A couple of departments from the University of Pretoria combined forces to focus on foraging, future African foods and a South African menu, which embraces not only the skills but also the cuisine worth celebrating on our continent last year. With food memories still lingering and their latest indigenous dinner on the horison, DIANE DE BEER captures the experience:
“Enjoy the fruits of our labour,” invited Sandile Finxa, one of the final year Hospitality Management students from the Department of Consumer and Food Sciences of the University of Pretoria.
They were hosting (and she was responsible for the menu) a special dinner to celebrate our indigenous food of which some of these ingredients were foraged on their Future Africa Campus where the dinner was held.
The Future Africa campus is the new research facility of the university with specially planted gardens purposefully designed and developed to cultivate and produce edible and indigenous plants.
Much of the expertise and help was extended by botanist Jason Sampson from the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, the man responsible among others for the botanical garden on the main campus of the University of Pretoria which holds a collection of living plants that is scientifically managed for the purposes of education, research, conservation as well as community service.
With all the UP gardens, Future Africa included, the aim is to raise awareness of our indigenous plant heritage and if you’re fortunate to be taken around the campus by Sampson, it becomes a living organism with aloe walks on the Hillcrest campus and his magnificent fully fledged plant wall for the masterfully designed Plant Science building which functions as insulation as well as an aesthetically pleasing feature while also mimicking the natural habitat of some very unique plants.
He is a font of knowledge and with his passion for especially indigenous flora and to the benefit of the Consumer and Food Sciences students, a love of food, he walks you through the Future Africa gardens, still in their infancy but constantly evolving, and if you listen to him talk, have dishes rolling off his tongue.
“We developed a menu to celebrate and use some of these ingredients that we were able to harvest and include them in our menu (like water chestnuts and makataan),” explained associate professor Gerrie Du Rand in charge of the Hospitality Management Final year students who prepared the dinner also under the guidance of Dr Hennie Fisher.
“What is also exciting about this garden is the fact that many of these plants are unusual and not freely available and it provided our students the opportunity to celebrate these ingredients in a challenging manner with an unusual menu.”
In fact, as Finxa explained, in case you’re wondering who did the harvesting of the products that found their way onto the dinner plates, they had to get into bathing costumes to pick the water chestnuts, but the results were well worth the effort. And the learning experience for the students, many of whom had never heard of some of these ingredients, was invaluable.
With a visiting professor from the US raving about the menu and resulting dinner, it was obvious that this kind of meal could have a huge culinary impact on foreign visitors. But also, local diners. How many of us would think of serving ting in risotto style?
The menu was priceless. According to Finxa, the menu was inspired by the gardens of Future Africa. “Each item was made with the intention of highlighting the very rare, but indigenous plants of Africa found within our gardens,” she noted.
Calling our taste buds to attention, the amuse bouche consisted of savoury Msoba panna cotta, a pickled aloe aborescens and spekboom salad with wild African sage croutons. Sounds like a mouthful but the different flavours and textures combined brilliantly.
Perusing the menu, she explained the different choices and methods selected. “Umsoba/Msoba, also known as nightshade/nastergal, are traditionally used to make sweet jam. The plant has a savoury flavour and beautiful purple hue and so we adapted it to create a savoury dish instead.”
But it didn’t come easy. After many mishaps to keep the beautiful purple colour, they added some vinegar to the process and voilá. The big-leafed spekboom mixed with the pickled aloe aborescence is a different version of the one that has become so fashionable these past few years and packs an even bigger punch.
The starter, a panfried amadumbe (root vegetable) gnocchi was served on African water chestnut mash with roasted balsamic beetroot, guinea-fowl and beetroot extract and biltong dust. “Cornstarch was used for the amadumbe instead of flour making it gluten-free and the freshly picked water chestnut (à la swimsuits) with twice the nutritional content, has a sweeter, nuttier taste than the tinned variety and also retains a crunch after being cooked” which adds to the eating pleasure.
These two introductory dishes telegraphed the splendour of the rest of the dinner. With the mains centred on the seared sous-vide Kudu loin with ting (mabele/sorghum), prepared risotto style most spectacularly, it was embellished with butter-tossed waterblommetjies, rooibos-smoked carrots, creamed morogo and a venison red wine jus.
Showing off the versatility of ting was why it was done risotto-style and it worked magnificently. Could this perhaps be our first African-inspired risotto?
The amaranthus plant (known as Marog) is grown on the university campus and was served in a special Pretoria nostalgia-tinged way – creamed. It was a hearty and inspired presentation.
Dessert was a traditional milktart given a playful twist by turning it into a macaron filling and with amarula, one of our most loved cream liqueurs paired to create an ice cream. Kiwano (commonly known as African horned cucumber) was turned into a gel, introducing a refreshing flavour and brightness to the dish.
With a sweet packet of glazed makataan as a take-home gift, a Cape-Malay koesister and coffee on the way out, the dinner represented an African taste sensation served in stunning style.
Robertson winery and Fat Bastard sponsored the beverages with grand aplomb.
The innovative architecture of the Future Africa room, the flora and fauna from their gardens serving as table decorations, and as close to an early African summer night in Tshwane, mid-winter, all combined magnificently.
If this is where the culinary skills of our future chefs are focussed, bring it on. For too long, we have been serving often exquisite food to our foreign guests but apart from the odd braai or bobotie, not indicative of our very own culinary riches.
What these young students managed to achieve was a dinner flavoured and textured proudly South African.
Combining strengths and forces, Dr Hennie Fisher and Prof Gerrie du Rand and their Consumer and Food Sciences students, director of Future Africa Prof Bernard Slippers and his team as well as inspired botanist and curator Jason Sampson from the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, all from UP, have established a benchmark in South African cooking which should be expanded joyously.
It was one of the most visionary dinners held by The Department of Consumer and Food Sciences, and again, the head of Consumer and Food Sciences of UP, Prof Buys, in partnership with Chilean Gastronomic Engineer, Prof José Miguel Aguilera, is hosting an evening of indigenous African Cuisine prepared by the final year Hospitality Management Students.
The dinner will consist of four courses, each with a specially selected wine and will be held on Friday, 13 March at the Future Africa Hillcrest UP Campus. Dress is semi-formal, the dinner costs R350 per person, and booking will only be confirmed once payment has been received.
For further enquiries and bookings: email Taylen Kench at email@example.com