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