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A South African comfort food born from a pond
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The earthy taste of waterblommetjies are offset by the subtle flavours of white wine (Credit: Jurie Senekal)
Waterblommetjies, water flowers endemic to South Africa’s Western Cape, grow only in winter and are the star ingredient in a lamb stew that’s been made the same way for centuries.
Waterblommetjies are water flowers endemic to South Africa’s Western Cape (Credit: Jurie Senekal)

Waterblommetjies are water flowers endemic to South Africa’s Western Cape (Credit: Jurie Senekal)

Waterblommetjies are like a family member at my table,” said cook and culinary historian Errieda Du Toit.

The earthy taste of waterblommetjies are offset by the subtle flavours of white wine (Credit: Jurie Senekal)

The earthy taste of waterblommetjies are offset by the subtle flavours of white wine (Credit: Jurie Senekal)

Waterblommetjies (‘water flowers’ in Afrikaans) are the unusual star ingredient in waterblommetjiebredie, a heart-warming South African dish that’s been cooked the same way for centuries.

Waterblommetjiebredie can only be made in the wet, winter months (June through September, or sometimes longer, depending on the rainfall) when the blooms carpet the shallow vleie (marshes) that form in the Boland region in the Western Cape.

A rich, soupy stew, where the fattiness of lamb is complemented by the delicate, earthy taste of the waterblommetjies and offset by the astringency of wild sorrel and the subtle flavours of a good South African white wine, waterblommetjiebredie is the Western Cape winter on a plate.

Shallow vleie (marshes) form in the Boland region in the Western Cape (Credit: Jurie Senekal)

Shallow vleie (marshes) form in the Boland region in the Western Cape (Credit: Jurie Senekal)

“Waterblommetjiebredie carries many food cultures in its genes,” said South African home-cooking legend and culinary historian Errieda Du Toit, who has eaten and prepared the dish for as long as she can remember. Rather than being ‘invented’ by a particular ethnic group, the dish evolved from many peoples from the 17th Century.

“The Khoi [the Cape’s first people who arrived at least 2,000 years ago], had an incredible knowledge of the region’s plants and herbs,” said Du Toit. The Khoi knew what could be eaten, what was poisonous, what had healing properties. They were the ones who introduced the settlers to waterblommetjies and other wild plants, which helped to bridge the shortfall in crops during the cold, wet winter months.”

But the Khoi always ate waterblommetjies raw; cooking the flowers only started with the arrival of European settlers and their slaves, according to Du Toit. Among them the Dutch, who settled in the Cape in 1652, and the French Huguenots, who brought winemaking skills and French cooking methods in 1688. Also closely associated with Cape bredies (a particularly mushy traditional South African stew of meat and vegetables) are the Cape Malay, whose forbearers – slaves from what is modern day Malaysia and Indonesia – mastered the art of slow braising vegetables in a little liquid.

Being a simple dish, recipes weren’t written down but passed from mother to daughter, forming a strong emotional bond that makes bredies a comfort food to this day for Afrikaners (descendants of those Dutch and Huguenot settlers) and Cape Malay alike.

A stew made from water lilies
The first waterblommetjiebredie of the season is special for many Cape families (Credit: Jurie Senekal)

The first waterblommetjiebredie of the season is special for many Cape families (Credit: Jurie Senekal)

The first waterblommetjiebredie of the season is a special occasion for many Cape families. The scent of the bredie fills the house as mothers and grandmothers watch over slowly simmering pots. And waterblommetjies smell exactly how they taste: delicate, like a fresh pond.

But first, they need to be harvested, which requires wading waist-deep in the ponds where the flowers are grown. Wearing waders to guard against the icy winter water, farm workers snap the buds from the plants and toss them into floating baskets that trail behind them.

For much of the year, Aponogeton distachyos (the plant’s Latin name) lies dormant. But when the cold fronts sweep in from the Antarctic and winter rains fill the seasonal vleie that dot the Boland, the farming area immediately east of Cape Town, the plants spring to life. With their tubers anchored in the mud, their stems stretch skywards where mottled oval leaves bob on the surface and white-pink flowers crane their necks towards the sun. 

Endemic to the Western Cape, waterblommetjies also grow in Australia, New Zealand, France, the UK and California, where – save for the odd homesick South African – they are widely used only for decorative purposes in ponds.

Salt, pepper, onions, lamb or mutton, and waterblommetjies are all that’s required (Credit: Jurie Senekal)

Salt, pepper, onions, lamb or mutton, and waterblommetjies are all that’s required (Credit: Jurie Senekal)

Some people compare waterblommetjies to green beans – but that’s sacrilege,” said Du Toit.

Salt, pepper, onions, lamb or mutton, and waterblommetjies are all that’s required (Credit: Jurie Senekal)

Salt, pepper, onions, lamb or mutton, and waterblommetjies are all that’s required (Credit: Jurie Senekal)

The secret to a good bredie, says Du Toit, lies in its simplicity. Salt, white pepper, onions, lamb or mutton, and waterblommetjies are all that’s required. “Even the potatoes are a relatively modern – 1800s – addition but I think they add a nice consistency,” she said.

As Du Toit explained, it’s important to use fatty, on-the-bone lamb cuts and to brown the meat really well, which all adds to the bredie’s irresistible depth of flavour. She prefers a combination of neck, short rib and “that supreme delicacy”– a few vetstertskaap (fat-tail sheep) tails. Officially known as Afrikaner Blinkhaar Ronderibbe (Afrikaner Shiny-coat Round-ribs), fat-tail sheep are an indigenous breed that compensate for the Cape’s dry summers by storing energy in their thick, fatty tails – much like a camel’s hump. There are old documents describing tails that got so enormous, according to Du Toit, that they had to be “propped up”.

A bredie should only be stirred at the very end and is always served with plain white rice, which, in the past, would have been brought over by the Dutch East India Company. “Don’t even think of putting it with mash or pap [maize porridge]!” warned Du Toit.

If you’re in a hurry,” she said, “make something else… Waterblommetjiebredie takes time.”

Bredies – which can also be made with beans, tomatoes or quince – are hard to define (Credit: Jurie Senekal)

Bredies – which can also be made with beans, tomatoes or quince – are hard to define (Credit: Jurie Senekal)

Bredies – which can also be cooked with beans, tomatoes or quince as the hero – are hard to define.

“A bredie is not a stew and it’s not a soup,” said Du Toit. “It’s the holy unity of meat and veg that all become one.” While the original recipe was surely inspired by the Cape Malay slaves who brought their cooking methods with them, Cape bredies are quite unlike anything else in the world. “You can make a bredie with tomatoes or cabbage or green beans… But no bredie is more unique than waterblommetjiebredie,” said Du Toit.

Despite the ‘holy unity’ of the ingredients, Du Toit adds a few ‘al dente’ waterblommetjies to accommodate the modern palate (traditionally, waterblommetjies for bredies are stewed until completely softened). Sometimes, if she really wants to show off, she adorns each plate with a single tempura waterblommetjie for a bit of crunch. She’s also taken to adding Italian-inspired gremolata (a condiment made of garlic, lemon zest and parsley) at the very end to “resuscitate a bredie that’s been slumbering on the stove for hours on end.”

In season, it’s hard to avoid waterblommetjies in the Boland (Credit: Jurie Senekal)

In season, it’s hard to avoid waterblommetjies in the Boland (Credit: Jurie Senekal)

In season, it’s hard to avoid waterblommetjies in the Boland. In towns like Paarl and Wellington, they’re sold on street corners and next to the highways, not to mention in the numerous padstalle (farm stalls) that dot the valleys. And even in Cape Town, they’re easy enough to find in specialist delis and even some supermarkets.

The same was not true of 1980s Johannesburg, where Du Toit lived and spent “16 very long years” without access to her taste of the Cape, as there wasn’t much demand for them in the city. “Joburg had incredible delis with all the ingredients under the sun. But I could never, ever find fresh waterblommetjies.” Canned waterblommetjies are, she said, a “third-best” alternative (next to fresh or frozen), but are still “better than nothing”.

In season, it’s hard to avoid waterblommetjies in the Boland (Credit: Jurie Senekal)

In season, it’s hard to avoid waterblommetjies in the Boland (Credit: Jurie Senekal)

Far from being a mishmash of whatever ingredients are close to hand, waterblommetjiebredie is a carefully thought-out dish.

“The waterblommetjie’s soulmate is something astringent,” said Du Toit. “It cuts through the fat of the meat and ties the dish together.” In the old days, lemons were hard to come by at the Cape so people would have used tamarind (shipped from the Far East) or – more likely – suurings, a wild sorrel plant with tiny yellow flowers. Suurings line the banks of the vleie where waterblommetjies grow and add a happy splash of yellow to the mowed shoulders of highways and byways in the rainy season.

Waterblommetjies conjure a sense of nostalgia for people from the Western Cape (Credit: Jurie Senekal)

Waterblommetjies conjure a sense of nostalgia for people from the Western Cape (Credit: Jurie Senekal)

No matter what, waterblommetjies conjure a sense of nostalgia, especially for people from the Western Cape. Mention the flowers to South Africans of a certain age, and they’ll start humming the tune to Waterblommetjies in die Boland. An ode to the beauty of the Cape from the perspective of someone who has moved away from the region, the Afrikaans song was written by Anton Goosen and popularised by Afrikaans songstress Sonja Heroldt.

Waterblommetjies in die Boland (Waterblommetjies in the Boland)

Waterblommetjies van die Kaap (Waterblommetjies from the Cape)

Maak die bredie net soos in die wynland (Make the bredie like they do in the wineland)

En sê jy is baie lief vir my voor jy gaan slap (And say you love me before you fall asleep)

Waterblommetjies are now also farmed commercially – albeit on a small scale (Credit: Jurie Senekal)

Waterblommetjies are now also farmed commercially – albeit on a small scale (Credit: Jurie Senekal)

The song harks back to a time when waterblommetjies only grew wild. But times have changed, and the flowers are now also farmed commercially – albeit on a small scale.

Oudepont farm near Wellington is one of several commercial waterblommetjie farms in the Western Cape. The plants are grown in manmade ponds that are drained in summer to mimic the plants’ natural vleie habitat. According to farm manager Etienne Barnard, they’re a pretty easy crop to grow: apart from thinning the bulbs every couple of years and applying a little bit of fertiliser annually, very little maintenance is required.

Provided there’s ample sun, the first blooms appear within two weeks of flooding the ponds with irrigation water. A team of five harvests the waterblommetjies every day from June until October, for a total yield of around 11,000kg. Experience tells pickers – who snap them off their stems and toss them into floating half drums – when the buds are ready.

For many, waterblommetjiebredie is a link to a time, a place and a people (Credit: Jurie Senekal)

For many, waterblommetjiebredie is a link to a time, a place and a people (Credit: Jurie Senekal)

Waterblommetjiebredie is much more than a dish. For many, it is a link to a time, a place and a people. Du Toit has eaten it for as long as she can remember. She has a deep love for the dish and says she’ll never stop making it.

“My parents moved to Cape Town when I was a little girl. My mother didn’t grow up with waterblommetjies, but she knew how to make bredie so she soon learnt how to cook with them,” said Du Toit. “Back then we didn’t buy waterblommetjies, we were given them by friends, neighbours, colleagues… anyone who had family in the Boland. I still don’t enjoy buying them from the supermarket. We never knew when a bundle would arrive, but my mum knew exactly what to do when it did. And then the rains would end and there were no more waterblommetjies.”

She continued: “As soon as autumn turns to winter, I start planning my first bredie. I can’t help it. We probably eat it 10 times a year, every couple of weeks between June and October. The first waterblommetjiebredie Ian [Du Toit’s husband] tasted was mine. It was love at first bite. He grew up in the Highveld but his grandparents are from the Cape so he must have some waterblommetjie DNA in there somewhere. He’s very good in the kitchen but he’s never made waterblommetjiebredie. I guess it’s one of the few things I can still give to him.”

(Text by Nick Dall; video and images by Jurie Senekal)

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