Next in our #LocalisLekker series is Wedgewood Nougat – a family-run operation in the KZN Midlands. Read on to find out how it became a local hit. Do you have a favourite South African product? Then tell us about it and you could win.
This story was first published in the March 2013 issue of SA Country Life and was updated on 21 May 2019.
🕒 6-minute read
Seriously. Think sweet and sticky and sublime and the finest local nougat has to be Wedgewood, says Andrea Abbott.
You know what it’s like; dinner guests are about to arrive and the impressive pudding you planned turns into an unmitigated flop. “Overripe Brie cheese.” That’s how Gilly Walters of Wedgewood described her first batch of homemade nougat. “It ran off the plate.”
Many would have ditched the idea, but Gilly persevered. Her husband, Taffy, had fallen seriously ill and they’d had to sell Touchwood Flower Farm and find another way to pay the bills. A meeting with an aspiring young classical pianist, the now famous Christopher Duigan, led to Gilly and Taffy hosting musical dinner soirées in their home in the KZN Midlands. Hence the nougat, made according to an old French recipe and served as dessert.
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Melt in Your Mouth
In time, Gilly perfected the tricky process. Fame spread; Gilly’s nougat was increasingly in demand and she and Taffy were increasingly run off their feet. Production overflowed from the kitchen into the double garage. Today, the nougat is still handmade – about 1 800kg a day, 18 per cent of which is exported to Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, Germany, Japan, Middle East and the UK – but it all happens in a purpose-built kitchen on a 30 hectare farm in Merrivale near Howick, a stone’s throw from Touchwood.
“In a sense, we’ve come home,” says CEO, Paul Walters. At one stage he and his brothers Jon and Steve were all at the helm of the business, with their parents still involved to a degree but also taking time to enjoy some hard-earned leisure. Now family friend Ryan Hooker has stepped in as Steve has started a school on the farm.
Paul recalls the early days when a batch mixed in his mum’s Kenwood Chef yielded about twenty slabs of nougat. Each had to be cut by hand – a sticky and frustrating job if ever there was one. And while state-of-the-art equipment has made that task a lot easier, and facilitated innovations like RACEFOOD (energy bars for athletes) and Belgian chocolate-coated nougat bars (calm down all you chocoholics…), Gilly’s original recipe and her obsession with quality remain at the heart of a family enterprise that has embraced a growing new movement in the way business is done.
More than Just a Business
“Business for business sake is not sustainable,” says Paul. We are sitting at the enormous circular breakfast table where the staff (most of them family) gather to share ideas and discuss the daily running of Wedgewood. Paul explains that businesses are changing to become custodians of people, the community, and the environment. “A business must be meaningful beyond making profit. At Wedgewood, we’re just starting out on that path. We’re not perfect by any means, but we are committed to making a difference.” The commitment is plain to see. To begin with, most of the 85-strong staff is from nearby Mpophomeni, a rural community with a high unemployment rate and where AIDS afflicts half the population. Aside from creating sustainable employment within the community, Wedgewood materially and financially supports Ethembeni, a non-profit organisation that cares for sick and vulnerable children and adults in the area.
Their community involvement has gone further with collaborations with the Wildlife ACT, Wildlands Conservation Trust, Weenen Game Reserve and various other small community and conservation NGOs.
Better for the Environment
On the environmental front, everything left over from the nougat production is either recycled or composted. That includes the shells of 100 000 eggs cracked by hand every month. Even sugar-laden wastewater that would destroy important microbes if released into the septic tank, is channelled to feed the farm’s hungry cattle.
Restoring biodiversity is high on the agenda. When the farm was bought, large stands of invasive alien trees had sucked the life out of a stream. The trees have been eradicated and the stream has been revived. “We’ll soon be self-sufficient with our water needs,” says Paul.
So while nougat is still at the core, Wedgewood is breaking new ground. “Our overall goal is for a self-sustaining, simple and enjoyable, rural lifestyle here.” Within that context, several new developments are on the cards. These include photovoltaic power generation to supplement the farm’s power supply, and introducing free-range chickens and sheep to the existing livestock – a small herd of cattle. There’s also talk of establishing bike trails on the farm. The farm is also testing water heating system that uses macadamia nut shells to help with its hot water needs.
Paul and his team have also partnered with Wildlands Trust to become plastic neutral. “We hope to assist Wildlands in catalysing a movement where industry takes responsibility for the plastic they use and pay towards upcycling non-recyclable plastics.” The money generated from this venture is aimed at rewarding those who collect the plastic for green bricks like EcoBricks and green paving initiatives. “But we foresee this developing into a range of other exciting products that can be sold at competitive prices.”
It’s a feel-good success story few could have predicted. “If anyone had an inkling that this is where we’d be today, they certainly didn’t tell us.” And to think it all began with a flop. There’s a lesson in that.
- Understandably, the recipe for Wedgewood is a closely guarded secret. Ingredients include almonds imported from California, unadulterated honey sourced directly from small local apiaries, macadamia nuts from the KZN South Coast and Mpumalanga, cranberries from Canada, chocolate from Belgium. The wafer paper is from the Netherlands.
+27 (0) 33 330 7444; [email protected]
+27 (0) 33 330 7444; +27 (0) 87 985 3032; [email protected]
+27 (0) 33 330 5384; [email protected]
Do you have a favourite South African product you just can’t live without? Maybe it’s a pair of Tsonga shoes, a delicious collection of toffees or a helpful cooking device. We want to know about it. Tell us about your favourite item in the form below and stand the chance to win in our #LocalisLekker competition.
Words Andrea Abbott
A long teaching stint at University taught Andrea that she didn’t want to be an academic and so she rekindled her lifelong ambition to be a writer. Since then she has travelled to almost every part of her home province of KZN, discovering and writing about its unique wonders and remarkable people. In between those jaunts, she puts on her other hat – that of children’s book author.