Stop eating prawns. Now. A dish of grilled prawns with garlic butter is one of life’s luxuries. But it comes at a price. Not only will the dish of prawns cost you a few hundred rands, it comes at an environmental cost too. Speaking at Franschhoek Literary Festival, Daisy Jones says the prawns we eat are mostly farmed in shallow waters, which were once the breeding grounds of fish.

Daisy was one of a number of food writers, chefs and activists at this year’s literary festival who spoke about returning to real, slow and wholesome food highlighting the unsustainability of our food system. Besides depleting our natural resources, this system has left food virtually empty of nutrients.

Science writer, Leonie Joubert who moderated the discussion Conscious Kitchen, said, “Sustainability is not an optional extra. It’s about making sure that all of us can continue to live together, survive and thrive. Without a functioning environment, we don’t have decent soil, nutrients to eat, clean air to breathe or water to drink”.

For over 50 years the food system has been industrialised. It has taken good healthy calories that were environmentally costly to produce and has processed them to a point that they have lost almost all of their nutrients. Leonie says, “Food of little goodness leaves us sick and unhealthy. There is no point in depleting environmental resources to produce calories that are dead in the end”.

Daisy whose cookery book Star Fish focuses on 10 green listed SASSI fish. (SASSI is a guide to sustainable fish.) Daisy, who lived in Kalk Bay for ten years, wanted to cook the fish she could buy from fishers at the local harbour. “Nothing could be more organic than wild fish caught in the sea by local fishers.” She then encountered the SASSI list and wanted to buy a book on how to cook the fish on that list. She couldn’t find the book, “so I wrote it”.

Going back to the issue of prawns, Daisy said, “If you didn’t know about aquaculture, you’d think that the overfishing is the only problem we have. At the moment, half the world’s fish is farmed. In South Africa, a third of our fish is farmed and in 20 years that figure will be 50%”.

The farming of salmon and prawns is a massive problem, says Daisy. Fish can no longer breed in the warm shallow waters used for farming. Mango forests are cut down to create these farms. Salmon farming involves antibiotics and the passing down of inferior genes. Mussels and oysters are the most sustainable sea creatures to farm. “If you’re eating farmed mussels and oysters you’re helping the ocean, if you’re eating farmed prawns and salmon, you’re damaging the ocean,” says Daisy.

Nico Verster, writer of Safari and Spices, part owner and head chef at Jamala Madikwe in the Madikwe Game Resreve, has to please travellers with the heaviest footprint in the world. These travellers, he says, are often the ones who ask if a product is sustainable. The lodge sources food from local community projects. “People who were previously unemployed are now growing food. I request certain produce and I use produce that is in season.” Ingredients that he can’t find locally, he sources carefully. “If it’s going to travel, it must be sustainable.” He uses honey as an example. If you aren’t careful, you could be buying impure honey from China. Often if he can’t purchase something locally or sustainably, then “we won’t have it on the menu – we just suck it up”.

It’s not a deprivation to use what is grown locally. “It’s great for your guests. It’s an immersion, and connects you to what you see and smell,” says Daisy.

Nompumelelo Mqwebu, who wrote Through the Eyes of an African Chef and who only sources products that are in season, has found urban farmers in Johannesburg to work with. She has suppliers in Alexandra who grow herbs and in Bertrams she has a farmer who grows vegetables. “A potato straight out of the ground tastes so different to one that you buy from a supermarket,” says Nompumelelo.

Nompumelelo studied at Ballymaloe Cookery School, Organic Garden and Farm for six months when organic became something everyone spoke about. There she saw that organic farming and cooking is “just what my grandmother did. We grew food in our garden. Poultry comes with the feathers on and the head chef butchers the animals like we did at home”. Nompumelelo believes cooking is not just about feeding people, “you’re also teaching people about the food. “If a young chefs works with an urban farmer, they understand the hard work put into growing food and they are much more careful about what they throw out”.

So what can we do to make our food system more sustainable? Small-scale activism, says Leonie. Ask your supermarkets and restaurants where your food comes from. Ask information about the food you’re paying for.

Recipe from Safari and Spices by Nico Verster

Orange, cardamom, poppy seed cakes (pictured in the main image)

The classic Afro-Indian flavours of cardamom and poppy marry so well with orange, hence this wonderful recipe. I have an incredible sweet tooth and I enjoy the warming sweet comfort of this syrupy cake.

INGREDIENTS

1⁄3 cup black poppy seeds

¾ cup full cream milk

200 g softened unsalted butter

¾ cup castor sugar

1 tablespoon orange rind

3 large eggs

2 cups plain flour

1½ teaspoons baking powder

½ cup fresh orange juice

1 cup white sugar

1 cup fresh orange juice

½ teaspoon cardamom, ground

2 tablespoons orange zest

METHOD

Preheat the oven to 160°C. Grease 2 standard-size muffin tins. For the batter: start by mixing the poppy seeds with the milk and set aside to infuse and soften. Beat together the butter, sugar and orange rind until very pale and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Sift the flour and baking powder into the egg mixture, add the orange juice and the milk and poppy seed mixture. Combine all the ingredients then pour into the muffin tins. Bake the cakes for 25 minutes or until a cake tester comes out clean. To make the syrup: place the sugar, orange juice, cardamom and zest into a small saucepan. Boil the mixture for 6–8 minutes until it becomes syrupy. Pour the hot syrup directly over the cakes and serve. Serves 12

  • The two sessions at Franschhoek Literary Festival 2018 I attended were Conscious Kitchen and Soul Food moderated by Leonie Joubert and Tamara LePine Williams respectively who between them interviewed: Daisy Jones (Star Fish), Nompumelelo Mqwebu (Through the Eyes of an African Chef), Nico Verster (Safari and Spices), Ishay Govender-Ypma (Curry: Stories and Recipes Across South Africa) and Chantal Lascaris (All Sorts of Salads). Leonie has written a number of books, her most recent title is Oranjezicht City Farm: food, community, connection