It’s Sunday and I’m writing this newsletter now as there isn’t a chance in short-cake I’m going to find time in the week. With the new store being built and all the chaos this is going to involve for a while – the luxury of finding hours to write to you just aren’t there.
Just one fine day, I shall write a book about this store’s journey and the chapter about taking the risk to open a larger store and an eatery will be riveting reading, I promise, and some parts almost unbelievable, the twists and turns so out of the ordinary. So freaking Alice in Wonderland.
Until I get to that point though, my head is a sieve jumping from one loop of excruciating detail to another, my attention span as porous as my temper – short and the interruptions constant.
With 1500 tabs open in my brain at any one time, sanity is elusive and attention deficit disorder is a prerequisite for getting through it. Yet – it’s all worth it as well as everything Organic Emporium has asked me to sacrifice – I’d do it all over and over again for this business, for our farmers, for our access to food we trust, for you, for this community. To find an oasis of food we know and trust.
I needed to find this time though to chat to you about my visit last week to our lamb farm in Bethlehem as well as my last visit to Glen Oakes and a quick touch base natter.
As always just a reminder that these newsletters are not for the purposes of marketing product.
They are always more the conversation about the farmers and topics relevant to the South African food revolution at large. If you aren’t a reader and more looking for quick info about products in and out of store, rather unsubscribe to this and you’ll always find relevant information on our Instagram and Facebook page.
Store number for information – 011 514 0958.
For delivery information – ask to speak to Pretty or message her on – 084 892 0940.
While I’m here writing to you, I have Chef’s Table on in the background and am struck by how ludicrously different my work right now is from the chef being profiled. A rather dynamic woman who happens to be a famous pastry chef and who has built up a strong brand around her utter passion for cookies, sugar and cake! I almost switched channels as I’m watching mounds of refined sugar, refined flour, refined breakfast cereal (I kid not) and sweets being turned into incredulous cakes, thinking I cannot relate to this woman at all. This is nothing more than a diabetes business (judgmental-like – I’m ashamed to say) but something stopped me and invited me to notice something more, outside of my initial judgement about this woman’s dietary preferences.
Her voice. That strong kind of passionate tone that comes out of someone who knows why they do what they do, who ascribes meaning to their work and is clear about what they stand for. That authentic ring that calls you to attention. It was in her voice, so I started listening.
It perhaps resonated as I was sitting writing about one of my greatest passions – good farmers. As she was talking about how baking for her is about a connection to joy and relating childhood memories to kitchens full of strong matriarchs baking away troubles and strumming up a sense of occasion, I saw her connection.
She of course doesn’t relate refined sugar and flour to diabetes or misery – she relates it to joy, excitement and occasion. Mesmerized at how differently we see cakes but knowing that for her this link is real and something I can relate to, the need to share something you are passionate about with others. I realized that whilst I might not agree with the substance she is selling, I do understand. She isn’t selling cookies, she is trying to sell her experience of the connection between cake and joy.
That primal excitement of a cake for an occasion is so deeply rooted in earlier memories for most of us that are happy. She said that life is too short to deprive you of that joy. I also marveled at the amount of refined sugar in her life and her build, she’s as slim as a sparrow which most certainly wouldn’t be my reality if I ate what she does in a day and I’d be diabetic by 50.
Yet, this woman is so passionate and steadfast about her belief in what she does, and also extremely humble. I thought about that too, I would say humility has to be one of the most common core traits I find in every organic farmer that is changing lives. She had to be pushed by a friend to open her first bakery as she didn’t believe she had what it takes to do so, she just had an un-swerving passion for what she did – as well as – the meaning she ascribes to it.
She did end up opening her first small bakery and it became an over-night sensation with queues out the door into the streets. Why? My take is that it was because what she was selling was authentic, people were very literally experiencing joy through her delicacies. Whilst I don’t see sugar or refined food the same way she does, I do resonate with that passion in her. When you believe in something so much and put so much heart and soul into it that you sell – that – you sell your belief in what you do. Those are always the x factor businesses that come up on everybody’s blind side as far as I’m concerned and I think that is as much a part of the food revolution as a different form of less harmful agriculture.
Which is why I support and get behind artisans who are passionate about what they do and clear and who are willing to create products for us aligned to our philosophy. Like the Almond Creamery changing soy lecithin to sunflower for us, like Emma happy to make our rusks using Eddie’s Eggs and like the incredulous Ingrid being willing to spend time with us designing a coconut crepe using ingredients from our farms. We’ve always been a monumental pain for small artisans making great things but using non-organic ingredients because we just can’t have them in-store, but more and more we’re finding the gems, the ones who are excited about concepting something different for us using ingredients we approve.
The bridges between those farms and you – needs to be built by businesses who can clearly articulate what it is they are selling and what they connect you to. When I look at it that way – I think we have been clear here – we are selling trust in food. By selling you a connection to a real farmer, telling it like it is and offering you a space where your questions about your food are answered and the boundaries clear between what we will and won’t stand for and behind.
As we get closer to the reality of the new store, I find it increasingly necessary to keep bringing this team back to clarity on why we are doing this in the first place. We serve our customers by serving the needs of good farmers first.
Thank you so much to those of you that offer so much encouragement when I speak about how terrified I am of this next step. I was rather taken aback when in a chat with a customer, I was described as fearless. Fearless? You think I’m fearless, I exclaimed surprised? Yes, you come across as fearless, she said. I had no idea I came across as fearless. I’m not.
I am terrified of course with every new step we take which I find entirely appropriate considering we are making this up as we go along.
There is no space for arrogance in the very precarious, high risk and ever-changing world that is retail right now.
The difference it makes when you tell us that you’re excited about the new store and those little and large words of encouragement you give my team and I when you’re here – is immense and deeply felt – Thank You.
We need you as much as you say you need us.
We are taking the store adjacent – the old Sorbet, it’s currently being stripped and prepped and when the time is right we’ll knock through. The store we’re in now that we outgrew possibly two years ago, will become the beginning of the eatery, the store next door will be retail. There will be a fair amount of chaos as much as we try and keep the disruption from you.
We’ll try and do this without any down time in the current store so a time will come when the new retail will open before the eatery is ready. That’ll give us time to settle into the new retail space – a larger space where we can all stop saying ‘sorry’ all day as we try and get past each other and where we’ll finally be able to offer you the luxury of a trolley. Fancy that!
As we bed that down – banging and crashing will be happening on this side as we crack on with building the kitchen. We will then have an indoor small area that’ll open first (Winter) where I’ll start getting our menu ready and building up the kitchen skill slowly, one dish at a time until I’m comfortable it’s ready to go out, so that we can get ready for the Spring opening of the outside area. So it’ll evolve. I’m not going to announce an opening date, or announce the opening of the eatery, we’ll roll out our plan in stages as we’re ready, you’ll be with us and you’ll tell us what works and what doesn’t. An endless evolution. That’s all. Fingers crossed, the new retail section should be ready by 1 June.
So here I’ll write about the topic that Organic Emporium revolves around and is most passionate about. Which isn’t food first. It is farmers first. It’s the source of the food.
Sitting around Jan’s table with his very special family in Bethlehem, his lovely wife asked me when it was that I first became so ‘health conscious’ and I was stumped for a bit as I had never thought of myself that way. I had to answer, ‘I don’t think I am necessarily health conscious’, what I mean is that this is not where this journey has been motivated from, for me.
I’m not your stereotypical ‘health conscious’ person, I’m not petrified of chemicals, I’m not always healthy, it’s most certainly not how you’d describe me if you bump into me at a party letting my hair down – but when it comes to food – I am fastidious about food that is connected to good farmers with an organic philosophy.
Just a very ordinary Joburg woman with ordinary quirks, strengths and many weaknesses like all of you and I certainly have nothing to be self-righteous about. Just, a person passionate about organic farming and good food and appalled at what the industrial food system brings.
I get particularly ratty actually when people want to make organic food sanctimonious. If you need me to be that, I shall probably disappoint you.
I want a store and place where I am happy to feed my family anything in it. I want a place where I can see the farmer and his or her philosophy behind the food, I want food I can trust and I want to know exactly what it is and how it arrived at the table. That’s what Organic Emporium is and how it will always extend. When we evolve into the eatery, you’ll only be eating food that I’m happy to eat and in a safe space where you don’t have to worry that there was any compromise on the organic philosophy behind it. That’s all. Where we have to compromise – we’ll tell you. Compromise will only happen where there are vital ingredients that we can’t find in an organic version, but everything we make will be using the closest ingredients to an organic philosophy we can find while we continue to source better versions and find new farms.
Driving back to Jan’s farm last week-end, I re-visited the peculiar nature of my first trip that set the heritage chicken journey in motion. Never in a million years could I have anticipated what that trip would mean to the store and how those chickens would end up becoming almost iconic here.
The lunacy of that road, how we ended up with waiting lists once we had launched them, how it took months before we could actually get them onto the shelves because they’d arrive and were all pre-booked. It has taken over a year to get to a place where there is almost enough to meet weekly demand and as we drove into the farm and I saw the improvements from my first visit, my heart swelled and my soul tingled.
My heart is with old-fashioned mixed small farms. I don’t believe that large farms – even certified – can ever truly meet a real organic philosophy as it was coined originally in ‘Look to The Land’ by Lord Northbourne in 1936 when he first used the word ‘organic’, to describe mixed farms working in accordance with nature’s way.
It is always the small gems that I find that most excite me, because that’s too often where I find the most authentic unadulterated food farmed according to the closest thing to an organic philosophy. That’s what makes our road unique.
Where retail is looking for volumes, certain supply, efficient and organized consistency – I look for the opposite and then have to work out how on earth we’re going to get it right and work around the constraints of it. Which are that there often isn’t enough supply to meet demand, that we always have a road to walk with the farmer to work out logistics, be patient through growth trials and hiccups, get packaging right, get organized and respond to the spike in demand we see that we can’t apologize for in the store.
That’s the crazy and beauty of it – this store cannot ever offer consistency or an unlimited supply of anything if it stays true to its mandate which so long as I’m at the helm, it always will.
The long game – is to slowly find more and more small farms that we can develop with, like this one and to bring experience to them and learn from them.
We have to help them overcome their challenges and we have to – somehow – get our customers to value the fact that there can never have unlimited supply of anything if we stay true to our commitment to small farms with a true organic philosophy.
I do not believe that you can produce food of this quality on scale. I don’t. I will never be able to guarantee endless supply of chicken breast fillets, or beef fillet for that matter and don’t get me started on chicken livers. A chicken has one liver. The sheer volumes of chicken we’d need to meet the demand for chicken livers, mind blowing. We can’t do it. There’s limited supply and there is nothing we can do about that in this paradigm, nor do I want to.
The only way you can meet ludicrous demand for single cuts is when you are connected to the industrial conveyor belt system, where animal lives are assembly line items.
Supporting small, independent farmers with limited supply but attention to principled natural farming and that aren’t attached to the commercial volumes-based model – means we have to support nose-to-tail eating and cannot offer you certain things.
When we slaughter a 300kg carcass for the store, it has been carefully selected by Tom, it is never a young animal and we need to take it all from him. It isn’t being distributed to middle-men connected to the volumes-based food paradigm.
There is 2.5kg’s – if we’re lucky – of fillet on this one whole animal. That’s it. If we were to supply endless cuts of fillet to meet demand – what on earth would we do with the rest of the carcass? You’d have to be selling huge amounts and volume to supply fillet on mass. When I calculate how much grass-fed beef would need to be represented and sold in the market place to be in alignment with the volumes of fillet being offered, my eyebrows raise, for good reason. Pretty much the same with chicken breast fillets as much as chicken livers.
What is he supposed to do with the rest of the chicken? We have to make sense of the whole chicken – we aren’t dumping the cuts you don’t want into viennas, we’ll do what we can to meet some demand where we can make sense of it. Where we have an excessive need for chicken fillets – we’ll cut as many as it makes sense to where we can use the rest to make patties and sausages and mince and then we stop. Otherwise the farmer as well as well as us will go out of business and more animals slaughtered than necessary. It’s an utterly inefficient model and when you are talking about the volumes of animals that need to be slaughtered to meet these consumer demands, rather horrific. These are animals we’re talking about not parts of an assembly line.
It is an entirely different food paradigm here when we are connected to real, small farmers and need to help them be sustainable. We cannot meet ordinary consumer demands and expectations that have been created by big food, industrial models. There will never be endless supply of anything in our store. It’ll be up and down depending on where the farmer is at. As we get more consumer support though for these farmers, we’ll be able to develop more and connect more and so the offering will be broader but that mechanized and efficient consistency that big food models deliver, will never be our road.
You’ll get the best food we can find in this country connected to the best farmers with an organic philosophy I can find – that you can always count on but it won’t always be in and this is likely to be more pronounced as we head into a larger store.
When it comes to the heritage chickens – consider this – that it takes over 4 months to get them to size. An entirely inefficient model as far as food goes. We don’t much care about efficient though, we care about why this chicken is so valuable, how it has lived, eaten and been treated – so need to work around their limits. Industry and the market attached to big retail needs fast growing chickens to meet volume – to make money. We aren’t in that paradigm.
So if we suddenly grow quickly – there is no way that we can increase the volume of chicken available in the store in a week. It takes months and months.
Regardless of the challenges, this is my life’s work and we’re here to stay just finding ways to bring this food to you and to create an alternative food system under-pinned by real farmers doing it the old-fashioned way and for you to know how your food is produced while we work out alternative retail models that still pay the bills.
Back to the Bethlehem lamb. This is the same farm where the heritage chickens are raised, it is becoming stronger by the day because of your support. Your support is enabling Jan to grow this farm and to bring you more. Your support means this farmer can continue to farm food like this for us. These are the victories we live for – where you support a good farmer and he strengthens and our access to nutrient dense food.
It was as much a surprise to Jan as to us that the heritage chickens dry aged in linen – Bresse style became the predominant food being sold here and over took the lamb. That wasn’t at all the plan, the chickens were brought to manage pests on the farm and control flies. Because they are original breeds their foraging instincts are strong and they run amok pasturing outdoors for food. This is where the dry ageing comes in, wrapping them in linen and ageing tenderizes the meat, from a bird that hasn’t much kept still at all and never wanted to. Unlike broilers who have had this instinct bred out of them so that they would sit still and fatten quickly.
Despite the heritage chickens defining this farm after I first found Jan and we started this, he was originally a predominant lamb farmer producing lamb for one of our national retailers. Discouraged with the increased specs from retail to increase size by including growth promoters, reducing slaughter age while upping medication to get them fat, he eventually couldn’t continue in that vein and wanted to go back to natural farming. So glad that he did because that is what led us to the heritage chickens. The lamb that we bring in is from this same farm, just farmed naturally now.
The grazing terrain for these lambs is like all our farms – idyllic. Jan’s farm is a mixed landscape of crops designed to fix nutrients into soil and feed animals. He grows his own maize from non-GM seed. He has a no herbicide or pesticide philosophy. For fertilizer he grazes cattle so that their manure feeds the soil. Instead of weed killers – his lamb are his lawn mowers.
The predominant crops the lamb graze on, are sorghum and Japanese Radish. Jan is particularly fascinated by Japanese Radish and how rotational grazing as well as crop rotation between oats, Japanese Radish and sorghum works for his soil. When we took the pictures, the farm had been battling with far too much rain which is causing havoc. Neither chickens nor lamb love very wet soil under-foot and the sorghum was so tall that it stood in most cases higher than the grazing sheep.
It was also lambing season on this farm, so a good time to see how this time is managed and a happy sight to see lambs left with their Mums and Mums standing by rattily bleating at my daughter and I when we cradled their babes.
Ewes are separated at this time to give Mum and babies time to rest without their nuisance and the chickens scratch about with them.
Just another proper farm of sense and a farmer who just wants to be a good old-fashioned farmer and stay disconnected from industrial retail paradigms. Which are the ones we treasure the most. It is also this disconnection which allows us to build up different models that can sometimes challenge the economies of scale the industrial model gives in terms of a price advantage.
When we are able to bring in a lamb of this quality at a lower price than conventional, I happy clap somewhere deep inside. For the most part, we’ll never compete with industrial volume paradigms, we’ll never ever be able to bring you cheap chicken, or cheap pork or cheap eggs nor cheap beef but it’s right this way. Cheap meat comes at a price on the animal’s welfare and the health of that meat and meat farmed correctly – should be expensive and we shouldn’t be eating it every day that’s just the truth of it. Yet lamb, from a mixed farm model like this doesn’t need to be as expensive as the chickens are providing the predominant income and there is no additional feed needing to be brought in for them because of the sense of this farm.
This lamb is obviously not going to give you what Karoo lamb does in terms of a herbaceous flavor. You either like more toned-down lamb grazed on grass or you prefer the herby flavor that comes from Karoo grazing. I will shortly be bringing you a certified organic Karoo lamb option. It’ll always be expensive, the costs of transport from this region ever the issue but it’ll be there for those of you that prefer it.
I highly recommend that you try the new organic Dijon mustard in store with this lamb. Any cut you use – simply smother in Dijon with garlic (oodles of organic garlic in-store at the moment), butter and rosemary. Just delectable. There is turmeric in that Dijon and it’s uber special. It is very strong though so ‘g’ down on the salt – in fact don’t salt at all until it’s cooked and to taste.
For the chicken and lamb sausages and patties made on this farm – we have given Jan recipes only using organic ingredients and I was utterly delighted when visiting the butchery to see rows and rows of Goodlife organic spices on the shelves. For the pies, he only uses Lowerlands organic heritage wheat. Organic coconut blossom sugar is used for the sausage recipes that have coconut sugar. He has taken us seriously and no short-cuts with the value adds we make from off-cuts.
Many of you have been requesting chicken mince which we’ve now started. This helps us to cut more breasts so it’s all good.
Before I sign off, I want to also give you an update of my last visit to Glen Oakes to see Charlie.
For years he has been talking excitedly about a project to grow his own barley and maize sprouts for the pigs to reduce any need for GM soy which prior had been difficult.
When I heard that the project was running and that the soy has now been replaced by this, I was as excited as Neil Jewels to go and see it. So I went down to catch up on my favorite farm for pastured pork and Charlie Crowther. I never visit Charlie without travelling down to the valley to Bread and Wine to visit Neil and to taste his new things and to catch up. Sitting at a table watching Neil & Charlie bicker at each other over a glass of bubbles and platters of charcuterie is always par for the course.
The familiarity between these two very special men in my world, always just a pleasure to bear witness to. For those of you new, see an article I wrote some years back about these two – A Tale of Two Great Men.
Very excited about how the character of this pork changes with the barley and maize sprouts – the sweetness of them just incredible. When you’re in the greenhouse – what smacks you as soon as you walk in, is this smell of sweet grass around all these moist nourishing sprouts. The pigs go utterly nuts for them and when you taste them (of course I did) you can see why. This is how Charlie complements their grazing with additional protein and nutrients.
Julie Crowther will shortly be bringing us their own nitrate-free bacon for those of you who want it. It is rare to find nitrate free bacon that is edible but wow she’s gotten it right, as well as a range of sausages that she’ll have for us soon.
If you’re ever in the Franschoek Valley, please do yourself a favour and book a table at Bread & Wine, order the charcuterie platter with a cold glass of bubbles and ask to speak to Neil and tell him that you’ve been buying his charcuterie in our store and thank him. He’s a humble character – like all the best men and it’ll mean the world to him.
I’m hoping I’ll be able to write again before the larger store opens, it is getting nutty though with pressure so if that doesn’t happen, I’ll see you in-store and share quick exciting news on social media.
Stay Real, Stay Nourished