Blackjack Bredie, one’s man’s weed is another’s meal

For the sake of accuracy I’m not sure this dish unreservedly qualifies as a bredie.  As I understand it bredie is Cape Malayan Afrikaans for stew, and this is more of a fry-up than a casserole.  But alliteration is the last resort of the creatively challenged: the cheap tart of the writer.  That is unless you were World War I poet Wilfred Owen, whosestuttering rifles rapid rattle” indeed rattled around in our grandfathers’ hearts, even if the silencer was forever on in the souls of these men.  They bore it with stoicism but we will never know how the more expressive Owen might have reflected on the world’s deadliest conflict.  He was shot dead a week before the war ended.

The diet in the muddy trenches consisted of bully beef and biscuits.  Turnips were considered a fresh vegetable.  Or rather turnips were the fresh vegetable, used to make everything from soup to bread.  They foraged for nettles to make soup and must have picked mushrooms in spring.  This was not a middle class pursuit though many came from this background.  Mustard gas and bullets may have been more life-threatening than starvation but as the body count mounted the diet declined, as did the supply of anything fresh unless you include the odd bit of horse meat.

As we all know foraging was, and still is, for many, about survival.  It was not the bourgeois hobby it has become today, which is not to dismiss this romantic pastime.  Picking your own probably puts us in touch with the fragile earth and gets us thinking about the great food-environmental issues of our time, including the carbon foot-print of air miles and pesticides.

I grew up doing a little foraging except I didn’t know the word.  We simply picked exotic brown mushrooms in the cow dung laden fields and yanked watercress out of the streams (you can’t live on watercress).  Our maid foraged for a favourite, umfino (wild spinach in Zulu, or imifino the collective noun for green edible plants).  Chewing gum came from the drying sap of wattle trees.  We were not Rene Redzepis in the making.  We were just kids.  And unlike at Redzepi’s Noma, the best restaurant in the world according to San Pellegrino, we never dined on the rest of the tree.  Nor on hay.

I was first alerted to the potential in the pan for the invasive blackjack weed by Sue Derwent in her groundbreaking article in the local Country Life.  Not only are wild spinaches edible but so too are the leaves of  this weed, whose thin black seeds stick to your jeans in the unwelcome manner of a cheap suit to a woman.

On the pavement outside my house, where thankfully neither Madam Zille nor Maid Mazibuko weed, there is an abundance of blackjacks cracking the concrete (there was also recently rocket, another plant which until only recently has been cultivated).  The serrated leaves of the blackjack are a little prickly and tough.

With trepidation I yank and thoroughly wash and rinse them.  Bitter when raw (a bit like radicchio), you could add a several leaves to a robustly flavoured salad as some do.  If you are really big on roughage.  To me uncooked it is suggestive of stomach ache.  My scepticism continues to the rest of the ingredients in my recipe experiment: green beans to dilute the flavour just in case it is awful.

On account of the bitterness I fry loads of onions and shallots to up the sweet factor.  Weeds might be free but shallots certainly aren’t – they cost R20 a bag at Woolworths (where they are referred to as French Onions).  The premium is likely due to the low demand for shallots.  This makes the economies of scale so evident in onion production impossible.  Of course the posh element to these less tangy onions also allows the retailer to slap on a fat margin.  People who cook with shallots don’t dine on polony.

The onions are slowly sweated with sunflower and olive oil, then the garlic added.  (How can you go wrong with green vegetables, onions and garlic?)  Dried French Tarragon, the clotted cream of licorice herbs is added for its opulence.  Then salt and pepper and the unyielding blackjacks.  Finally the beans.  Miraculously the weed quickly becomes tender and like young spinach the volume shrivels up into almost nothing (my first mistake).  The second faux pas is overly generous use of seal salt, which I correct with a sprinkling of sugar.

The verdict: barely a hint of sharpness combined with the sweet-rich ingredients.  Much like any dark green leaf vegetable.  Fried unadorned it is bitter as in unsalted brinjal.

Go easy on the tarragon (my third boo boo), a powerful herb.  Eat when piping hot, nothing worse than the slimy combo of cold oil and green leaf.  The dish is a good companion for any strong flavoured protein or starch, even tomato.  Same goes for choosing a bold wine.  So don’t pair with sole or plain chicken.  Most of all: experiment.

According to a report in wine.co.za Abigail Donnelly, judge of the Eat Out restaurant awards, foraging is now too a trend in Cape restaurants.  I’m not convinced.  Sure the romantic idea picking from the veld is there, but how much foraged food is on fine dining menus?  And when it is on menus it can no doubt command a premium.

What is beyond dispute is that wild green-leafed plants are still a veggie staple, albeit a declining one, for millions of South Africans.  Maybe Denmark’s Redzepi should organise the next MAD foraging Foodcamp here and see how the unfashionable other half eat (at no cost other than their labour).  Better even go truly MAD and hold the camp it in the Congo, where over 60 varieties of plants are foraged for daily eating.  After all there will be plenty of tents lying around after the Occupy Wall Streeters lose interest in the elite.

Fresh Tarragon is hard to find.  The dried and foil-sealed product from Woolworths is pretty good.  To obtain fresh it is possibly easiest to grow your own.  Plants available from Starke Ayres Nursery on Liesbeek Parkway.

Recommended reading on foraging

Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker book of food and drink edited by David Remnick.  A bloody good collection of the best food writing with a chapter titled A Forager by John McPhee.  McPhee and forager Euell Theophilus Gibbons canoe down a river eating what they can find.  Gibbons learnt his ‘art’ the hard way – In the Great Depression.

Notes on food miles

This issue is complex.  The less perishable foods shipped by sea, such as oranges and cured meats, have relatively a relatively low carbon footprint compared to those transported on aeroplanes (fresh Scottish Salmon and broccoli).  Often the beneficiaries of imported foods are developing countries, such as Kenya which excels at green veggies.

Food, granted it is a daily commodity, gets a bad rap for its carbon footprint.  Where do your mobile electronic devices and clothes come from?  I would argue there is also a place for trading niche luxury foods. (I have yet to taste decent Italian-style hams made inSouth Africa.)

Tom Robbins
Posted November 8, 2011

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4 Responses to “Blackjack Bredie, one’s man’s weed is another’s meal”

  1. Ian Olwagen says:

    Tom, I’m speechless!!….and hungry

  2. Greg Short says:

    Thanks for an intruiging article. I like the idea of foraging. Some local knowledge of fungi and a basket is all you need for an afternoon ramble on the mountain or the common and the possibility of a mushroom dinner. Nettel soup / tea sounds too medicinal to be pleasant. Another wild fruit / vegetable is the su-su (sp?) which I remember growing wild on our compost heap in Natal. A sort of bland tasting, light green squash best boiled and either just salted or smothered in white sauce, in the grand “obliterate all native tastes” colonial style. More of a plate filler than the main dish. Would probably add bulk and texture to a stew.

  3. Tom Robbins says:

    British commercial forager Miles Irving supplies 120 species for some of London’s most fashionable restaurants. Listen to the BBC Radio 4 podcast on The Food Programme for information on foraging in that country and some of the environmental debates. Click here to listen: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b016w0n3

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