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November 3, 2014

Sub-Saharan Africa’s Food & Drink Leaders Are Here

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Today, African food is the most diverse cuisine on the planet, says Food Editorials. “Africa's history is rich and so is its cuisine. With influences from so many other countries – Dutch, English, Asian and Indian, Africa’s new cuisine is the newest global food trend.” The continent’s food and beverage industry has exploded on the back of these influences, most recently with a mixture of gourmet delight and real, raw food cooked in your ma’s back garden. This move toward the organic is never more present than in Africa – one of the few places on this earth that hasn’t yet been swallowed by food corporates. Although South Africa has been teetering on this ledge for almost a decade now, one leg in the GMO sector and the other in nature, this hasn’t held the country back in its culinary innovation. It is still first and foremost the country of boerewors and biltong, but even this is beginning to change as so many other unique trends arise.

One of the most noticeable trends in food has been the proliferation of tasting menus across the globe. Africa is no less immune to the ‘tapas’ phenomenon, with many roadside restaurants and gourmet eateries embracing the economical outworking of a tasting menu. “The smaller the menu, the easier it is to maintain and rotate,” explains Warick Thomas, Executive Chef at the Cape Town International Convention Centre (CTICC). “You can always put specials in to upscale things, so it’s not about elaborate menus anymore. You can make something quick, sustainable, easy to access and different for the person’s palate.”

Consumers are also flocking to fresh farmers markets or upscale ‘food halls’ with ‘artisan’ menus. In fact, the world seems to have caught the green bug, with health food investments finally paying off as niche markets become mainstream. According to a recent countdown on News24, more than half the points had holistic food themes such as provenance, craft beer and sustainability. “Craft beer is simply booming. It's become hip and trendy and no one brings a six-pack of ‘normal’ cold ones anymore,” said Caro de Waal.

Along with a growth in wholesome foods, the Farming Portal also reported that 2014 would be the year of the remarkable. “Both food ingredients and prepared foods will be more remarkable,” they wrote. “Did you see the lemon Buddha’s hand in the produce aisle? Or the purple potatoes? Or the mango salsa? Or the super-green mixes for salad? Or the heirloom tomatoes? Or the balsamic vinegar that is now turned into a glaze and flavoured with pomegranate? Everyone wants something remarkable.”

Speaking of remarkable, the growth in unique ice cream parlours is incredible. The Creamery, based in Cape Town, offers ‘classic’ flavours like peanut butter and sea salt caramel, but also has a host of seasonal flavours. Their October selection includes lemon curd swirl and bitter almond, while artisan ice creamers like Papa San and Izakaya Matsuri create the likes of Japanese salt plum ice cream and deep-fried ice cream desserts. NitroCreamy – which uses liquid nitrogen to attain the smoothest textures – brings unusual flavours like cardamom, avocado pear and beetroot and ginger to the table.

Mixing Game and Gourmet

The gourmet game reserve phenomenon is nothing new, but the culinary innovation at five-star reserves is worth a mention – especially as South and East Africa see more tourists flocking towards the continent in search of the perfect safari holiday. This rings true for five-star hotels as well, where visitors expect their taste buds to zing with every bite.

Bushmans Kloof Wilderness and Wellness Retreat’s Executive Chef, Floris Smith, says that his philosophy is not linked to any particular trend or cuisine. “For me it’s all about good food and I enjoy using elements from various types of cuisine, whether South African, Italian or Asian – to mention but a few! I like to challenge and seduce the palate,” he explains. The retreat brings simplicity together with quality ingredients to create a “taste profusion of gastronomic, healthy or home-style comfort foods, made from the best local fresh products and harvested daily from the organic gardens at the lodge.”

Another culinary killer is Gondawa Game Reserve in Mosselbay. The establishment provides a great, malaria-free game experience along SA’s popular Garden Route, with Jakob Christoffel as the new Head Chef. Known as the ‘MacGyver of the Kitchen’, JC has always wanted to be a chef. “The sights, smells, and social atmosphere of the open markets drew me in,” he says of his beginnings. “I learned of the terroir philosophy from my uncle; meaning ‘of the earth’ and is translated to enjoying the food of a region and using what is fresh and in the moment. Creativity comes easily when the food is the star and flavours are in full bloom.”

This move towards fresh, seasonal, local produce has become less of a trend and more of a revolution in the foodie realm, with hipsters and old fogies alike joining the movement. Even Pietermaritzburg’s Karkloof Safari Spa has joined. The boutique lodge offers the finest organic cuisine in the world, at any time of day. Using local produce combined with game and fish, the chefs create culinary masterpieces paired with a variety of exquisite wines and champagnes. The menu for each meal is customised every day depending on availability and guest preferences.

Food in the Events Industry

Simplicity of preparation seems to be the key message food advertisers want to get across in 2014.” —Rob Payton, Food Performance Director at WeShootFood

The events industry, too, has been inspired by the green revolution. Warick Thomas is a well-known face in South Africa’s culinary circles, although most regular folks will probably know him for his appearance in Ultimate Braai Master Season 1. He’s raked up an incredible amount of experience in the kitchen, travelling across the country, opening eleven restaurants as well as a stint at Sandton Convention Centre. He currently runs the kitchens at the Cape Town International Convention Centre as Executive Chef. Thomas says that the trend toward healthier eating has moulded the way he caters to large events and banquets.

“It’s been a long process to get there,” he explains, “which is hard to say because it [the organic movement] probably started about ten years ago and it didn’t get any lift-off because there wasn’t a lot of backing towards it. Now throughout the world TV pushes a lot of sustainability. It’s not just organic anymore, it’s really how it’s grown, how it factors into people providing work, jobs – it’s a holistic thing. People are a lot more informed and adventurous.”

He says that this gives him more scope for creativity with foods. “Ultimately, I would say the biggest trend is flavours – how flavours are married together. It’s not all about appearances. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the most appealing thing, but if the tastes and flavours are good, you’ve almost won another battle.” Although flavours in general are a trend, Thomas says that there aren’t any in particular that are making the rounds. “It goes from your classic, sort of Indian flavours where you’ve got masala through to using coconut oil. Banting [synonymous with the Tim Noakes Diet which refers to going on a high fat, low carbohydrate diet] is playing a big role in South Africa at the moment. Most chefs still believe in a holistic meal, but because your guests are saying, ‘This is what we want,’ we’re kind of having to adapt some of the menu items to incorporate it. A long time ago you would never have seen a vegetarian menu, even  a vegetarian on a menu. Now probably 50% of a menu is vegetarian. ”

He goes on to say that the interaction between drinks and food plays a large role in the development of flavours. “Before, the chef just cooked the food and that was it. Now, how you get the drink and the service in, how your table is set and what the plate looks like make a big difference to the meal.”

The rise in pop-up restaurants, wholesome food markets and organic health fairs also begs a mention. These small-scale events are what really shape the food industry and set trends. “Pop-up stores, pop-up restaurants and smaller retailers are proving really popular,” says Rob Payton, Food Performance Director at WeShootFood. “Also because of their diminutive size, they are being very clever in the way they use social media to market and advertise.”

Food Trucks for Foodies

It’s sufficed to say that the food truck phenomenon has taken over South Africa – vintage and gourmet trucks, that is. Lady Bonin’s Tea Parlour, which launched the trend in 2010, was South Africa’s first food truck and the world’s first mobile tea room. The caravan was a solution to limited funds, but has now become Lady Bonin’s lucky mascot. Jessica Bonin, the founder and owner of the tea room says, “The caravan began as a dream, and that dream has continued to expand. I never reach the ‘go-to’ place because the goal posts keep shifting.” Most recently she’s been on a ‘Gonzo Tea Trek’, a six-day journey “to bring tea to the world and explore the world through tea.” With dazzling, hipster-esque packaging, she speaks to a young, urban market, thirsty for her unique blends. According to the description they are “a rainbow cascade of herbs, fruit and spices blended to suit personalities, feelings, emotions and intentions.”

The food truck movement is steadily on the rise, with the Cape Town Food Trucks housing over 30 gourmet vehicles under one banner, allowing for simpler event bookings. The Limoncello food truck, established by Luca Castiglione, offers Italian cuisine and comes complete with an oven for baking pizzas and pasties. Chef Bertus Basson owns Die Wors Rol, which caters gourmet hot dogs at events. He feels that the country’s public is ready for the food truck concept, especially with so many popping up. In fact, food trucks now face fierce competition for space and market share, especially from restaurants that have recognised the opportunity and created their own. Overcrowding aside, there’s always room for more. Says Basson: “Word of mouth on social media keeps bringing us new customers.”

Styling Food in the Digital Age

A picture paints a thousand words, or so the saying goes. This has never been truer than in the 21st century. The entire digital age is driven by visuals, from foodie blogs and social media to MacDonald’s latest television ad, smoking hot, sculpted food is all around us. Food Performance Director at WeShootFood, Rob Payton has been filming in the industry for many years. He’s worked with Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsey and a slew of other name brands in the food industry. “As a director and cinematographer, food filmmaking is fascinating. You are trying to evoke the senses of taste and smell, both of which are the most strongly linked to emotions and memories and neither of which can be shared through a TV or computer screen,” he explains.

He, too, has seen organic themes running throughout the industry in 2014. “The vast majority of storyboards I receive these days carry a message of provenance, and quality,” Payton says. “People really want to know where their food comes from. Companies that are open in their adverts about what they put in their foods are going to gain consumer confidence.”

“The one common theme with all food advertising is the need for food imagery,” he continues, “whether it is a multinational like McDonalds who now operate in 116 countries, or a one-man craft beer seller in Greenpoint. I love the idea of food trucks – The Jon Favreau movie Chef is a must see for all food truck fans.” He explains that pop culture and the internet has had a massive impact on marketing food. “There are over 11,000 food bloggers with followers in excess of 1,000, and nearly 60 percent of all the images on Pintrest being food related – that shows the scale of the opportunities. Retailers are also engaging consumers through cooking schools online, offering everything from recipe selection to printable shopping lists.”

But it’s not just online technology that’s changing the landscape of the food and beverage industry. Warick Thomas, Executive Chef at the CTICC says that technological advances in the kitchen have fundamentally changed the role of modern day chefs. “Google is one of the greatest influences,” he says, “because you can access anything within a matter of seconds. But it doesn’t end there. We chefs use the internet a lot for trends, how to cook products and how to integrate products with other things.” He uses sous-vide as an example. This is a method of cooking food sealed in airtight plastic bags in a water bath or in a temperature-controlled steam environment for longer than normal cooking times. “It’s boiled in a bag, essentially, but now there are techniques where you can integrate the internet with sous-vide. So, say you have a person who wants a whole meal, because we have specialised ovens [at the CTICC], we can programme our ovens through the internet, we can link to our sous-vide through apps to ensure they are cooked at exactly the right time.” He says this also helps the kitchen save time and energy when the pressure’s on.

Whatever the case may be, the trend toward fresh, seasonal food that’s grown sustainably is here to stay. “Simplicity of preparation seems to be the key message food advertisers want to get across in 2014,” says Rob Payton. And what of next year? “Through the web, kids are becoming exposed to global cuisines and flavours much earlier on; this is giving the retailers great opportunities. International cuisine is expected to be a huge growth trend in 2015.”

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