Gaia Food Market’s banner is stretched between two Plein Trees on Constantia Main Road, the leaves hinting at the autumn to come as I walk the long way around the car park already swathed in leaves and take a quick scan across Alphen Common.
To my right is a group of doggie owners putting their pets through their paces and at shin height the much neglected wooden sign that indicates the commonage. There is something winsome about the picture.
My first impression on passing through the gates of Alphen Centre and stepping in to the central courtyard where there are a smattering of wooden trestle tables under the trees, their cloths gently lifting in the early morning chill, is that it feels modest and low-key.
The background music is mellow and the quiet layout informal. It’s out of doors for it’s fine weather. I pass a couple already leaving the market, their re-useable cloth bags bulging with vegetables. They must have got here early, as the market is barely an hour into its morning.
I’m greeted by a woman with a shiny tiara on her head. In an apron. My initial surprise and barely restrained guffaw is tempered as I manage to read the logo on her chest, and realise that before me stands the Pesto Princess, Kathleen Quillinan.
I’m already a fan of the little glass bottles of home-made pesto that I often buy from shelves at Pick n Pay, Martins bakery and other stores (some of their range is now nation wide in Pick n Pay; I’ve even got it in Nelspruit). But I’m not expecting them here, despite their obvious link with the market’s specialty – plant food.
Gaia food market is a niche market. Its tables overflow with plant based cuisine. When I first hear about it, I think: organic fruit and veges, nuts and things, and very probably the current raw food trend. It’s a pleasant surprise to see pesto (which somehow I associate with more mainstream food), but of course, it’s very much related, especially the way Princess Pesto does it – without preservatives using herbs (plant food) as the base -, and, Kathleen informs me, now dairy, nut and garlic free for some of the range – like the basil and thai flavours.
Kathleen and I trade information, laugh, swop notes and generally make a connection. I discover that this is the tone for all the tables at the Gaia Market.
Photographs — Left: Organic vegetables / Right: 25 Rupees
Forrest Beaumont, whom Kathleen introduces me to a few moments later, has been rather selective and exacting in his insistence that everyone who exhibits at this market should be the food’s producer. Consequently every visitor who is interested – and at a specialty market this is more often than not the case – gets the story behind the food, and the story behind that – depending on how many questions you ask.
Forrest and I sit at a trestle table in the centre beneath the trees. Around us a smattering of people is already tucking in to food they’ve selected from the 15 or so tables of the market.
He points out the conversations happening around us – there is a lot of talking that arises at this market, possibly because of its theme. ‘People are interested’, he says, ‘in food’. He smiles and I follow his gaze to catch Joe give Leila a snuggle to our left. Their business is 25 Rupees (not the cost of the meal, despite the obvious connection) that offers a heady array of authentic Indian cuisine, slow-cooked at home.
As we’re chatting Forrest introduces me to Storm Roger, head chef at the Wellness Warehouse. She’s just visiting the market today, but Forrest intends roping her in to the market at her own table. She’s big into healthy eating and already produces a range at the Wellness Café for food intolerances, vegans, vegetarians and raw food followers. The market will only gain by her presence.
Forrest is busy telling me about the market’s imminent move. They’ve found an indoor venue just in time for winter that will finally allow them to host a weekly market. Up until now market dates have been a bit hotch potch, I remark, and Forest agrees. It’s difficult for people to know just which weekend the market is on. Despite this, the turn-out is building nicely, and by lunch time, it’s practically buzzing.
I stop by Roger Norton’s table. It’s a bit like stepping back into the seventies. Not only does he sport a beard and bear more than a vague resemblance to the hippies of yon, but his table is filled with handmade muesli, and other related products. Roger studied first-hand at the Bircher-Benner (a man who is considered a revolutionary doctor for the use of muesli as the dietary mainstay of his clinic that cured many of a whole range of ailments) clinic in Zurich on how to make muesli.
I buy a couple of cashew crunch balls that I know my son will love and spend a moment or two chatting to Roger before moving on to examine the organic produce on sale. The vegetables are sourced directly from the farmers that produce them in Noordhoek, Philippi and similar. And they’re organic, just not certified (part of the problem in South Africa is that small holders and small farmers can’t afford the accreditation).
Photographs — Left: Jovanka’s apple strudle / Right: Matt and Natalie of Earthshine
Whilst a lot of the local food markets claim that their vegetables are ‘organic’, I’m not that convinced. This time, however, I am as I know the smallholder in Noordhoek. The veg looks wonderful. I make a mental note to come here of a weekend to stock up.
On the raw food front Earthshine and Rawlicious have tables at the market but there is also a new producer. Perhaps not so new as it’s the same team that run the very successful Africa Café in Cape Town. Portia and her husband Jason, together with their daughter, Lumai, are now producing a series of raw foods, smoothies, organic salads and vegetable curries and soups for lunch at the café. And their table is filled with nut butters, rawtella, ‘cheese’ and other tasty accompaniments that have people touching and tasting in surprise that it’s raw, not baked.
On a little and I stumble upon Jovanka of the Organic Deli, who does home-cooked and baked Slovenic food. And she knows how to cook, sources organic wherever she can and has produced the most incredible butter bean dish I think I’ve ever sampled. As for her apple strudle… I depart with a portion of each for lunch.
Cilla of Angelchefs makes ‘heavenly delights without develish effects’, her sumptuous looking cakes and muffins that unbelievably contain no sugar (or sugar replacement), dairy, milk, butter, eggs, animal products, preservatives or chemicals. Quite an achievement, and, judging by the outcome and the smiles of her customers, rather nummy.
Next to her is Clarence, who obviously spent the night before baking up a storm. His breads are artfully displayed in baskets, and I choose a butternut ciabatta to try. Clarence bakes for a charity organisation in Sun Valley, and when he’s not kneading dough for them, he makes use of their ovens to produce his own breads for markets like this one.
Bhanoo Sukha greets me at her stall. Usually she cooks, but today she’s doing henna tattoos and I sit whilst she quickly shows me how its done, on my hand, whilst we swop notes.
It’s two hours before I finally leave, having visited most, if not all, the stalls at the market. But I leave having spent the morning in conversation with people who already feel like friends. It’s a market to which I will return, again and again.
Photographs — Left: Kathleen Quillinan / Right: Clarence’s breads
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