I’m sitting at a wooden table in an alcove amidst the buzz of the café that lies to one side of the food store cum health shop that is the Fresh Earth Food Store, exclaiming over my breakfast. I can count on one hand the number of eateries* where I can hope to find something on the menu, like my choice of French Toast on wheat-free bread, with ‘real’ free-range eggs and real maple syrup (the Canadian kind not cheap, flavoured syrup).
This particular dish also comes with huge slices of haloumi cheese. You have no idea how good it was. Heart-warming stuff. Add to that the African-brewed organic and Fair Trade decaf coffee (Bean There Coffee) that I’m enjoying with, I have no doubt, ‘real’ milk (not the kind full of hormones and other stuff, because the cows are fed so badly) with a choice of rice or soy milk if you do not do dairy, or are vegan.
The main emphasis of the Fresh Earth Food Store and Café is vegetarian, vegan foods and special dietary requirements such as wheat and gluten intolerance. But don’t let this description scare you, for wheat-free and vegan foods have come a looooong way.
Gone are the days of wheat free bread that disintegrates when you so much as look at it, or the kind that looks as if it was sat on, rather than baked. Matthew, the dynamic individual behind this trendy eatery, is so in-love with food and its production – all his meals are made from scratch without any artificial additives, sweetners, colourants or preservatives and organic wherever possible – that the food is simply gorgeous.
The menu, on the face of it, is filled with the usual – salads, sandwiches, tramazzinis, burgers, breakfasts – but look a little closer and you will find out why the restaurant is called the ‘fresh earth’ food store.
The proof is very obviously in the pudding, as the fashionable spot is doing a roaring trade first thing Saturday morning. It is also filled with people of all ages, from students, to rather trendy looking fifty-year olds. By 11.30am the stage is being set for the all-you-can-eat buffet that happens at lunch time on Saturdays, dubbed the ‘Table of Abundance’ (we get a look at this on our way out of the restaurant sometime later, and if it weren’t the pressing need to relieve granny of our five-year old, we would have stayed to lunch as well).
I head upstairs shortly after my meal to chat to Matthew in his eyrie (a wooden garret above our heads in the café). Such food deserves a closer look at the man behind it.
Matthew is tall. Very tall. But he manages to fold his long legs under his desk, where, on this very cold winter morning he sits complete with beanie, a series of computers spread before him on the desk. It seems Matthew is something of a geek. He likes what computers can do. Consequently, don’t be alarmed when you browse the Fresh Earth Food Store’s website and discover that a chat box immediately opens, and someone offers you help.
His other idiosyncracy is the cameras he’s got set up in his bakery, just around the corner from here, so that he can keep an eye on things. It’s not what you think. Matthew’s not a fanatic about security. He just loves his bread and wants to make sure that it’s being made the way that he would make it. We thus find ourselves traipsing after him through the icy winds that have gripped Johannesburg, down a little side road and into the bakery behind the restaurant.
Amazingly, the bakery used to belong to someone else before he managed to lay his hands on it. Matthew has always had a passion for bread making. He did a bread course in Melmerby, the little village somewhere in the English midlands, where he knew that bread making was to become a part of whatever it was that he did. He didn’t just fall into the restaurant business either. Matthew cut his teeth with the Fruits and Roots crowd.
We watch him tease and cajole his baking team, whilst adding the final touches to a focaccia on which he sprinkles what looks like caramelised onion. All the time that he’s working, he’s telling us more about himself, the food store and his ideas. He’s obviously someone quite at ease with multi-tasking (I will refrain from the obvious sexist comment here), obviously a pre-requisite for someone running such a large operation.
We head back to take a good look at the wholefood part of the food store. Matthew has done a really good job at scouting around for a wide selection of alternative, healthy wholefood and fresh food options. There are also cleaning products, kitchen equipment, natural body products and the kind of supplements you would usually find in a health shop. Everything is arranged well, easy to find and the floor is worked by a number of experts, so you are never without help.
Everything in the shop is also available on the online store, as are a number of recipes and eating plans, should you be in need of a few new and exciting vegetarian or vegan ideas (I know I am always in need of inspiration).
The Fresh Earth Food Store has got it just right. It doesn’t suffer from the rather staid ‘health shop’ formula where only supplements are on sale, with the odd aromatherapy product thrown in. The clever combination of a café, health shop and food store means that there is something for everyone and, once your tummy is full and you’ve discovered a really amazing bread that you would like to take home, you can find it in the shop.
The shop also has a great outside spill onto pavement area, although totally inadequate, despite gas heaters, for cold winter days, it must be fantastic during summer.
Matthew is now being enveloped by the workings of the shop. Customers know him by name and stop to chat or ask him something about a product. The student crowd are busy surreptitiously giving the slow accumulation of platters to the eat-all-you-can buffet the eyeball, whilst we spend a generous amount of time pouring over the shelves, buying a few items for our holiday and generally enjoying the space – there is much to savour.
Useful Jo’burg Info
You will find the store and restaurant at 103 Komatie Road, Emmarentia, Johannesburg
Telephone: 011 646 4404.
*Closer in Muizenberg, Cape Town (raw and vegan food)
kwaLapa at Montebello Design Centre, Newlands, Cape Town (organic)
Leafy Greens in Muldersdrift, Gauteng (vegan and raw food)
Fresh Earth Food Store, Emmarentia, Johannesburg
Fruits and Roots in Bryanston, Johannesburg ( vegetarian)