SUNDAY TIMES - Head down a garden path near Howick for a pop-up lunch like no other
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Sunday Times Food By Shelley Seid, 2017-04-19 16:31:00.0

Head down a garden path near Howick for a pop-up lunch like no other

Host Ntombenhle Mtambo gathers goodies from her permaculture plot near Howick.
Image: JACKIE CLAUSEN

Ntombenhle Mtambo's monthly pop-up lunches are wonderfully unconventional, writes Shelley Seid

Part The Amazing Race, part Food Safari and wholly original is one way to describe Ntombenhle Mtambo's monthly pop-up lunches.

To begin with they take place in the middle of her permaculture garden, a stand-alone plot the size of a rugby field. Until she got her hands on it a couple of years ago it was an empty space in the middle of the township of Mphophomeni belonging to the municipality and used as a dump site.

The garden, just past Midmar Dam near Howick, is a story of dogged determination filled with commendable characters who make the food taste even better.

Fifteen had booked for a vegetarian lunch at the spot simply known as "the garden". For the most part lunch was a product of the garden and included ujeqe (steam bread) and a literally named garden salad comprising whatever was ready to be picked that day.

We arrived in dribs and drabs (the clues on how to get there being quite cryptic) but it meant time to wander around and admire the riotous mix of flowers, herbs, vegetables and fruit.

The area looks - as it should, according to permaculture principles - more like a food forest than a farm; pumpkins larger than newborns hide between thick stems of rhubarb and beds of comfrey; baby tomatoes wind their way around self-seeding lettuce; nasturtiums form fairy rings around gooseberry bushes.

No permanent structure may be built on the land, according to the municipality, so we huddled together under a shade canopy to escape the blazing sun, drank copious amounts of wine (no cover charge), and chatted to fellow guests from Ireland, Holland and Johannesburg. Kids tore around the garden, church bells chimed and everything was good with the world.

There's a small spring but no running water in the garden, yet everything is sparkling clean and Mtambo has a bucket of water at the ready for visitors to wash their hands in prior to feasting at the buffet.

Co-host Sthembile Mbanjwa, another of the township's growing squad of committed gardeners, brought along a butternut lasagne (the pasta home-made). Mtambo produced her bombom (bean) salad - so famous that it has featured in two cookbooks - and with large chunks of steamed bread we carbed our way to an overload of massive proportions. It was worth every additional kilo.

For afters we picked at handfuls of gooseberries, still in their pods, and drank more wine.

NEED TO KNOW

When to go: The next lunch takes place on Friday May 12.

Who to take: Anyone up for something different, and a good news story.

What not to do: Expect the conventional restaurant setup. We brought our own camper chairs - a good move.

What to drink: The cordial was forgotten and there is no running water, so bring your own everything. Gin and tonic is highly recommended, as is wine in a cooler bag and a couple of bottles of water.

Whatever you do: Bring extra cash to buy whatever is ready to be plucked from the garden. I bought as much rhubarb as I could carry, as well as fennel, enormous leeks, spring onions and a very healthy looking mint plant.

How much do you need: R100 for the meal.

Address: It is along Mhlongo Road in Mphophomeni, just outside Howick. For directions and to book call Ntombenhle Mtambo (063-410-4697) or Sthembile Mbanjwa (082-956-6432).

This article was originally published in The Times.