I first hear about fat-tailed sheep during a first-hand account of the efforts at Solms-Delta in Franschhoek to ensconce a couple of ostriches in the pen with said sheep. Why? They act as a form of watch dog – who in their right mind wants to tangle with an ostrich? Think how you would feel after one of those legs connected with you? (bet you didn’t know that their knees bend the wrong way, or is that more diplomatically speaking, the opposite way to ours?)
It is the fat-tailed sheep, therefore, that attract me to Dik Delta, the farm’s new fynbos culinary garden – filled with really interesting and edible plants and herbs. My other half, it must be said, is here exclusively for the garden. Armed with a notebook and camera, he intends noting every one of the indigenous trees and plants he has yet to add to our already busting at the seams vegetable garden at home (there is only so much you can fit in your back yard in Plumstead).
The fat-tailed sheep prove difficult to see. With the ostriches close to the perimeter of the sheep pen, the sheep have decided to stay well away from them for some reason and are on the other side of the pen. It is too hot to walk around and I have to content myself with staring at them through the pathetic lense of my camera (it’s the point and click not the ‘I’m a journalist, make way’ variety).
Photographs – Left: Sheep pen / Right: Fat-tailed sheep
With lemon orchards on either side, and the sheep pen, cows and a very interesting looking boma area where huge boulders delineate an area mapped out for future star-gazing evenings in the vicinity, Dik Delta is a 2-hectare reserve filled with edible plants. At its centre is a circle and from here a number of avenues expand outwards. All of them lined with these large river stones that have been excavated on the farm – you’ll see them in use a lot; they’re also around the sheep pen. And they’ve not just been stacked. Someone has gone to a lot of trouble to use the stones in a traditional wall structure. It must have taken hours.
A little to the side of the garden is the restoration of a natural river bed. It’s semi-dry at the moment, but flows in winter, its banks lined with stones, restios and some newly planted acacias. This part of the farm was once used for grazing, fruit production and even rubbish disposal. It was completely overgrown with alien vegetation, took a number of years to clear and is now a living museum of sorts.
It’s hot. The sky overhead is a brilliant blue, and as I wander through the plants I reflect on how it is possible that anything survives these temperatures, bearing in mind this is still spring. A lot of thought has gone into this garden, and for that reason, most of it should outwit the heat. A little later I lie lengthways on a rather narrow bench formed by a hefty piece of bluegum laid across more of the river stones, and spot a couple of fish eagles in the sky above me – this is heaven. Hat over face, I snatch a snooze, or as much as you can on the narrow bench.
Photographs – Left: Wild asparagus / Centre: Wild grape / Right: Chef Shaun Schoeman
Dik Delta is the vision of Mark Solms in an effort to preserve the rich bio-heritage of the Cape and its indigenous people, the Khoe (the alternative spelling of Khoi) – even if there is much heated debate amongst Coloured people today in South Africa about this particular heritage. A great deal of research and effort has gone into creating the garden. Renata Coetzee, an authority on Khoe food culture, helped choose the plants she thought would work best in the climate and for the kitchen of Solms-Delta’s restaurant, Fyndraai.
Alan Sonnenberg, an ethno-botanist, added his incredible knowledge to the mix by searching for specific botanical treasures, many of which are virtually extinct, and Hein Joubert, a heritage enthusiast with a background in architecture, was brought onboard to project manage the garden.
We approach the beds that have been rather formally laid out. A lot of the now over 80 varieties of indigenous plants and trees have been grouped, some of the beds home to quite a high concentration of each variety of plant. A whole row of quining trees line the back row closest to the Sanga cattle we have just stopped to admire – although they seem reticent in coming forward, but I love their horns. We wonder if these horns, which one doesn’t see these days, have been intentionally ‘lost’. What farmer wouldn’t be very aware that he could find himself gored to death?
Photographs – Left: Dik Delta / Centre: Row of quining trees / Right: Bench
Other beds have a number of surprises for us. We’ve never seen honeybush in flower, never mind growing. Whilst I’ve seen rooibos on farms, the honeybush flowers are postively exotic – both the way they look and their smell. And yet there isn’t a bee in sight? Perhaps lunch time is not when bees are out – too much like hard work.
There are similar beds with buchu, spekboom, a gorgeous little purple and pink flower called bloubobbejaantjies or Babiana stricta iridaceae, wild grapes known as bosdruif, which I find surprising – didn’t know you got wild grape varieties – wild rosemary, a number of pelargonium varieties, wild asparagus, gorgeously scented wild mint, olive trees, and something known as a huilboerboon tree.
A little later I study the Fyndraai menu, intent on trying to figure out how Shaun Schoeman, the chef, manages to incorporate some of these plants into the menu. I can see how mint, rosemary or even buchu (boegoe) might make it onto the list, but it is amazing to see how creative he has managed to be – spekboomslaai, veldkos vegetable bake, garden leaves and boegoe buttermilk sauce – the guy is a genius.
In the pipeline, I hear, are a number of Dik Delta products that could include honeybush tea and traditional jams. We end our day back under the trees at Fyndraai, parched but excited by the garden.