Wherever you go in the Eastern Karoo you’ll see enormous spiky blue-green plants along the contours of the land. In a few places, they grow in plantation-straight rows, or along fence lines, but mostly they’re just higgledy-piggledy. Some are chest high. Others are tiny as pot plants.
Between spring and Christmas, they often sprout tall poles, all festive with greenish-yellow buds and nectar-dripping flowers, doted on by bees and birds. The huge spiky plants with their fibrous, strappy leaves are originally from Mexico, and are called Agave americana – locally known as garingboom.
That there are so many around the Eastern Cape is part of their fascinating history. They have been in this district so long that they are virtually naturalised citizens. If there is one man who has explored the richness of their existence and uses them more than anyone else, it is Tim Murray of Roode Bloem farm, just north of Graaff-Reinet.
He relates the story of Agave’s origins in the Karoo: “Family folklore says that in the mid-1800s, a young girl of the Rubidge family happened to see them on a beach near the Fish River mouth, probably washed up from the ballast of a passing ship or from a ship wreck. And being a farmer’s daughter she also noted that they must be palatable, since they were being nibbled by goats and other domestic animals.”
The Rubidge girl (her first name remains unrecorded) packed three young plants in her bag and took them home to her parents’ farm Bloemhof, only a few kilometres north of Roode Bloem farm.
The Rubidge, Murray and Southey families farming in this area eventually distributed suckers and small growing plants among themselves, finding Agave americanas to be extremely useful. Their stoic blue-green bulk stopped erosion on contour lines. The poles they sent up were useful as pergolas and for fencing. They were perfect drought fodder.
The Murray family of the 1800s found chopped-up agave leaves were excellent for ostriches, giving them resilience and glossy feathers. Today Tim chops them up and feeds them to his sheep and cattle, alongside a normal diet of veld grass and Karoo bossies. They thrive on it.
At the time of the wool boom in the 1950s, Grootfontein Agricultural College did a study on the plant’s usefulness as drought fodder and the government of the day subsequently ordered all Karoo farmers to plant a section of their farm with Agave Americana.
A roadblock to success
Tim became fascinated by the garingboom, named for the long, strong threadlike fibres in its leaves. This is a plant with potential as food, fodder, fibre and as biofuel. He even found that there is a waxy cuticle around the leaves that could be turned into a biodegradable food wrapper.
“I found out how much the Mayans and Aztecs had depended on it. You can use every bit of the plant for cosmetics to food, drink, construction, fibre, art, and musical instruments. They used the leaves as roofing tiles, and ate the buds deep-fried. It was a real supermarket-in-one plant.”
The more vivid part of the Agave’s recent history in the Karoo involves a flirtation with a clear and fiery brew, triple-distilled, with a kick like a mad mule from Guadalajara.
In 1997 a man called Gawie Venter realised that these plants, now widely spread over the Karoo, were related to a smaller member of the Agave family, used in Mexico to make tequila.He found investors, and a distinctive and gigantic white building to house the stills was built in the middle of garingboom country, just south of Roode Bloem.
Tim remembers those five years with great fondness. He was one of the handful of local farmers planting garingbooms and supplying Agave Distillers. Finally, these giant plants had become an actual sustainable cash crop. For five dizzying years between 2003 and 2008, the Karoo produced this potent liquor and apart from good local sales, it was exported to many countries. The product was superb, but the business side of things ran into a series of problems.
Everything stumbled to a halt when Agave Distillers’ fortunes became wound up in an estate. The huge stills were sold and the enormous white building is now used for storage. When the company closed down, Tim and Liza looked at other ways to use this plant growing half-wild on their farm.
A real cottage industry
Tim’s mother was also enlisted. Bebe is one of those domestic goddesses one finds so often in the Karoo, and together they worked out a dill pickle recipe for the buds, which must be plucked in and around the festive season in December.
The Murrays tried the recipe out on friends. They loved it. So for three crazy dill-scented weeks a year, Liza creates and bottles the pickles in their farm kitchen. Any buds that are damaged or imperfect are fed to thrilled goats and sheep.
Making the pickles needs a special, secret step, otherwise you end up with a dodgy, cloudy looking pickling liquid, and the mild tangy flavour is lost. Hardly a week goes by without someone calling up Tim or Liza Murray, trying to order vast amounts of the pickles.
“Someone called just the other day, saying they wanted to order 800 cases to send to China,” recounts Tim. “I said, my china, we only produce 100 cases a year. That’s it!”
It’s not easy to simply step up production. The garingboom only poles and flowers at the end of its life, which can be anywhere between seven and 15 years. Then it dies.
“We’ve only managed to get around it because there are so many agaves in the area. If they’re not poling on our Roode Bloem, we harvest from family and friends on surrounding farms.”
They also get calls from people trying to weasel the recipe from them, including someone from a very large, well-known retail store.
“I was really naïve. I trustingly gave it to them,” said Tim. “Except I stuffed up part of the method because it’s actually Liza who does the pickling. Thank goodness.”
So it remains a real cottage business. Tim and Lisa distribute pickled Agave buds to farmstalls and outlets in Cradock, Jansenville, Graaff-Reinet and Nieu-Bethesda.
Agave’s endless potential
Agave also has all kinds of potential for medicines and cosmetics. In 2016, Tim and three other partners pioneered an anti-itch ointment made from Agave americana’s strappy leaves. This year they added several other products: deodorant, foot spray, the already-popular Pyn Verdwyn massage oil with cannabis, Pet Anti-Itch Spray and Pet Insect Repellent.
But Agave Distillers had created another itch in South Africa that just would not go away – for the clear potent moonshine made from this giant plant. Tim was pestered incessantly by would-be craft liquor distillers. Eventually, he went into partnership with Northside Distilleries up near Ventersdorp, with the first bottles of Three Agaves Silver becoming available in December 2018. Finally, Karoo agaves are being distilled into a potent liquor, excellent for sipping on its own, as a festive shooter with friends, mixed with soda or tonic water, or transformed into mojitos and margaritas. Tim chooses the plants himself.
“I was astonished that I could actually taste the difference between the alcohol made with agaves that have grown in deep sandy red soils, surrounded by sweet thorn trees, and those from an area with more clay and calcium. The terroir really makes a discernible difference.”
He is not only making his own brand of craft agave spirit. Tim is also supplying Adi Badenhorst in Malmesbury with piñas for his agave liquor called The Fourth Rabbit, and for Sarah Kennan’s sought-after Leonista.
But now his phone is ringing again, and it’s someone with yet another bright idea about how to make money out of agaves.
• The best place to find Three Agaves Silver is in Graaff-Reinet, at Our Yard in Somerset Street. The Agavesol skin products are available at Farm Fare home industry along Graaff-Reinet’s church Street, and a few other places. Alternately, the Murrays on email [email protected] or visit www.threeagaves.karooheart.co.za.
• It must be noted that Mexico holds the copyright aces with the name ‘tequila’ and ‘mezcal’ and guards the naming rights to its national drink jealously. It is made from Agave tequilana.
Pictures: Chris Marais
Find more from Julienne and Chris on www.karoospace.co.za