My cousin Nikki lives in a tiny place called Dargle in the Natal Midlands. It’s the most beautiful place, with a garden full of deliciousness and peace, tranquility and lots of tea floating around.
Nikki loves the earth, like more than you can imagine. Everything about her is healthy, natural and in harmony with the world around her. It’s utterly inspiring. Sometimes I even feel a tad guilty.
As lovely as her home is, she also loves to travel. Recently she and her boyfriend Paul took a trip to the Karoo and this is what they saw, found and tasted.
Seldom do we leave home without padkos and the start of our trip to the Karoo was no exception. However, when a journey begins with scrumptious organic potatoes from Dovehouse, happy boiled eggs from Gill Addison’s girls and cherry tomatoes just picked from our own garden, you can expect that good food will feature highly in the travel diary. We were headed for Prince Albert Valley, which we adore, with visits to Graaf Reinet and Cradock along the way.
We were delighted to discover a vine covered courtyard named Toast for our first breakfast after an early morning cup of tea on our street side stoep, watching neat karoo kids skipping to school and practicing our rusty “goeie more”.
We popped into the uninspiring little town of Willowmore and were pleasantly surprised by lunch at Sophie’s Choice. A colourful mixed salad (I forgave carrots, red cabbage and pumpkin seeds all on the same plate, because it was moist and crunchy and after all, we were in the darkest Karoo) and Panini stuffed with mushrooms and mozzarella.
Our next food experience was a green roadside trailer a little further down the road, where a man was quietly selling watermelon, pumpkins and butternut which must have been grown on a farm close by. We filled the back seat with enough to feed us for the week, just in case…
The scenery was gorgeous after Willowmore and winding through the extremely special Meiringpoort, with astonishing rock formations certainly took our mind off food for a while.
Our host at Brakdakkie (very ‘kool karoo’) in Prince Albert village tried hard to convince us of how good the local restaurants were, but we were so looking forward to tackling our pumpkins (there was a hot plate and a blunt knife available – what more could we want?). We wandered across to the OK for a box of couscous (our standard travelling companion) and a bottle of local red wine from Bergwater Estate and popped into Mix It for some olive oil to cook with. After a battle to cut a butternut into manageable chunks we enjoyed a delectable dinner on the back verandah after the sun had slowly set. A classic slow pink and purple and red and blue big sky Karoo sunset.
Saturday morning is Market Day in Prince Albert, so we eagerly headed down as soon as it was decent. The stalls looked uninspiring at first, the usual pancakes, some jewellery, second hand books… oh dear, what were we to eat? There was someone braaing “roosterkoek”, but we need veggies! Fortunately, a lady in a big hat had a stall crammed with local delights. We filled our Woollies shopping bags with plump purple figs and dried ones which looked like starfish, almonds grown up the road and naartjies grown just up a road in the other direction! We also got lots of bottles of olives, local tomatoes, sundried apricots and an enormous tin of peppery olive oil. Then, to our delight, a rusty bucket filled with aubergines and beans was unpacked by Brakdakkie’s neighbours (we had been admiring their produce over the fence). We purchased an assortment of interesting aubergines including very long dark ones, pale white ones and bright red round ones too. We also bought their entire stock of beans – not green, but beautiful red and purple specked pods with fat beans lurking inside – our absolute favourite! How lucky could we get? Whole wheat baguette and bread sticks from the stall next door completed our haul.
Then it was off to Gay’s Dairy on the edge of the village for fresh milk, yoghurt, feta, mozzarella and cheddar. Gay supplies all the fresh milk needs of the village and has done so for many years.
We walked around the village admiring pretty stoeps, gardens crammed with wind pumps, lemon trees and rusty stuff, fat furry cats and sausage dogs (there were masses!) and enjoying the views across the roof tops to the faded hills.
Couldn’t wait to prepare supper of fried aubergine and freshly podded, gently boiled beans – actually, it doesn’t sound as fantastic as it was and on a secluded karoo verandah draped in grape leaves, it was absolutely heavenly. After watching the meteor shower, Paul spotted a sliver of old moon rising bright red.
Sunday morning is a sleepy affair in the village and we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast at Cafe Albert on the main road while the leiwater (which comes straight out of the Swartberg) gushed by in the channel – keeping everything well watered in this dry place. The lush gardens are astonishing although most are actually planted with water-wise plants now, succulents, aloes and other local treasures. There was plenty of plumbago, senecio and tecoma around too. Wrapped in blankets, thoughtfully provided to ward of the autumn chill, we enjoyed fresh baked muffins: corn and cheese with tangy chutney and apple and pecan, scones with heavenly thick cream from Gay’s and a toasted cheese sandwich. The Cappucinos everywhere were great. We are getting a bit cheesed out and any illusions of being vegan are fading fast in Carnivore Central. At least we haven’t succumbed to a springbok pie yet – which the farm stall is famous for.
Supper is more aubergine, with beans and tomatoes and spinach. By now I was in need of greens so found tall bunches of spinach at the OK (this is such fun!) which was all wrapped up tightly, rather than in the loose bunches we find at home. It may have come all the way from Oudtshoorn – not strictly local.
Breakfasts are now sumptuous feasts of fresh and dried figs, yoghurt and almonds. Until the figs ran out and are replaced by naartjies with dried apricots. Lunches are baguette or olive rolls with feta, tomatoes, olives (lots) and herbs which we discover growing outside our cottage. These we enjoy in Bushman’s Valley – a Nature Reserve just outside of town – while watching all sorts of little rodents (bush karoo rats and striped mice) and interesting birds (karoo robins and cape buntings) in the bossies around us. At night the baboons squabble loudly over the best spot to sleep.
On a cold and blustery day, Mix It Cafe provides a delicious and warming cabbage, potato and spinach soup with fabulous fresh baked olive bread and sublime apple pie for afters. Our dinners are variations on the pumpkin, aubergine and bean theme but utterly yummy every time. We visit the museum, which is really interesting, particularly the display about the Bo Dorp communities forcibly removed in the 1970’s, and discover that they too stock local goodies, so we buy more olives, olive paste and chutney made at SwartRivier – these are our all time favourite sundried olives – really strong and tangy. We pinch a sprig of rosemary from the enormous bush in the Museum garden. Everyone in town sells the local produce – the Tourism office has honey, fig preserve and fat pink sun dried figs. Our car is starting to groan – we can’t eat fast enough. We visit the Kredouw Olive farm on the very last day of the harvest and admire the crates of green and purple fruit before it goes into the smart stainless steel processing machines to become oil. They grow walnuts on the farm too, so we can’t resist a few bags. We have just missed the apple harvest.
“Life is beautiful” declares the sign behind the Village Trading Post and Cafe in De Rust, overflowing with metal sculptures, mirrors and toy goldfish in plastic bags filled with water, where we stop for brunch. After chatting to the donkey’s pulling karretjies along the main road, we find prickly pear syrup, ginger biscuits and quince sweets to add to our tasty treasure trove in a shop which encourages customers to taste all the preserves, jams, olives and chutneys they sell – I simply couldn’t.
We enjoy fresh scones with fig jam in another courtyard in Graaf Reinet – this time surrounded by Karoo bric-a-brac, rusty signs and faded chairs. By the time we are at Mountain Zebra National Park, with kudu, springbok, ground squirrels, mountain zebra and white-browed sparrow weavers for company, we were roasting whole crescents of the blue pumpkin, and turning the leftovers into soup. While exploring Craddock, we come across Mila’s and lunch on margarita pizza with a twist – topped with sundried tomatoes and pesto. We meant to buy some springbok biltong to bring home for the dogs, but the butcheries – though quaint with striped roofs and sash windows – simply look too meaty for our taste. We hope they won’t notice if we stop for some Woollies tripe treats instead…
Homeward bound we stopped beside the Orange River in Aliwal North for a very processed cheese and bland tomato sandwich which took over half an hour to prepare, firmly declaring our trip to foodie heaven was over. And, astonishingly, they only had rooibos tea, no wicked caffeine-filled Ceylon which was desperately needed!
Back at home we are still savouring the cheeses and olives (with our own cherry tomatoes again) for lunch, while the little wire wind pompie we brought home attempts to whirr in the balmy midlands autumn air. Can’t wait to cook the big white pumpkin with bright green pumpkin leaves from the garden and we haven’t tackled the watermelon yet…
Nikki works with the Midlands Meander Education Project which assists schools within the area to “nurture capable, confident and curious children who are sensitive to environmental issues, who have resilience to cope with a changing world and are able to contribute positively to their communities.”
You too can help out by visiting the Bug Shop here.