Photographs by Chris Marais
There is an enormous white building along the N9 road, a few kilometres north of Graaff-Reinet.
It is surrounded by spiky blue-green plants, hundreds of them. Some growing in plantation-straight rows, others higgledy piggledy. Some are chest high, others could double up as tiny potplants.
In the Christmas season, they often sprout tall poles, all festive with greenish-yellow buds and flowers.
These very same nectar-rich buds are pickled in a secret process by the Murray family on Roode Bloem farm nearby.
Hardly a week goes by without someone calling up Tim or Lisa Murray, trying to either order ludicrous amounts of pickles or weasel the recipe out of them.
“Someone called last week, 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!”
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.
Someone from a large retail store called up the Murrays and demanded the recipe. “I was really naïve. I trustingly gave it to them,” said Tim. “Except I stuffed up part of the method because it’s actually Lisa who does the pickling. Thank goodness.”
The huge spiky plants with their strong strappy leaves are originally from Mexico, and are known botanically as Agave americana. Their local name is Garingboom, which refers to their fibre. Wikipedia also notes its other names: sentry plant, maguey and American aloe.
The reason there are so many Mexican agaves around this part of the Karoo is part of a long and winding story
The more recent part of that story involves South Africa’s short but vivid flirtation with tequila production. That giant white building was a distillery.
Actually it couldn’t be called tequila, because that only Mexico can use that name. So it was bottled under the brand Agava – “100% Blue Agave Spirit”.
It was a clear and fiery brew, triple distilled with a kick like a mad mule from Ciudad Juarez.
Five Years of Tequila
For five dizzying years between 2003 and 2008, the Karoo produced this potent alcohol and apart from good local sales it was exported to many countries. By all accounts even Mexico imported it for some time. (At the time its own more modestly sized tequila-producing agaves were withered by disease.)
Farmer Tim remembers those five years with great fondness. He was one of the handful of local farmers supplying these plants to Agave Distillers. Finally, these giant plants had become an actual sustainable cash crop.
Unfortunately everything stumbled to a halt in 2008, when Agave Distillers’ fortunes became wound up in an estate. The huge stills have been sold and the enormous building is now used for storage.
The Rubidge Girl
The tequila distillery was set up here because this is the plant’s stronghold in southern Africa.
Tim Murray 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 Bathurst, 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 it was 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 parent’s 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 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 gave ostriches resilience and glossy feathers.
A Mexican Supermarket
Agave americana has become part of the Eastern Karoo landscape, a kind of naturalised inhabitant.
Tim Murray chops it up and feeds it to his sheep and cattle, alongside their normal diet of veld grass and Karoo bossies. The animals thrive on it.
Most farmers in the Eastern Karoo have a ‘skorsie’ or a triangle of land set aside for drought fodder like Agaves and prickly pears, but seldom use it.
The Murray’s pickle enterprise started after the Karoo tequila business crashed in 2008.
Tim and Lisa had been looking at other ways they could use this plant that grows on dozens of hectares on their farm.
In fact, Tim became mildly obsessed with Agaves, googling all kinds of uses. Their farmstead has picture frames made from agave, curtain rails, a djembe drum, and of course a dryland Christmas tree.
“We found out how much the Mayans and Aztecs had depended on it. You can use every bit of the plants, from cosmetics to food, drink, construction, fibre, art, musical instruments, medicine. They would deep fry the buds. They would chop up the leaves and use them as roof tiles. It was a real Mexican supermarket.”
Tim’s mother 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 – another issue because then they are short of labourers.
He and Lisa tried the recipe out on friends.
“We found out people really liked it.”
For three crazy dill-scented weeks in December, Lisa creates and bottles the pickles in their farm kitchen.
Any buds that are damaged or imperfect are fed to delighted goats.
They’ve slowly stepped up production and today they pick two or three tons of buds. They’re delicious on their own, with cheese, on top of pizzas, bruschettas or with club sandwiches.
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.
The calls for more don’t stop coming. Why not just step up production, one might ask. If there are thousands of plants, after all?
It’s not as easy as it seems, explains Tim. The agave only poles and flowers once in its life, after 7 to 15 years, just before it dies. And although drought-resistant, it does not pole if there have been no rains.
“There are many other variables, including soil brackishness, frost, rainfall, temperatures. 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.”
Agave has all kinds of potential for crafts, medicines, chemicals. Tim has now pioneered a kind of cream-ointment from Agave americana that takes away any itch, on sale. (Ironically, any scratch from an agave thorn itches like hell.)
But now his phone is ringing again, and it’s someone with another bright idea about how to make money out of Agaves.
Or yet another person asking about that Karoo tequila, and whether the factory will ever open again.
- Contact the Murrays of Roode Bloem farm on email firstname.lastname@example.org.