp lemon juice, 1 tbsp apple cider vinegar, 1/2 tsp cumin powder, 2 tbsp olive oil, salt and pepper to taste METHOD: In a big bowl, mix the greens and the dressing well and set aside for an hour to marinate in its juices. Decant into a big salad bowl, sprinkle with nasturtium seeds and garnish with nasturtium and marigold flowers.

Whether you visit in winter or summer, rain or shine, it is an unrelenting environment featuring a rocky coast that has claimed many passing ships over the centuries. Some 400 years ago, when the Dutch colonists settled on the Cape to grow produce for the passing sea trade, they relied heavily on the local populace for guidance on where to source indigenous edible offerings and equally, what was safe to eat. Crops failed, the weather didn’t play ball and relying on local knowledge was essential to their survival. Much of this information has been lost over the centuries, except for a growing group of enthusiasts like Gray, intent on rediscovering and sharing her often delicious and always fascinating findings.

The rustic home she shares with her husband, landscape gardener Tom and their children Tai and Rubi is on the same property as the Good Hope Nursery, founded by her indigenous gardening icon and mother-in-law Gael. Plants and trees that you would be hard-pressed to find in commercial nurseries are the order of the day at this bastion of local flora, and among waterwise, pro-indigenous gardeners, it’s become a beacon of planting in accordance with the Cape climate. In recent years, people have made the effort to visit this farflung nursery, some 37 miles from the city, for another reason – Gray’s popular and often sold-out Veld & Sea wild food foraging expeditions.

Like any chef worth her salt, Gray is on a continuous quest to discover new edible opportunities and in her case, wild food flavor marriages. For those lucky enough to attend her Veld & Sea experiences, it’s a journey that yields many treasures to share. Scheduled a few times a month on the weekends and during the week by appointment, the half-day experiences involve fascinating wild food; flower and herb gathering missions in the fynbos-lined slopes up above the nursery; forays into nearby rockpools to gather mussels and whatever other offerings the ocean might yield that day. After a morning of hunting, gathering and absorbing fascinating morsels of information from Gray, guests return to the Veld & Sea classroom to prepare a feast featuring their bounty.

SPRINGTIME ASPARAGUS DISH | 1 bunch of asparagus, 1 tbsp olive oil, 4 free-range eggs, 1 tbsp butter, 6 anchovies, 2 tbsp sea salt flakes, 1 sprinkle of dried flower petals, 1 handful of foraged chickweed METHOD: To make the anchovy butter, blend the anchovies in softened butter until you reach a smooth consistency. Fill little butter dishes and place in the refrigerator to set. For the flower salt, mix the sea salt and flower petals and serve in a little bowl. Lightly steam the asparagus for about 4 minutes. Do not overcook as you want to retain the green color and crisp texture. Toss in olive oil before serving. Soft boil the free-range eggs, peel and place on the chickweed and serve with asparagus, anchovy butter and flower salt. For a heartier meal, include a basket of sliced assorted farm breads.

RAINBOW CARROT CAKE | 2 free-range eggs, 2 cups sugar, 6 tsp cinnamon, 2 cups oil, 3 cups flour, 6 tsp baking powder, pinch of salt, 4 cups grated carrots, 1 cup mixed raisins METHOD: Preheat oven to 350°F. Lightly grease two (9-inch) round cake pans. Beat the eggs and sugar until creamy and light in color. Add the remaining ingredients, except the raisins. Mix well. Carefully fold the raisins into the cake mixture and pour into both cake pans. Bake for about 40 minutes, or until a knife comes out clean. While the cakes are cooling, whip up a batch of your favorite lemon/lime buttercream/cream-cheese icing and divide into three. Then, after the cakes have completely cooled, ice the top of the first cake, adding a layer of chopped strawberries and cover with more icing. Sandwich the second cake on top and dust the sides with confectioners’ sugar. Ice the top and decorate with edible flowers.

“The entire experience is dictated by the seasons and the moon phases that determine the tides. I devise a menu according to what is prolific at that time of year and we go out looking for these and other edible elements essential to the different dishes on the menu. After that we come back and break into groups to prepare for lunch. It’s a really interactive experience and people love discovering that plants they’ve never heard of as well as quite alien things like seaweed are so delicious,” notes Gray, who gives us mouth-popping, peppery nasturtium pods to sample while we chat. In the winter months, pungent pine ring mushrooms are the prized harvest, while in the summer, delicious delicacies from nearby rock pools and nutritious sea vegetables offer a taste of what the ocean has to offer.

Luckily for Gray, there is a wealth of information available for those who want to learn about wild food foraging. The internet, local experts and both historical and recent books yield regular fascinating discoveries for this intrepid hunter gatherer who says she learns something new every time she ventures out on a walk. “When I first moved here, I had no idea what I was doing. I went off into the veld and picked a pretty bunch of flowers, and came back to proudly show my family – only to discover I had picked some rare endemic flower. Now I only pick what I know grows prolifically and does not suffer from being cut back a little,” she laments.

CHAMOMILE COCKTAILS + FLOWER ICE | To make the chamomile syrup: 1/2 cup dried or fresh chamomile flowers or two chamomile tea bags, 1/2 cup honey, 1 cup water METHOD: Place all the ingredients into a small pot over low heat. Bring to a boil and then gently simmer for about 15 minutes. Remove from heat and strain through a sieve, squeezing the syrup out of the plants/tea bag with a spoon against the sieve. Decant into a Mason jar. TO MAKE THE COCKTAIL: 3 tbsp chamomile syrup, 1/3 cup sparkling wine, Good quality tonic water, 1 lime METHOD: Pour the syrup and sparkling wine into a glass, top with tonic water, add a squeeze of lime and pop in a few flower ice cubes.

For added flavor, color and for medicinal uses, too, Gray has planted a variety of edible flowers in the family’s vegetable garden, and workshop participants are provided with interesting insights into the further layers of flavor these bring to many dishes. From pansies with their grassy fresh taste to sweet and spicy cornflowers and piquant marigolds, many flowers, we learn, can bring fascinating and mouthwatering depth to food while beautifying things as well. “We eat with our eyes as much as we do our mouths,” exclaims Gray, as she adds delicate white coriander flowers to a salad.

There are plenty of edible flowers that make excellent partners to drinks, too. “Chamomile is known for its calming properties and is wonderful in a honey syrup which you can add to a gin and tonic or bubbly, while Pelargoniums come in an array of delicious flavors like rose, lemon and peppermint – and the leaves make a refreshing and uplifting iced tea,” she adds. Although it is these glorious nuggets of information that workshop participants take home with them, there is so much more participants learn from attending a Veld & Sea day.

Unplugging from technology and returning to an ancient way of sustenance, if only for a short time, is immensely gratifying. “Gathering is part of our DNA, we’ve just forgotten about it. I’m glad I can help people rediscover the joy it can bring.”

Photography Courtesy of Warren Heath.
Styling Courtesy of Sven Alberding.

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