Hot Stuff

Some saucy chilli-based stuff is on the go in the Swart­land

South African Country Life - - In This Issue -

Life and busi­ness part­ners Rozelle and Julian Abram­son have grown a saucy chilli-based busi­ness in the Swart­land. “You just have to try these chilli sauces, they have no preser­va­tives, they taste fan­tas­tic and they’re stocked in some of Amer­ica’s top stores,” en­thused a foodie friend a few months ago. She poured a dol­lop of Chilli Dream Sauce and my taste buds tin­gled.

This was my in­tro­duc­tion to Fyn­bos

Fine Foods, a thriv­ing fam­ily busi­ness in a small farm­ing district called Tier­fontein, about 60 kilo­me­tres from Cape Town, near Malmes­bury.

South African-born Julian and Rozelle Abram­son have com­bined their for­mi­da­ble grow­ing and prod­uct-de­vel­op­ment skills to cre­ate a brand that is not only be­ing snapped up lo­cally and over­seas, but is boost­ing skills and cre­at­ing much-needed jobs in their lo­cal com­mu­nity.

I am de­lighted to ac­cept an in­vi­ta­tion to see the farm for my­self, and speed up the newly up­graded N7, ar­riv­ing early. As soon as I take the Tier­fontein turn-off, con­crete is re­placed by coun­try liv­ing. Thick restios and strik­ing red chan­de­lier plants flour­ish along­side the ochre­coloured dirt road.

I find out later from CapeNa­ture that this area is renowned for its low­lands coastal fyn­bos veg­e­ta­tion. In fact, nearby land that is farmed with sweet po­ta­toes, but­ter­nuts and wa­ter­mel­ons was de­clared a provin­cial na­ture re­serve in 1994, due to its rare and en­dan­gered plants. That re­serve also falls within the Witzands Aquifer Na­ture Re­serve, a pro­tec­tion zone that is a key recharge area for ad­ja­cent farm­ing ac­tiv­i­ties such as Fyn­bos Fine Foods.

I find the farm sign and drive past glossy trees laden with lemons. Be­hind them are long, neat rows of chill­ies, the main­stay of the busi­ness. I sign in at the gate, the first in­di­ca­tion that this fam­ily en­ter­prise is not only Fair Trade-au­dited, but also meets strin­gent in­ter­na­tional health and safety stan­dards.

Rozelle, with a sweep of jet-black hair and strik­ing fea­tures, leads me into the farm­house that is filled with African art and funky chan­de­liers. Carved wooden tables sup­port ce­ramic bowls over­flow­ing with brightly coloured chill­ies and other home-grown pro­duce.

Knead­ing a batch of scone dough for our tea, Rozelle tells me about their culi­nary jour­ney. “Julian and I left South Africa be­cause of apartheid, and met in Canada. We re­turned in 1996, want­ing to have a pos­i­tive im­pact on the place where we chose to live.”

Julian ar­rives back from his walk with ridge­backs Char­lie, Orggi and Zeuss. “It was the wa­ter, not the land, that made us choose to move here more than 20 years ago,” he says. “We are on a very shal­low aquifer with good qual­ity wa­ter, so the drought has not af­fected our farm­ing or man­u­fac­tur­ing. Land is worth noth­ing if there’s no wa­ter. We have very sandy soil with good drainage, along with heat and a low rain­fall – chill­ies don’t like too much mois­ture.”

Trained in hor­ti­cul­ture, and with con­sid­er­able ex­pe­ri­ence in hy­dro­pon­ics from

time spent in Is­rael and Canada, Julian has de­vel­oped a sys­tem he calls ‘Afro­pon­ics’.

“It’s based on an Is­raeli drip sys­tem, putting nu­tri­ents in the wa­ter so that the roots are fed di­rectly,” he ex­plains. “We save on wa­ter and nu­tri­ents.”

Julian was orig­i­nally one of the first farm­ers to pro­duce red and yel­low pep­pers in the Western Cape. The de­ci­sion to start mak­ing sauces was kick-started by an ini­tial busi­ness set­back. He’d de­liv­ered a bakkieload of pep­pers to a supermarket, and the man­ager wanted to pay less than they had agreed.

Julian drove that con­sign­ment back home and it was then that Rozelle, who grew up in Cape Town but whose fa­ther’s fam­ily have farm­ing in­ter­ests in Porter­ville, came into her own. She ex­per­i­mented and first de­vel­oped chilli jam with gin­ger. Now there is a range of sauces, pickles and rubs, salsa, pesto and more.

All were cre­ated in this same farm kitchen where we are ladling home-made jams onto

our freshly baked scones. The ta­ble is flanked by rows of bot­tles filled with or­ange, red and smoky-brown sauces. El­e­gant black and sil­ver la­bels hint at the trea­sures within – Oohlala Sauce, Smoth­er­ing Sauce, and Ghost Peri-Peri Sauce.

“Com­mer­cial fac­tory food has been pushed to the limit, and now peo­ple are work­ing back to­wards the more nat­u­ral, whole­some, orig­i­nal foods we started from,” says Julian. “We’ve mas­tered fer­ment­ing chill­ies, and pickle them so that we can store them in large drums. This en­ables us to make and sup­ply our sauces year­round. I’m hap­pi­est about our cold-smok­ing tech­niques – we’re mak­ing smoked pa­prika for the ex­port mar­ket and spe­cialise in chipo­tles, which are smoked, dried jalapeños. This is the in thing at the mo­ment.”

Rozelle adds, “We’re all nat­u­ral and use no preser­va­tives, colourants, MSG or pectin. No ar­ti­fi­cial any­thing.”

Af­ter the de­li­cious tea, we cross the yard to the pro­duc­tion ar­eas. In the first room, groups of women are sort­ing crates of fresh chill­ies. Large bags of them hang from the ceil­ing, their con­tents dry­ing nat­u­rally.

Many of the staff have worked for Julian and Rozelle for years and, as the com­pany is Fair Trade-ac­cred­ited, it has ac­cess to great perks such as sub­sidised ed­u­ca­tion for their chil­dren.

In the fields I meet head picker Christina Snel, who has worked on the farm for ten years. Her daugh­ter Jo­lene has also joined her in the fields. An­neline April started do­ing prep work in the kitchen 14 years ago and is now, af­ter work­ing in ev­ery depart­ment and com­plet­ing com­puter and food safety cour­ses, the com­pany food-safety of­fi­cer.

Later, I meet Faith Moyo, who was ini­tially in charge of the laun­dry. She has now been able to send her son to law school, where he has fin­ished his third year of study.

“The chal­lenge of find­ing semi-skilled work­ers en­cour­aged us to train our staff, and you can’t be­lieve how they have risen to the oc­ca­sion,” says Julian. “If you give peo­ple re­spon­si­bil­ity, they’ll take the op­por­tu­nity.” Other farm­ers in the area have also ben­e­fited, as they sup­ply Julian and Rozelle with ad­di­tional pro­duce to help them meet de­mand.

Fyn­bos Fine Foods is now op­er­at­ing at about three-quar­ters of its ca­pac­ity, pro­duc­ing 150 000 bot­tles of chilli sauce ev­ery month. They also pro­vide the hos­pi­tal­ity in­dus­try with bulk or­ders, and are con­stantly in­no­vat­ing and putting back into the busi­ness. “We’ve de­vel­oped dri­ers so that we don’t need to use sul­phurs on our prod­ucts,” says Julian, show­ing me the build­ing site of the new dry­ing fa­cil­ity.

“I al­ways wanted to be a farmer, chef or trav­eller, and we do all three,” he says. “Apart from grow­ing and mak­ing the prod­ucts, the Depart­ment of Trade and In­dus­try spon­sors us to at­tend over­seas shows where I meet the buy­ers for top in­ter­na­tional su­per­mar­kets.”

Rozelle adds, “There’s so much to see at these New York food shows – there’s so much cre­ativ­ity – food is taken to another level.”

Says Julian, “Chefs are not tied to the old tra­di­tions. There’s a lot of fu­sion hap­pen­ing, which brings in new el­e­ments of flavour.”

Laden with sam­ples, I head back re­luc­tantly to the ur­ban sprawl. Needless to say, my fridge now has a con­stant sup­ply of sweet chilli sauce, which gives a sub­tle kick to ev­ery­thing from cheese to chicken.

Map ref­er­ence F2 see in­side back cover

LEFT: Pi­quant chill­ies grown un­der ‘Afro­ponic’ con­di­tions. (Photo Fyn­bos Fine Foods) ABOVE: Rozelle and Julian Abram­son in the dry­ing fa­cil­ity.

ABOVE: Head picker Christina Snel and her daugh­ter, Jo­lene. LEFT: Faith Moyo has been able to send her son to law school through the busi­ness. BE­LOW: Staff tend and pick chill­ies in the fields of Fyn­bos Fine Foods, in the small farm­ing district of Tier­fontein.

ABOVE: Beauty Nya­mu­gonda with man­ager Muriel Wade­ley. BE­LOW: A new dry­ing fa­cil­ity is un­der con­struc­tion on the farm.

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