Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Dune spinach

Dune spinach, Kommetjie, Cape Town

Even as the season in New York is gearing up towards ripe beach plums and summer mushrooms I remember that I never finished writing about the foraged herbs we ate at Kobus van der Merwe's restaurant - and my current favourite in South Africa - Oep ve Koep (Western Cape Afrikaans dialect for Oop vir Koop, or Open for Business), in Paternoster. That was when summer in South Africa was in full swing. If I eke the menu out carefully here perhaps I will be eating there again in person by the time I get to dessert. I can't wait.

Dune spinach. It was draped across what the menu described as Sandveld dumplings, which resembled, very closely (and intentionally), pirogis, and with quite the same heft. A deprived vegetarian would sink her teeth into the pasta covering, but at the height of summer a more tender bite would have appealed to me. Nevertheless, the excellent flavour of the filling, and the dish as a whole, plus the excitement of eating a new plant pushed that reservation to my already-cluttered back burner. This was the middle of many courses and everything so far had been sterling - in concept and in execution (click back for the watermelon salad - with Tabasco sorbet; the fig and bread salad, and the divine mussels with Tulbaghia).

Oep ve Koep's Sandveld dumplings

While writing this post I checked on the botanical name for dune spinach - Tetragonia decumbens, and emailed Rupert Koopman, a botanist with Cape Nature and a friend of Kobus van der Merwe's who has helped with identifying the foraged components on the menu at Oep ve Koep. We met on my last trip to Cape Town. Rupert emailed back at once:  "Are you psychic? I've just (ten minutes ago!) been walking on the beach in Cape St Francis munching on duine-spinasie..." 

Made me homesick. And jealous.

Rupert led a foraging walk with Kobus at the Cape Columbine Nature Reserve (where Vince and I camped a couple of years ago on our way back from Namibia) last year and may do so again. He describes it as "veldkos with a lot of fynbos conservation brainwashing included gratis." Veldkos is field food, or wild food, Afrikaans to describe anything that can be eaten from the veld or wild. Veld is a very hard word to translate. Where I grew up, in the Free State, it meant grassland. But I have heard real Capies, surrounded by fynbos, describe wild spaces in the Cape as veld, too. The Afrikaans poet, author, food writer, botanist and medical doctor (those were the days - when you did not have to describe your person in one word), C. Louis Leipoldt writes: "Veldkos may be interpreted in two senses, either as "food produced by or derived from the veld" or "food to be eaten on the veld", veld being any uncultivated part of the countryside.

Dawn on Cape Columbine  - our campsite in 2009

The dune spinach topping my Sandveld dumplings was startling at first. How do we describe food entirely new to our palates? It is a rare experience, a new flavour, and perhaps it is why I am drawn to foraging. To anyone who likes or needs to cook, ingredients are key. Dune spinach is a succulent plant, geared for life in hot and sandy conditions, and so when cooked one's teeth sink into it, rather than tearing it. An assertive flavour, unlike anything I have experienced. A faint prickle on the tongue suggested oxalic acid (think intense spinach). It was a good foil for the mild and creamy potato filling.

Fishing boats at Paternoster

I found my own dune spinach back in Cape Town, growing in the grass beside the sea of the Kom, at Kommetjie, near our good friends the Friedman's house, with its best view in the whole of Cape Town, beside the most beautiful aloes. A dream location. I picked a handful and presented it at home to Selina, matriarch of morogo, and she regarded it suspiciously but with great interest. Her foraging belongs to farmland and inland fields; she did not grow up with shoreline.

Dune spinach from the Kom

But I think she might enjoy Oep ve Koep and Kobus' experiments with indigenous food. And perhaps we might even be able to join a walk with Rupert.

For now, in our northern hemisphere summer (which is not kidding around), I shall content myself with local greens. Sea rocket is still growing strong. And I know where it lives.


  1. Love that nature reserve at Cape Columbine and have good memories of braaing mussels fresh off the rocks - also a kind of foraging, right?

  2. Hi puccagrrl - I'd forgotten about braaing mussels! Yes, real strandloper foraging. We used to do that on the beach at Scarborough. You're in New York?

  3. I've just seen the NY Times article about small spaces and gardens. How very nice to see photos of your garden in the Times.

  4. congrats on the NYT article.

  5. Happy to see the article in the NYT today! Green spaces in the city are so necessary. Thank you for continuing to inspire urban gardeners.


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