Sunday, August 14, 2016

Urban Harvest

There is a shopping centre/center (depending on the English you speak) called Constantia Village a few minutes' drive from my parents' house in Cape Town. It's a regular haunt for me when I am in town. After New York-style shopping (hopping between butcher, baker, candlestick maker) I find mall culture exotic. Everything under one roof. There is a tiny biltong shop selling the delectable air-dried meat that South Africans love. There are two big supermarkets purveying irresistible items like affordable (by New York standards) free range South African lamb, piles of passion fruit, and the best raisin bread, ever (except now I have my own recipe). Or custard and malva pudding, if you are the Frenchman (who is in Cape Town, at last). There are banks and clothes shops and a book shop and a jeweler and hairdressers and home stores and a pharmacy and a health shop and a bakery and a camping equipment shop.

And there is a huge parking lot, patrolled by car guards who watch over cars, and help with bags.

At one end of this vast parking lot there is a small vegetable garden planted on a raised island topped by two old stone pine trees. I climb the wooden steps to look at it almost every time I visit. Recently, in this late winter, early spring crossover time in Cape Town, my curiosity got the better of me and back at home after taking these pictures I visited the website advertised on the garden's pole fencing. This led me to Urban Harvest.

Above, perfect fava (broad) beans. Did you know that their flowers are scented?

I emailed Ben Getz, Urban Harvest's founder. Ben said that he immediately saw the potential for turning this previously unused space into an edible garden, when he first noticed it, and approached the center management with a proposal. "They were entirely enthusiastic about the idea of using the space to grow organic food, raise awareness about edible gardens and benefit the community, " he wrote, in an email. The neat fencing and all the wood was donated by The Poleyard, and then Ben and his team installed the garden over three weeks in 2013.

I love wine bottle beds, especially in winemaking country, which this is. These upcycled bottles came from Oasis, a recycling centre "which empowers physically and mentally different beneficiaries," says Ben (all my parents' recycling goes to them, too). And while Urban Harvest has used "tens of thousands of bottles" in various gardens, they do not use them often anymore because, he says, "they are particularly time consuming to layout properly." Still, pretty.

The straw that covers the beds comes from horse farms or is bought in bales and is an effective mulch - not as necessary for moisture-retention now in the rainy season, but useful in hot dry summers.

Mature cool-weather-loving chard tempted me...just a few stalks, who'd miss them? When I asked Ben how the vegetables here are used he said, "We often give vegetables to the car guards, and street people, especially if they show real interest in the garden." The produce has also been used for weekly on-site markets as well as for local delis and restaurants. "But most of the harvests are donated to the local Haven Night Shelter," says Ben. Cape Town has a significant and mostly uncharted homeless population and shelters are few and far between.

Despite its public nature (and perhaps because of the car guard presence, as well as pretty tight video surveillance of the car park itself) he says that neither theft nor vandalism has been a problem in this garden.


Quick-Pickled Beet Recipe: 

Peel 3 medium-sized raw beets and slice thinly. Stack the slices and cut into matchsticks. Combine 1/3 cup sherry vinegar, 1/2 cup water, 3 Tablespoons sugar (trust me), 2 teaspoons salt, and mix. Pour over the beetroot slivers in a small bowl (the beets should be covered by the brine). Ready after 15 minutes and will keep for a week in the fridge. Wonderful in salads or on banh mi, and exquisite with creamy burrata.

This organic garden is just one of 300 food gardens that Urban Harvest has established in Cape Town. Of these about 50% are community-based CSI-related gardens, 40% are private home gardens and 10% belong to hotels and restaurants.

With a degree in philosophy, social anthropology, environmental and geographical science, as well as personal interests in yoga, meditation, permaculture and archetypal psychology, Ben said he wanted to make a living doing something that would benefit society and marry his diverse passions. Urban Harvest was a perfect fit. "I find I'm at my happiest when my hands are busy and when I'm working with people less privileged than me," he says.

This particular garden is tended weekly by Urban Harvest Edumaintenance Teams, led by gardeners Tichaona Nyaruviro, Edmore Manomano and Famous Kuseli. Generally, however, Ben says, "We consider it a completion of our service and a success when clients graduate to self-sustainability. Eventually all our clients get there. This could take 3 months or more than 3 years, depending."

I am not sure how many of the thousands of shoppers who frequent Constantia Village ever look more closely at this little garden, but if, like me, they are drawn to its seasonal crops and well tended beds, they might think twice about the tomatoes they are buying in pre-spring, and the provenance of cold season red peppers, both denizens of late summer, and learn to watch a little, and wait, and listen to what the seasons tell them about eating.

To learn more about Urban Harvest and the gardens they create, visit the link to their website.

[Photos courtesy of my Samsung Galaxy S7. I am a fan.]

Thursday, August 11, 2016


Beautiful Table Mountain and Devil's Peak from the vineyards of Steenberg where I met the lovely Californian-born, Cape Town-living Ilana of Finding Umami Cape Town, yesterday evening.

We enjoyed a slightly-unexpected wine tasting; we'd intended to enjoy a glass of wine together while we chatted but no wine is served by the glass (bottle only) and the restaurant was closed on Wednesday evening, so the grumpily-offered option was wine tasting, or wine tasting. We asked for a sparkling wine tasting which I believe is off-book, and it was actually very good value as long as you were happy with being thrown out at 6pm on the dot.

(Who's grumpy now?)

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Nectar lunch

From Kirstenbosch, the national botanical garden at Africa's southern tip, Leucaspermum reflexum var. lutea (skyrocket pincushion) with female sunbird occupant.

There have been many beautiful clear days in Cape Town (which is typical of winter, in short, bright bursts), but it's time we had more serious rain, after a stormy start to last week when it poured. The local vegetation needs it, the dams and the farmers still need it.

Ghostly, glorious silver trees, Leucadendron argenteum, rare and endangered, and endemic to the Cape peninsula, this hook of land where a large city, flats, wetlands, and a mountain range share space, with more and more of the latter being developed.

"Rare means that it has a small population and a restricted distribution range, which puts it at risk from sudden or unexpected changes. Endangered means that it faces a very high risk of extinction in the wild." (PlantzAfrica)

I'll try to post more regularly, but time is short and there is much to do.

(Remember, if you don't see me here, you can find my daily pictures on Instagram @66squarefeet)

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Bracken fiddleheads

From the land of humid summer (New York) to the land of clear sun and winter rain (Cape Town), from hot-weather garden beans to cool-weather fiddleheads. Such is the switch from hemisphere to hemisphere.

I have been foraging.

Bracken fern fiddleheads are rising in abundance in the damp green places in Cape Town. In the States they might be known as brake (you'll notice that word a lot if you read Faulkner's Big Woods) and eagle fern, because of the appearance of their young fronds. I decided to try bracken (this one is Pteridium aquilinum) for the first time, primed by my ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) experiences, Stateside, and inspired by the annual sansai (mountain vegetable) pilgrimages of my Japanese foraging friends. Bracken is known as warabi in Japan, and is a spring delicacy.

Eating bracken (and other ferns) comes with so many caveats that one could write a treatise on the subject. One thing to bear in mind is that these ancient plants absorb heavy metals and are good phytoremediators (they can clean the soil). So consider their environment before collecting any.

Above, bracken to the left, massive tree fern fiddleheads to the right (they are invasive locally, and I am still thinking and reading about them).

The other consideration is that bracken ferns are known to contain carcinogens (perspective-reminder: alcohol is carcinogenic). Their spores are carcinogenic, and it is supposed that it's not a great idea to live surrounded by them. Suffice it to say: do not dine on (any) fern fiddleheads exclusively for any length of time. Make them an occasional treat and prepare them the right way. Soak, blanch, shock, cook. The toxins are water-soluble. Please read Hank Shaw's take on it.

As with many, many foods, medicines, and poisons, it's all about the dose.

I picked some young un's and soaked them in two changes of water for 24 hours. Then I blanched them in salted boiling water for about 3 minutes, till tender. Then I shocked them in an icebath for an hour.

When I tasted one raw (no swallowing) it was very, very bitter. That bitterness was gone by the time the marathon soaking was done.

THEN, and only then, I flash-sauteed them with some soy sauce, a sprinkle of sugar and a squeeze of the wonderful limes that grow in my mother's garden. They were delicious. Hard to describe.

You may ask, Why?

It's fun, and they taste good. And it's once in a blue moon.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Summer crops - beans, beans, beans!

Grow Journey's bush beans planted in-ground in 'the farm's' 120-ish square foot section of our Carroll Gardens backyard are painted pony (I still don't know if that's 'Painted Pony,' single apostraphe for a cultivar, or if it is the general name given to that spotty kind of bean...), which are plain green and very prolific, and 'Dragon's Tongue' - which produces fat white scarlet-striped bean pods.

You wouldn't think that a couple of four-foot rows of beans could produce a daily crop. Or maybe you would. If you are a seasoned bush bean grower. Which I am not. Our bean trellis in Harlem was my first personal attempt, and yes, those did well.

Once beans start they don't seem to stop. Better than $5 a pack at the local greengrocer.

The Frenchman claims that painted pony beans - above - squeak. But perhaps that is because I steam them till barely tender. I like to eat a bowl of hot, squeaking beans with some butter, salt and pepper.

When cooked the 'Dragon's Tongue' beans are softer than the squeakier ponies. We also have some climbing 'Trionfo Violetto,' grown from Harlem-saved seed, and a scarlet runner bean, planted very late, in hopes of luring a hummingbird or two.

I chill wilted hot-day beans in an ice bath to keep them fresh. 

Daily beans mean daily cookings. Above, a handful of beans was dry-roasted with cauliflower in a stove-top pan with olive oil, lemon juice and cumin. It was the substantial side to some small merguez-type sausages from the friendly Damascus Bakery on Atlantic Avenue (the purple things above are grapes, for the chilled ajo blanco in the jug). Beans also love soy sauce.

In hot and sticky weather a salad of raw red peppers, beets and grated red carrot is topped with steamed beans. Olive oil and lime juice as a dressing.

And don't forget the Ni├žoise.

Back in early summer, when roses were in their first flush (not overheated and eaten by leaf miners, yet), these crops were still just plans. Now they are dinner.

The most recent seeds-of-the month arrival I planted was exciting (especially for a forager): Chenopodium capitatum, known commonly as strawberry spinach.

When I log onto my Grow Journey account I read the following: "In spite of being native to North America, strawberry spinach, also known as beetberry, was rediscovered as a food plant in European monastery gardens that date back to the 1600s. This odd little plant is related to spinach, lamb’s quarters, orach, magenta spreen, and quinoa."

We'll see how the "odd little plant" fares against the weeds and the leafnipping birds while I am in Cape Town. The birds decimate two crops: summer savory (I have tried twice) and fenugreek, but will not touch basil or salad leaves like arugula or lettuce. The strawberry spinach is an unknown.

Stay tuned.

For a taste of how Grow Journey membership works you can always sign up for a free 30-day trial which will deliver either three or five packets of seed to you, depending on your garden's size. Dip your toes in the water.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Winter table the Constantia kitchen. All the yellow citrus (left and rear) are from the tree in the garden and have very, very pale green flesh, no seeds, and are tremendously juicy. My mom says they are limes, not lemons.

The quinces smell like quinces (in other words, wonderful) and are being used in a lamb stew that I will take to my cousin's house for a thing she calls a Slump - friends get together at the end of the week for a casual supper and are allowed to go home early, if they are tired. It sounds a bit like my middle of the week botanical drinks for plant-minded people.

I cook the quinces first for many hours so that they turn a ruby red - you must leave the skins and pips in the water, a trick I learned from my Turkish friend Bevan.

Not like New York winters at all, is it?

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Sunbird central

I am at the southern tip of Africa. and in my mother's Constantia garden the sunbird population appears to have tripled since I was here last, almost a year ago. Slammed by stupendous jet lag I sat sleepless and comatose with camera and watched the birds for a long time in the morning. My pictures are not very good. When the Frenchman gets here he will do these delightful birds justice.

These pictures are all of lesser double collared sunbirds, very small, but bigger than the hummingbirds I hope to see back in Brooklyn later in the year. There are lots of winter flowers for them to feed on right now, like the Cape honeysuckle (Tecoma capensis), above. Also, the bird above is not panting, but singing.

Above: I have forgotten this plant's name. Anyone? I think South American. [Ah, got it: Cestrum 'Newellii' - hardy to Zone 9-ish, if you're in the U.S.]

And then there is the junk food drive-through: sugar water.

Some people dye it red but it is not necessary (and use beet juice, if you must). Spot all the sunbirds above?

This dainty female stuck to the prolific Cotyledon flowers.

In other bird news we rescued an Egyptian goose gosling - a very small baby - which is now in a box in a warm place. We named him Farouk, and tomorrow must figure out what to do with him. Or her. In which case Farouk will not do.  The big geese were scared off by a dog in the greenbelt and somehow Farouk landed up near the house stuck in a drain. He has a mighty peep.

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