Food our ancestors ate: meet SA's oldest edibles

Melissa de Billot lists some of South Africa's oldest edibles, and explains why we should cherish them

20 September 2015 - 02:00 By Melissa de Billot

Melissa de Billot lists some of South Africa's oldest edibles, and explains why we should cherish them Heritage food is the food our ancestors survived on. These are foods that have been passed down over many generations in the form of heirloom seeds, prized animal breeds, family recipes and cultural traditions and folklore, centuries before the coming of globalisation and industrial agriculture.The history of these foods is connected to specific regions, and the identity and culture of the communities there. They were farmed in harmony with the environment by small subsistence farmers, and selected for their resilience to local diseases and climatic challenges.Biodiversity in agriculture was essential to the survival of these communities, but things changed when industrial agriculture began in the 20th century. As populations expanded and urbanisation increased, farms grew larger and monoculture crops, using high doses of chemical fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides, became the standard. story_article_left1Food was produced with an emphasis on convenience rather than quality. As a result, biodiversity is being lost at alarming rates, the environment is being damaged and the livelihoods of small-scale food producers are being compromised. Today, 60% of the world's food is based on three cereals: wheat, rice and corn. The bulk of this comes from a limited number of hybrid cultivars marketed by a handful of multinational companies.Slow Food International is a non-profit organisation started in Italy in the 1980s as a response to the rise of fast food and monoculture farming. The Ark of Taste is a project started by Slow Food to save biodiversity in our food systems by listing and protecting rare food products from unique societies around the world.The organisation gathers information about endangered food products and educates people about them, in the hope of getting consumers to start appreciating high quality food that is healthy, good for the environment, economical for both farmers and consumers, and supports future food security.The current list of about 2600 products includes fruits, vegetables, animal breeds, meat products, dairy products, preserves and recipes from about 100 countries. So far, South Africa has 13 food products listed on the Ark of Taste, and we are working on expanding that number.Here are some examples of rare and little-known South African food products that have been nominated:Zulu Rainbow MaizeA far cry from the ubiquitous yellow and white maize found in supermarkets, these cobs have multicoloured kernels which are blue-black, dark red, yellow and white. This maize is not grown commercially, but the seed has been handed down over generations of subsistence farmers.American maize replaced indigenous sorghum as the staple grain in KwaZulu-Natal in the 16th century, after it was introduced to southern Africa by Portuguese traders. This variety was recently rediscovered on an isolated farm in the Valley of a Thousand Hills. In South Africa, recent research has shown that about 80% of maize products on the market are from genetically modified and hybrid varieties. Traditional maize varieties like this, that have adapted to the SA climate over the years, are becoming increasingly rare.full_story_image_hleft1Kalahari CucumberAlso known as the African horned cucumber, this oval fruit has sharp spines. Inside, the flesh of the mature fruit is bright lime green, with cucumber-like seeds suspended in jelly capsules. The high water content makes this fruit a good source of fluid in dry areas. The Khoisan people of the Kalahari roast the fruit and cook the leaves as spinach. The immature fruit can be eaten in salads, like cucumbers, or pickled in vinegar, like gherkins.full_story_image_hleft2Msobo JamMsobo jam (nastergalkonfyt in Afrikaans), is made from the berries of the African nightshade plant that grows wild on the Highveld. It is an excellent alternative to blueberry jam. It is produced on small farms or in people's homes in regions where the plants grow. The process is labour-intensive as the fruit is delicate and has to be handled carefully.For those with a sweet tooth, other rare South African products to look out for are maketaan (melon) preserve, endangered aloe honey, Rex Union orange marmalade, and num-num jam.full_story_image_hleft3Afrikaner CattleThis is an indigenous breed prized for its meat. The muscular animals have creamy white horns, long legs, a hump and a reddish coat. They have adapted to withstand harsh conditions and are more tick-resistant than other breeds, and therefore are ideal for natural pastures rather than feedlots. These cattle are reared by a few farmers thinly spread over South Africa, and it is estimated that there are only 20000 head left. Most farmers now work with commercialised breeds which produce leaner meat in a shorter period. For the carnivorously inclined, other rare indigenous animals are Pedi sheep, Tuli cattle, and Kolbroek pigs.

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