A very berry story

Photograph: Hillcrest Berry Orchards.

AT first glance, SA does not appear to be a very berry country. Strawberries and cream have long sufficed as the extent of our berry dream. Not for us the elaborate pies, tarts, mousses, fools, flummeries, wine and preserves that jam the pages of English cookbooks. Not for us the blueberry grunt, raspberry cobbler, blackberry slump or huckleberry buckles that heave heavily upon tables across North America. Not for us, dainty French tarte aux fruits de bois or pukka Italian panna cotta with berry compote.

Indeed, until recently most local berries – there are about 20 species grown in the country – ended up in jars, cans or as fruit juice. Traditionally, fresh berries have achieved trifling popularity in SA cuisine. In fact, our most prevalent berry species, Rubus Cuneifolius (the American bramble) is considered as noxious as many people believe a certain Sunday columnist to be.

Introduced to KwaZulu-Natal by a well-meaning but misguided American in the 19th century for jam-making purposes, the thorny berry plant – also identified by the Zulu name “ijikijolo”, which aptly means “to cling and not let go” – is these days considered ‘berrona non grata’. It is listed as a most reviled category one invasive alien plant in many parts of the country. Not only are the berry seeds widely dispersed by birds, but the ijikijolo plants also spread like a vegetative e-mail virus by sending out sucker shoots and also by rooting wherever their branches meet the earth. Their nasty thorns protect them from being trampled and discourage animals from eating them. But even ijikijolo has an unflinching fan.

Serena Shaw of Pucketty Farm Stall, which is located in an area that is arguably ijikijolo central near the southern Drakensberg village of Underberg, believes that the berries make “the most deliciously sweet and unique flavoured jams and jellies”.

She sources her ijikijolo products from Richmond, another little KwaZulu-Natal dorpie about 140 km east of Underberg. Despite the prevalence of the plant, ijikijolo jams and jellies – the berries also make tasty juice – are not easy to come by. Picking ijikijolos is a labour intensive task. The berries are smaller than most of the commercial varieties around and, because the brambles grow wild – primarily in difficult to reach dongas and fields – getting to the fruit is trickier than it is when harvesting rows of trellised plants in berry orchards. For sure, ijikijolos demand determination.

It’s a good thing then that agricultural experts report that berry farming is growing in popularity in SA. Berries are considered a high value crop. International demand far exceeds supply and many believe that SA is well placed to supply these markets. Ijikijolo’s less insidious Rubus cousins, blackberry, loganberry, youngberry and raspberry – although some argue that extensive hybridization makes it difficult to tell them apart (“they’re all ijikijolos to me”) – are increasingly taking root here. More and more of the approved species are being grown on farms primarily in the Cape, Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal and Free State.

An international upsurge in the production of raspberries was sparked by a report in US medical journal, Cancer Weekly Plus in 1999. The article, which was based on research conducted at the Medical University of South Carolina Hollings Cancer Centre, said that the berries inhibited the growth of cancer cells.

Last year the Industrial Development Corporation and the National Empowerment Fund invested R34-million in the establishment of Amajuba Berries, SA’s largest raspberry farm, which is owned by KwaZulu-Natal’s Charlestown community. The first raspberry harvest will take place in about two years time. The organisation expects to export 70% of its berries with full production estimated at 720 tonnes per year by 2016.

Most varieties of raspberries are red but they can be white, yellow, orange or black. They are believed to be native to Asia but the Romans were growing them by the 4th century BC, and spread them throughout Europe. The species has a delectable sweet, yet slightly acidic flavour, which – in a sauce – is a good match for duck and lamb.

Swellendam is one of the world’s largest youngberry producing areas, with a small number of farmers producing an annual crop of about 600 tons. This accounts for approximately 90% of the world’s commercially grown youngberries.

Youngberries are very large berries, averaging 3,5 x 3 cm in size. They are a ruby-red colour that is sometimes so dark that it appears purple. Named for the man who developed them in Louisiana, US in 1905, B M Young, youngberries are sweet, juicy and less tart than other similar berries. They are particularly delicious in ice cream and in a creamy mousse.

Blueberries, which research says are rich in anti-oxidants, show anti-cancer activities and improve eyesight, are also increasingly successfully grown in SA, particularly on a number of enterprising farms in Mpumalanga and the Cape. Here again, the main aim of local production is to produce export quality fresh fruit that will be supplied to Europe during their winter.

Deep-blue in colour with a shade of what appears to be a patch of silver or water condensation on them, blueberries are small, sweet berries. They are versatile, and particularly good with cream or fromage frais, and in tarts, crepes and muffins. Take care though, not to use blueberries in recipes where require baking soda. They react to the baking soda and turn a mysterious green.

In a recent development in the US, food technologists advocate the mixing in of blueberry puree or blueberry powder to beef, chicken and turkey patties. The objective is to boost the nutritional value of the burger. In addition to adding cancer-fighting antioxidants to the patties, it is believed the inclusion of blueberries will reduce the fat content of burgers and help make patties that are made from drier, leaner ground meat juicier.

Although you are unlikely to find blueberry burgers at Raymond and Betty O’Grady’s Hillcrest Berry Orchards, the Stellenbosch farm produces what is said to be the largest range of berry varieties grown on any one farm in South Africa. The orchards include youngberries, raspberries, blueberries, tayberries and boysenberries. Blackcurrants, redcurrants and English gooseberries are also grown experimentally.

Variety aside, what is also pleasant about Hillcrest Berry Orchards is that the farm does not export its entire crop. In season, you can buy fresh berries from its shop and, out of season, the selection of frozen berries, jams and condiments on offer is impressive. You can also sample the berries at the farm restaurant and taste proof of the fact that, although it may not yet be a very berry country, SA is on its way to berry good times.

(First published in The Weekender in 2008.)

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About Administrator

Freelance writer based in Hout Bay near Cape Town in South Africa.
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2 Responses to A very berry story

  1. Alf Miskey says:

    you appear to have spoken of a number of berries. may I assume that the Huckleberry is the bramble jikijolo you have mentioned?

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