Ficksburg didn’t mean that much to me until I visited the pretty little town set on the banks of the Caledon River. It lies at the foot of the beautiful Imperani Mountain in the Free State, for those of you who didn’t know, and I had only heard of it before the festival because a school friend of mine hailed from there (and since we were at school in Durban at the time, you can understand how she was regarded with a fair amount of incredulity).
First off let me say that if you’re a fan of cherries, then this is the festival to attend. For the last couple of years at least, cherries seem to have given the shelves of my local Pick n Pay the run around. That, or they were in and off the shelves so fast that I didn’t even catch a whiff of the dainty red stoned fruit! Thus a trip to the Eastern Free State around the third week of November may be the closest you will get to this delectable dainty …
The Ficksburg Cherry Festival is the longest running festival in South Africa – 42 years old this year. The whole town comes out in celebration. There is a huge market, cherry tours, a half marathon, cherry product competitions, beer fests, a new food and wine fiesta, the incredibly popular, and slightly horrifying, cherry pip-spitting contest, the ‘ready, steady, bake’ competition as well as a quick lesson in how to make cherry mampoer, a cherry liqueur known as the local ‘moonshine’.
Since I was there the festival has had a slight shift in focus and now sport is placed high on the list of agenda, which is probably not going to do that much by way of encouraging me to return. But a rather large percentage of our society would scorn my general disregard for sport, and would love to watch ex stars of the cricket, soccer and rugby world sharing their skills with young hopefuls.
If, however, you’re after something with a little more culture, then there are visits to both cherry and asparagus farms, and cruises along the waterways just outside the town of Ficksburg aboard what is described as the country’s only floating cigar bar known as the White Mischief, which includes a gourmet meal and several malt whiskies.
There are cooking workshops for the more creative at heart, or you can do as we did – take a steam train from Sandstone Estate and escape Ficksberg completely, cherries in tow!
The steam train, in similar fashion to the now no longer functioning Apple Express in the Eastern Cape, leaves Ficksburg and travels through farmlands towards the Caledon River on the Lesotho border. It was an amazing journey filled with sunflowers, fields of corn, amazing examples of sandstone farmhouses and an incredible sunset.
It gives you a couple of hours to quietly reflect and gaze at scenery whilst reliving what it must have been like in the days when steam engines were the main form of transport around the country. The downside was that we left our ride until pretty late – hence I was starving and our entire quota of cherries for the weekend quite depleted by the time of our return (we hadn’t reckoned on the length of the journey).
There is also an annual Reefsteams Association steam train ride to the Cherry Festival from Boksburg East, if steam trains are your thing, although by all accounts these are already fully booked! (contact them on +27 (0)11 956-6409)
During our visit, we managed to stay in a little cottage in the neighbouring town of Fouriesburg, as by the time we began our search for somewhere to stay, all the ‘spots’ in town had already gone. Totally off the beaten track we had a little cottage set beneath a pretty bower of jasmine all to ourselves, and could use the excuse of travel to lie in in the mornings (we had family to meet at the festival).
The first successfully planted cherry trees in the country were in the Clocolan district in the year 1905, brought into South Africa by German missionaries with early settlers. Today there are around 500 hectares worth of cherry trees in the Eastern Free State mainly in and around Ficksburg, Clocolan and Fouriesburg. Cherries are harvested from October to December (hence the choice of November for the festival).
This same region is also known as the asparagus region of South Africa and from September, hundreds of tons of asparagus are harvested. I can attest to how delectable this particular vegetable is when fresh from the farm!
But it is the tiny ruby-red fruit, ripe and ready to eat that is undoubtedly the star of the festival. Take a tour to neighbouring orchards to pick and guzzle and perhaps, by the close of the weekend, you may have satiated your desire for this luscious delicacy.
For those of you who actually intend returning with enough cherries intact (ungobbled) to follow this recipe, it is well worth savouring, and borrowed from the official cherry festival website, courtesy Ronel Thake-Fouriesia:
Danish Cherry Tart
Fill a flaky pastry shell of flan case with stoned cherries, soaked in sugar and sprinkle with a pinch of cinnamon.
Cover the cherries with a mixture of the following:
100g softened butter
100g ground almonds
Bake the tart in an oven at a moderate temperature. Leave to cool, cover with gooseberry jelly and glaze with rum.
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