Let me warn you that there are no fewer than five farm stalls as you travel the N7 past Citrusdal, all competing for your attention. But if you approach the popular little village with Cape Town behind you, Alex Gordon’s ‘kom proe farm stall’ will probably be the first – you can’t help but notice the sign boards placed at strategic intervals advertising various fruit and veg.
Actually, it’s not officially called ‘kom proe’. It hasn’t got a name. Not that this worried any of the passers by who stop here by the dozen to sample whatever it is that Oom Alex is selling today. Standing outside minding our own business, a noisy truck belching diesel whizzed past hooting, and Alex waved explaining that he’d helped the trucker a while back and now every time he passes all and sundry are recipients of his gratitude.
Alex is a salesman deluxe. Now a retired pensioner, he and his buddy Des are busy cutting up oranges, naartjies and grapefruit and calling to anyone who stops to come and taste – ‘kom proe!’ It’s an age-old routine that works a treat as who woudn’t want to bite into a succulent orange when it’s sweltering outside – what is it about Citrusdal that it is always hotter than anywhere else?
And the citrus fruit is excellent – big, juicy, and most more(ish). The exterior of the little farm stall that sits just off the road can’t be missed either – it is brightly painted in shocking lime green and purple, whilst a cerise bogainvillea in full flower trawls up both posts on which the tin roof of the makeshift stoep rests.
Bags of citrus of every description hang from hooks on the rafters of the stoep, and from the roof some sort of wooden statue looks down over the car park – it’s fun, jaunty and all rather jovial once Alex gets going. At the window stands another little wooden statue, a sign hung around his neck – ‘complaints department’, whilst inside there is a huge hand-written poster that goes something like ‘we are locals do not rush us, the hurrier we go the behinder we get’.
He’s soon got my other half and four-year old in the grips of citrus madness – how many bags can we fit in the boot? You mean our busting-at-the-seams boot that only just managed not to squeeze in the kitchen sink? I step into the inner darkness of the tiny farm stall proper to find out what the fascination is.
Every available bit of space is filled with produce – jams, dried fruit, honey (when it isn’t hidden in the store room as Alex’s honey is by all accounts extremely popular) and oranges cut into quarters, the way my mom used to do for my birthday parties when I was a child, only she would fill the segments with jelly.
I finally succumb to tasting a novelty. Ever heard of a novelty? I hadn’t either. It seems I have stumbled on something pretty unique. It’s an orange that is sweeter, easier to peel – Alex calls them ‘easy peelers’ – and without pips. Ask any child to reorganise an orange and that’s exactly what she’ll order. The only thing is that the skins look a little lumpy. Like they could be a little ‘odd’. Not that this worries me.
But for this reason there are only 600 trees in the valley (if you discount Brits in North West province where they also grow them) that produce the wonderful citrus fruit. They won’t sell on the international market, despite tasting like nectar of the gods. Hence farmers who were growing them, cut them down to make way for further orange trees. But the novelties walk out of here like nobody’s business – people buying them two bags at a time, not difficult considering Alex is selling them for only R10 a bag (on our return journey, a week later, he will have sold out).
We get chatting to Alex and learn a number of really interesting things about citrus we didn’t know. It appears the export market is extremely fussy when it comes to fruit. For a farmer’s naartjies to make it onto the market, there must be only four pips per six naartjies. I think of the organic, lovingly reared naartjies I’ve got in the boot (kind of like taking coal to Newcastle, I know, but I didn’t do the head work – Citrusdal, oranges, spring…duh). My organic naartjies have countless pips – something I find rather annoying – but I’ve been soldiering on because, well, they’re organic.
And we learn that the novelty orange is a Washington navel crossed with an Allandale naartjie, courtesy of Stellenbosch (where they do these things) – I’m now debating the merits of messing with our food versus the incredible taste of that novelty. And that if we want our grapefruit tree at home in Cape Town to grow well (it’s struggling to say the least – the one grapefruit we’ve produced is, admittedly, soldiering on, but hasn’t got bigger than a ping pong ball in the last six months) we need to use three handfuls of Epsom salts in the ground and sunlight liquid on the leaves to get rid of the aphids, hmmmm.
Alex goes on to regale us with the story of where he sources his citrus. The farm stall is on the very popular Petersfield Farm. Just about everyone in Cape Town knows about this particular accommodation, but what they don’t know is that Hedley is related to just about everyone in the valley – his cousin owns the Caltex garage just opposite, and his other cousin runs the Baths. And on it goes.
The point of all this is that Alex tends to keep his buying in the family, so to speak. He buys from Hedley, as well as the Halls, and the McGregors – all of whom are related and have been in the valley for an age. It’s real ‘small town’ history that I’ve come to envy. Even the popular campsite Beaverlac belongs to the Oliviers, who are related to Hedley, who is also related to the Burghers, from whom Alex sources his sweet potatoes for his winter farm stall sales…you get the picture, even if I’ve muddled some of the names in my confusion.
We hoist our two bags of novelties and one bag of ruby grapefruit into the smidgen of space left in the boot and head off. If this is only the beginning of our trip, what will the rest hold?