The Department of Consumer and Food Sciences of the University of Pretoria is hosting a special dinner to celebrate our indigenous food of which some of these ingredients will be foraged on their Future Africa Campus. DIANE DE BEER spoke to botanist and curator Jason Sampson as well as some of the other participants about this exciting concept:
This is not the first time the students of Consumer and Food Sciences will focus on indigenous ingredients, but it is their first foray into the Future Africa Campus.
The gardens at Future Africa were purposefully designed and developed to cultivate and produce edible and indigenous plants. “We developed a menu to celebrate and use some of these ingredients in the menu that were available and as it was the end of the season for some of these products, we were able to harvest them 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 will be preparing the dinner.
“What is 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.”
Much of the expertise and help was given by botanist Jason Sampson from the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, the man responsible for among others 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.
Known as the Manie van der Schiff Botanical Gardens, 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’s as if the campus 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.
From the rose garden which was replaced by an aloe garden in front of the admin building (possibly the most visible ship structure on the most southern point of the campus), to what is referred to as a living laboratory, the rainwater harvesting plant (which is part of the Mining Engineering Study Centre of UP with a series of rain garden ponds and a storage tank which was installed as a reactive storm-water control system), someone has a firm eye on sustainability in these expansive grounds and to the scarcity of water in the future.
Working with UP’s resident architect, Neal Dunstan, they saved the university a stack of money but also created a system that harvests enough water for the glorious botanical gardens.
“The aloes haven’t been watered for six months,” he says and of course, that’s the point. And as you drive further through the campus, the signs of replanting and water-resistant plants are overwhelming. You just have to pay attention. This is truly forward thinking.
All of these projects and unique plant species are also available for study purposes as are the gardens that Sampson is involved in on the Future Africa campus. “There are quite a few master and doctorate studies to be done here,” says the man who describes his role on the new campus as “advising and interfering”.
And believe me he will. But with his passion for and knowledge of especially indigenous flora and to the benefit of the Consumer and Food Sciences students, a love for food, he will walk you through those gardens, still only in their infancy, and if you listen to him talking, have dishes rolling off his tongue.
His conversation centres on edible gardens, food forests and the need to diversify food crops which also leads to wild food plants. Today the world is dependent on five staples – none of which come from Africa. He points to the Irish food famine for example as a country that was solely dependent on one staple – and then starved. He knows this is a simplistic version but is also a reminder of food shortages and famine in the future.
“We need to focus on our little known orphan and African crops,” and here he points to examples like African berries (of which there are different kinds), a local grape version that instead of a bunch, forms single large grapes on a rounded bush or as an exotic example, the dragon fruit cactus which he is especially keen on as a vining waterwise fruit which could substitute for grapes to make what he believes will be excellent wine.
Cactus is a thing that he feels can be used in different ways (“eat the weeds”) and he is also keen on a sugar sorghum which delivers two food crops: wheat and sugar.
It’s one of the strengths he argues one finds in African crops. Most modern crops are single usage crops where a marula for example has multiple outputs. We would use the fruit, the nut, the bark and there would be a medicinal purpose introduced as well.
He feels we have been behind the times with indigenous planting (and he’s not against bringing in a few exotics). Some of his current plants in the Future Africa gardens include big-leafed spekboom (a different version of the plant that has become so fashionable in the past few years), Lowveld chestnuts that grow only around Mbombela and Barberton, the Pondoland coconut which is almost extinct in the wild, a horned cucumber which is farmed commercially in New Zealand and grows wild throughout Southern Africa, a makataan (wild watermelon) – and he can go on and on and give numerous ways of using these edible plants in innovative ways.
That’s exactly what the students were tasked to do. Research a menu, take the guidance from Sampson and then harvest what they need for their specific menu. What they have come up with is a truly innovative forward-thinking meal under the guidance of a student tasked with putting together a menu: Zandile Finxa. They also had to stick to a curriculum which not only introduces the different local ingredients but also a range of cooking methods.
It starts with an arrival snack consisting of a savoury Msoba (nightshade berry) panna cotta, aloe and spekboom salad and wild African sage (of which Sampson says, there are 27 different species in South Africa alone!).
The starter is a panfried Amadumbe gnocchi with African water chestnut mash (found with what will become a huge crop of waterblommetjies in the rainwater harvesting pond), roasted balsamic beetroot, guinea fowl with beetroot extract and biltong; followed by a mains of seared sous-vide Kudu loin with ting (sorghum) prepared risotto style, butter-tossed waterblommetjies, rooibos smoked carrots, creamed marogo and a venison red wine jus.
To end on a sweet note, there’s a chocolate and carob (of which the trees also grow at the university) macaron with milktart cream filling, amarula ice cream, horned melon and plumbago gell with a cinnamon and wild rosemary crumb.
Guests are then presented with a gift of glazed makataan (wild watermelon) and according to Sampson, this is a fruit of which the peel is considered to make the best watermelon preserve/jam and if you mix the fruit itself with pap, it’s lip-smacking.
The dinner will be pre-empted by a public lecture by Prof Herb Meiselman, an internationally known expert in sensory and consumer research, product development and food service who will deliver a public lecture on The influence of context/environment and psycho-graphics on product design and evaluation prior to the dinner for those who are interested.
Sensory and Consumer Research has changed dramatically over the past 20 years, moving from pure sensory research to a broad array of tests involving the psychology of the consumer and the place where testing and product consumption are done. While testing used to focus on the product being tested, it now includes the consumer and the environment.
Date: 7 August 2019 Time: 7pm for 7.30pm Venue: Future Africa Complex RSVP and Enquiries: Prof Gerrie du Rand, 012 420 3547 or firstname.lastname@example.org Tickets R300 per person.