Words: Bianca du Plessis Photography: Mia Truter
A life-long fascination with fynbos inspired Giselle Courtney to create a range of fynbos culinary products that makes cooking with fynbos easy, accessible and delicious, writes Bianca du Plessis.
Giselle Courtney is still amazed that the trademark South African Fynbos® was available to her. “It’s actually an indication of how little has been done for the marketing of fynbos to date,” she says on the veranda of the Courtney family home on their farm, Clairvaux, outside Wellington.
We are seated at a long table covered with fresh fynbos and laboratory flasks filled with a variety of fynbos tinctures, infusions and flavoured salts. This smorgasbord of Cape herbal heritage is Giselle’s Cape Town Fynbos Experience® which she presents to guests on appointment. It’s a masterclass in the sensory pleasure of fynbos, based on years of intuitive experimentation: drying, blending, tasting and trying again.
“As a child, I hiked in the mountains above Camps Bay and fell in love with fynbos. In the 1980’s I studied law and worked as a tour guide for Hylton Ross. It taught me a lot about what people really enjoy and that they are completely crazy about Cape Town. Later in life, when I was able to travel more myself, I realised that other places aren’t as beautiful as Cape Town,” she says.
Giselle and her husband moved to Johannesburg in 1991 to establish their respective careers and a family. Even in the concrete jungle, Giselle found a way to involve fynbos in her corporate training sessions. “I used fynbos as a metaphor for diversity,” she explains. “I put a pestle and mortar on the table with fynbos, Asian spices and Mediterranean herbs. Everyone had to make their own mix. The message was that we are all rooted in the same landscape, each with their own blend and that all are amazing. I also used proteas to symbolize potential as they are named after Proteus, the Greek god of transformation. Because South Africa is always on the threshold of change, with so much potential. It is truly electric,” says Giselle.
A NEW OUTLOOK
After 20 years in Johannesburg, the family yearned to return to the Cape. The search for the perfect piece of land took a while. Giselle knew fynbos had to be part of the picture. “Our three requirements were a beautiful view, no potential for urbanization, and fynbos.” Rhinobush and snowbush were already growing wild on the farm with their arrival. She considered continuing her corporate training program but decided against bringing the corporate world to the farm. She also considered tourism but ultimately her first love won: fynbos. “I asked myself, what has changed since I was 18 years old to make fynbos more accessible? Precious little. A bottle of fynbos gin may contain a small amount of pelargonium or buchu. It’s an uber trend, but where do we get information on what’s edible? In contrast to the medicinal benefits of fynbos, which are well known.”
Giselle decided to do away with the Asian spices and Mediterranean herbs and concentrate on fynbos. The Cape Town Fynbos Experience ® includes 11 fynbos species: honeybush, rooibos, buchu, rhinobush, snowbush, cancer bush, Cape mountain sage, rose pelargonium, nutmeg pelargonium, mint pelargonium and silver bush (imphepho). With the exception of honeybush and rooibos that only grow in very specific regions, Giselle grows and processes all the fynbos on her farm.
The fynbos experience is beautifully curated and presented on wooden boards overflowing with abundance and attention to detail. The South African Fynbos range consists of dried teas, culinary fynbos herbs and flavoured salts. The salts are particularly effective in getting fynbos into our kitchens and onto our plates, precisely because they’re so accessible and versatile. Fragrant fynbos salt can be ground over fresh salads, roasted vegetables, roast beef, fish, stews, incorporated into the herbed crust of meats, added to marinades and more. The flavour of the salts can be enhanced by adding ground, dry fynbos to the dish.
WITH A PINCH OF SALT
In addition to glass flasks filled with fynbos infusions and salts, savoury crackers, goat’s cheese, chickpeas, olives, walnuts and a pipette with local olive oil add to the experience. Giselle, as the skilled guide, directs guests along their flavour journey. Buchu is her absolute favourite fynbos. We start with a sliver of goat’s cheese on a cracker, a few drops of olive oil, followed by buchu salt and a pinch of dried buchu. We’re encouraged not to be shy with the grinding and sprinkling of the buchu salt. Topped off with a few fresh spekboom leaves, it looks like a petite fynbos pizza. A sip of buchu water enhances the taste explosion on the palate.
If, like me, you have an aversion to buchu, based on the challenging taste of those large plastic jugs of buchu water that are sold as a cure-all for just about any ailment, rest assured. Clean, fresh buchu does not have the bitter, kick-to-the-gut flavour profile of the bulk concoctions. Buchu tastes bright and clean, with a mint-like freshness and liquorice aftertaste. According to the extensive flavour wheel on the South African Fynbos website, buchu pairs well with macadamia nut shortbread, flambé chicken livers, fried chicken, grilled fish and picanha steak, tomato salsa, salmon sushi, buttered corn on the cob and lamb shank.
We move on to the snowbush, again with a wedge of goat’s cheese on a cracker. Giselle describes her master class as an Ottolenghi-style exploration of the flavour potential of fynbos. The ratio between salt and fynbos in her culinary salt range is distinct yet subtle, which emboldens one to grind away and experiment with confidence. “Determining the ratio of fynbos to salt is an intuitive process, and much like winemaking it differs from harvest to harvest,” she says. “The recipe is constantly adapted according to the quality of the herb. The leaves always taste a little different, depending on the season and rainfall, and the ratios are adjusted accordingly.” Giselle finds this earthy, intuitive interaction with fynbos intoxicating. She jokingly describes herself as getting so giddy with excitement about the culinary potential of fynbos, she sometimes needs a little lie-down. “I get terribly carried away with it,” she laughs.
I’m equally enamoured of the light rosy sheen of the rose pelargonium cordial; drizzled over a walnut and sprinkled with nutmeg pelargonium salt, it pays tribute to the elegance of simplicity. Snowbush and rhinobush are companion plants in the veld and that also taste good together. Rhinobush has a pine scent with resin notes on the palette, while snowbush has a woody, wild rosemary flavour. “Fynbos is strongly flavoured and therefore pairs well with strong flavours, like goat’s cheese and the buttery earthiness of chickpeas. Soort soek soort, as the Afrikaans saying goes,” says Giselle.
With the filming of MasterChef South Africa Season 4, Giselle provided all the fresh fynbos and made her range of culinary herbs and flavoured salts available to the contestants. It was a revelation to them and many considered fynbos the most impressive new ingredient they’d been exposed to in the MasterChef kitchen. Second runner-up, Tarryn de Kock, recalled growing up on a fynbos reserve and although her mother and grandmother used fynbos as medicine, she was oblivious of its culinary possibilities before entering MasterChef.
“Unfortunately, this is the problem,” says Giselle. It is precisely this perception of fynbos as merely medicinal that she seeks to change. “There really is a lack of knowledge about how to cook with fynbos.”
Giselle bought every book on fynbos she could lay her hands on. And despite being an avid cook with an extensive cookbook collection, she very rarely – actually almost never –encounters recipes with fynbos. “Margaret Roberts makes mention in one of her books of adding chopped rose pelargonium leaves to scone dough. I’ve tried it with malva pudding. During the baking process, the pelargonium leaves rise to the top to form a toffee-like crust on the pudding.”
The Cape Town Fynbos Experience finishes on a sweet note. Three cubes of Turkish Delight, each with a different colour and flavour, are enjoyed with a fynbos-infused alcohol. An orange-flavoured sweet is paired with buchu brandy, which our photographer promptly declares “tastes like more”, followed by rhino bush gin with an almond sweet, and finally snowbush vodka paired with a rose pelargonium sweet.
The word “master class” has become somewhat overused but in Giselle’s case it is most appropriate. In the five years since she presented her first fynbos demonstration at the Cape Town Heritage Trust’s premises in the Companies Gardens, Giselle’s understanding and use of fynbos has deepened and diversified. “I walked a quiet path to learn and to probe what works with what,” she says. “During lockdown, my business got a boost because I had time to take beautiful photos of the fynbos, to design the packaging and to devise the flavour wheel on my website.” Giselle prefers the organic route in all matters relating to her business. Ditto the marketing. She wants enthusiasts to spread the word about the culinary potential of fynbos, rather than artificially bolstering it through online campaigns.
I bury my nose in the velvety folds of a mint pelargonium leaf and brush its fragrant softness against my cheek. “Put it in your ear,” Giselle suggests. “Because it’s the natural remedy for earache.”
For more information on South African Fynbos or to book a Cape Town Fynbos Experience, visit www.southafricanfynbos.com or whatsapp +27 66 225 5722.