Personalising herbs

Midlands herb farmers Linda and Derek Martin discovered that the demand for their culinary, medicinal and muti herbs took off after they established personal realtions with their clients – everyone from top chefs to traditional healers. Robyn Joubert reports.
Issue Date: 30 November 2007

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Derek Martin among flowering borage and chives.

Midlands herb farmers Linda and Derek Martin discovered that the demand for their culinary, medicinal and muti herbs took off after they established personal realtions with their clients – everyone from top chefs to traditional healers. Robyn Joubert reports.

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Picturesque as it may be, a lot more than dreaming goes on at Dreaming Creek in KwaZulu-Natal’s Midlands. Derek and Linda Martin organically grow and propagate an extensive range of culinary, medicinal and muti herbs on their 88ha farm. It has taken three years to build their business and the couple supply restaurants, catering businesses, the Durban Fresh Produce Market and specialist or smaller supermarkets.

A variety of wild flavours

Their range includes common herbs such as parsley and thyme, caraway, rocket, lovage, celeriac, salad burnet, French and Russian tarragon, horseradish and black radish. Dreaming Creek also has a reputation for supplying good quantities of dhania (cilantro or coriander), especially in the hot summer months when the coastal market gardens are far too hot. “We grow several mints including spearmint, peppermint, chocolate and apple mint, and the more difficult ‘holy’ varieties with their subtle flavours. These are sought after by chefs for signature dishes. We have 12 varieties of basil, including lemon and cinnamon,” says Derek.

The couple also sell more unusual herbs and vegetables such as salsify (oyster herb), bloody sorrel, bronze fennel, artichokes and edible flowers. “One of the up-and-coming herbs is the sweet stevia rebaudiana. It’s sweeter than sugar and especially good for children who eat too much sugar. A leaf or two of stevia in water is a refreshing replacement for a sugary drink,” says Derek. �The Martins are still converting their business to organic and plan to register as an organic farm in two years’ time. They have 40ha that is irrigatable and only about 2,5ha planted to herbs, and a seedling nursery of about 0,5ha under shadecloth, so there is plenty of room for expansion.

Getting down to business

Derek says his business snowballed when he started supplying his neighbour Granny Mouse, an upmarket country house. “We now chat directly to chefs and discuss their summer, winter and autumn menus, three months in advance. Some herbs are planted and developed only for one specific restaurant. We understand that chefs want signature dishes. If they don’t get exclusivity they take the item off their menu, so we supply one restaurant at a time with that type of herb. In return they become loyal customers. It means organic farming isn’t as profitable as we would like it to be, but we enjoy the way of life,” explains Derek. Derek has a day job with Delta Market Agents at the Durban Fresh Produce Market, so the daily 70-minute trip into Durban is part of his routine. “Who else can afford to deliver a few kilos of herbs two or three times a week?” Derek has forged close relationships with his chefs. “On Valentine’s Day last year, one of my chefs drove up to the farm unannounced, desperate for wild rocket. It was her speciality and she had a full restaurant. We had no staff and it was pouring with rain so we stood in the field together picking rocket and having a laugh. She still owes me a meal,” he says.

Before delivery, the produce is washed in pure spring water from a borehole on the farm. “We also irrigate with borehole water. It has been tested and is very pure – so pure it’s suitable for bottling. We’re lucky because the river water is too polluted to use at the moment and until recently, the river ran dry.”

Propagation dynamics

Dreaming Creek’s herbs are propagated from adult plants or seed. “It’s difficult to get organic seed in this country so we allow some herbs to go to flower and collect the seed,” explains Derek. Allowing the herbs to flower has other uses. “We use companion planting and plant marigolds and calendula next to the herbs, to attract and concentrate the insect populations. Then the insects leave the leaves of our product alone.” Derek is not troubled much by pests and uses no organic pesticides. “I estimate that the ladybirds eat up to 7 000 aphids a day, and a few chickens scratch around the plants to keep the worms and snails at bay. We harvest lettuce and sorrel as babies before infestation becomes a problem,” explains Derek. “The main ‘pests’ here are the oribi and rhebuck that love eating the spinach and pak choi. But that is part of nature and we write it off. Our scarecrow, Mr Whah, scared the buck off for a while but then they got used to him.”

Booming demand for organics

The response of wholesale herb buyers to organic herbs has taken this Midlands farmer by surprise. “I didn’t realise speciality buyers were so interested in organic herbs. The chefs know they’re paying a premium but they say it’s worth it because the food looks better, lasts longer and has a more intense flavour, and complex textures and nuances.” Derek says he believes the public are becoming more aware of the benefits of organic produce. “People are waking up to the dangers of poison and chemical residues. Coupled with all the benefits of micronutrients found in organically grown produce, the slow food revolution will really be a factor and not just a term bandied about on TV.” He says he grew a small patch of organic potatoes as an experiment and couldn’t keep up with demand. “I think most crops are difficult to grow organically on a large scale, but we will have to do this in future.” Contact Derek on 082 445 6606, or e-mail [email protected] |fw

Herbs are developed and planted for individual restaurants that want a unique dish.
Before delivery the produce is washed in fresh spring water.
Linda grows medicinal herbs such as anise, feverfew and yarrow.

Muti and aromatherapy

Derek grows muti plants such as hypoxis (Inkomfe, the African potato, of which there are several subspecies on the farm), scilla natalensis and several bulbines such as bulbine natalensis. “Brunsvigia grow well on the farm and we expect a bumper flower season this year. There are good populations of veld aloe and we are propagating aloe ferox. We also have scadoxis and boophane. The inyangas I’ve met at the Durban muti market believe cultivated muti is not as potent as herbs that grow wild. So we propagate the plants in the shadehouse and then plant them out on the hillside. The problem is keeping the porcupines out. But muti herbs don’t grow overnight – it takes up to five years, so we will see how we progress,” says Derek.

To see if he could concentrate the potency of his muti, Derek decided on a “new-age experiment”. He planted some hypoxis in a spiral shape with a stone at the centre. While the jury is still out on whether the potency is heightened, the spiral has become a lie detector of sorts. “When one of my men, Jerome, asked me why I planted the hypoxis in a spiral, I said, ‘It’s so the ‘little man’ can come and dance along the path in the night and sit on the stone to think.

Then he will tell me who has been stealing all my chillies.’ It was just an off-the-cuff remark, but when Jerome turned pale and blurted out, ‘It wasn’t only me! It was all of us!’ I had my answer.”

Derek’s wife Linda grows fresh medicinal herbs such as anise, feverfew, yarrow, clary sage, Roman and German chamomile, elecampane, Echinacea and lemon balm as well as several varieties of lavender. Linda dries the excess herbs and sells them in old-fashioned paper bags for teas or cooking. As a registered aromatherapist, she also uses the herbs in tinctures, creams and salves.