The word “fynbos” is Afrikaans for “fine bush”, and refers to the needle-like leaves found on much of the indigenous vegetation that makes up the Cape Floral Kingdom – not the largest but certainly the richest of the world’s six floral kingdoms.
This biome is so diverse there are over 9,000 plant species, 70% of which occur nowhere else on the planet except in South Africa’s Cape Provinces. The different families include restios (the Cape reeds used to thatch traditional Cape Dutch cottages) and Proteas (South Africa’s national bloom and the nickname of the cricket team). But most interesting are those that form part of the Cape’s culinary heritage. The Khoi hunter- gatherers depended on veldkos (edible wild food), as documented by South African anthropologist Renata Coetzee – you can see her work in the Dik Delta Fynbos Culinary Garden on the Solms-Delta wine estate near Franschhoek, where she oversaw the planting, and at the People and Biodiversity area in Green Point Urban Park. The healing properties of wild edibles are widely documented – a shot of buchu-infused brandy aids digestion, and a cup of rooibos, the herbal tea with a red hue, brims with antioxidants. And there’s a renewed interest in fynbos as an ingredient, specifically with local, small-batch gin distilleries. Jorgensen’s gin features rose geranium, Inverroche includes botanicals harvested from coastal dunes near Stillbay and Hope on Hopkins uses wild rosemary from the Winterhoek Mountains. Even wine and spirit heavyweight KWV has joined the party with Cruxland, which includes heuningbos (honey bush).
Flip through The Savoy Cocktail Book – first published in 1930 and compiled by bartender Harry Craddock of London’s Savoy Hotel, and you may notice a common but unfamiliar thread running through The Transvaal, The Barney Barnato and The Cape Cocktail: Caperitif. This South African sweet vermouth of fortified Chenin Blanc steeped in Cape botanicals, although once referenced by drinks bibles, had all but vanished from the spirit scene. That is until Danish mixologist Lars Lyndgaard Schmidt enlisted the help of Adi Badenhorst (who produces a popular Chenin called Secateurs) and AA Badenhorst Family Wines winemaker, Kyle Dunn, to bring it back. As it is still a work in progress and the aromatic plants change with the seasons, each batch has a different flavour profile. Batch four is currently available and Dunn describes the taste as: “Deep, earthy spice notes supported by a core of citrus and stone fruit; complex herbal and wild fynbos characteristics finish with a refreshing bitter note.” Batch Five, released during 2016, is the first to have a barrel-aged portion in the blend. At Outrage of Modesty – a 24-seater bar (reservations are recommended)
– there’s a standing Caperitif cocktail, such as Caperitif, naartjie, Swartland eucalyptus honey and wild buchu.
Cape Point offers fynbos – and the odd baboon – accompanied by sweeping coastal views and (usually) a bracing wind. This nature reserve at the very tip of the peninsula is a Natural World Heritage Site that lies within the Table Mountain National Park, so it should definitely form part of a visit to the Good Hope Gardens Nursery, which is just across the road. Here Roushanna Gray offers introductory foraging courses throughout the summer, when the fynbos is lush, green and intensely fragrant. It is also the season to see the drama of Cape Point’s rugged cliff faces and crashing waves amplified. Gray teaches her students how to identify indigenous edibles, harvest them sustainably and offers details about their culinary applications and medicinal purposes. After returning from their trip in the bush, participants head to the classroom kitchen where they prepare a three-course lunch with foraged ingredients and organic vegetables from the cultivated food garden onsite.
For a first-hand sensory experience of the local flora, follow the Fynbos Walk at Cape Town’s botanical garden. Start at the highest entry point, through the Rycroft Gate, pick up a map and take the brick path past the viewing deck in the direction of Castle Rock. Pass Proteas on the left, while taking in panoramic views of Cape Town’s suburbs below and Table Mountain’s eastern-facing slopes ahead – at this point the air may already smell noticeably wild and herby. Follow signs to the Fynbos, Buchu and Ericas Gardens and then keep going to the Fragrance Garden for the scented pelargonium or “wildemalva” as it is called in Afrikaans. There are peppermint, lemon, nutmeg, apple and pineapple varieties (rub the leaves to release the essential oils), but it is the rose pelargonium that was thought to give the Cape’s Malva pudding its name. Twittering birdlife and such close proximity to the mountain makes Kirstenbosch a prime picnic location. Pack a basket and settle in under the shade of a tree.
The Karoo is an arid (semi-desert) interior plateau stretching across central South Africa and comprised of the Eastern, Northern and Western Capes. This is sheep country (little else survives the unforgiving conditions), with farmers relying on the bossies (bushes) for grazing. Lamb from the Karoo is particularly sought-after for its distinct fynbos flavour – sometimes described as sage, eucalyptus or lavender. The Karoo Development Foundation (KDF) gathered scientific evidence that indicates the flavour is indeed thanks to the low-lying scrub covering these plains, and a terroir- based certification system called Karoo Meat of Origin (KMOO) ensued. Whether the meat is from Laingsburg or Carnarvon, KMOO certified or not, preferences are fiercely defended. Gogo’s Meat and Biltong Deli, not far from Newlands rugby stadium, sells “Cape country lamb”. “Gogo” means “granny” in Zulu, and the ever- present, hands-on owners Deirdre and Sam Elliott stock the best thick-cut lamb chops. These should be braaied, with nothing more than a little extra-virgin olive oil and plenty of sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.