On Botterpitjies

We went on a walk along the Pipe Track above Camps Bay. There are some big stone-pines that have been there for all my life and considerably longer, and there were fallen cones and pine-nuts lying on the ground among them. We gathered a few pockets full of the nuts, and had fun cracking them open. Some went into a pesto.

I had first encountered pine kernels with my father on walks along the mountain slopes, at an age when the modest stand of pines seemed a huge forest. Cracking open the hard shells, I was reminded of him, and of botterpitjies (butter-pips) which also require some fuss to access the delicious oily seed within.

My father moved to Cape Town in the early 1940s, where he joined the staff of The Guardian, a left-wing newspaper finally shut down by the Nationalist government about 20 years later. His activism took him, among other places, to the Grand Parade, where they’d soapbox the crowd and sell the paper. It must have been there that he discovered botterpitjies, a staple snack for working-class Cape people.

Botterpitjies in their shells

Botterpitjies in their shells

Shelled botterpitjies

Shelled botterpitjies

He would sometimes bring home a small brown-paper packet with botterpitjies in it, and we’d eat them, cracking the hard shells between our teeth, and enjoying the unique nutty flavour. If, as I have seen on the web, they are likened to almonds in flavour, don’t believe it. The flavour is their own, and varies slightly from seed to seed as though they had not been standardized into a cultivar. They are delicious, but require some work.

Remembering the botterpitjies, I wondered if they were still available. The stalls on the Parade that would have sold them are long gone. I enquired on Facebook, and was told that yes, they are still available in Rylands, and perhaps at Atlas Trading in the Bo-Kaap and Fargo’s in Salt River. A friend bought me a bag of them in Rylands. They tasted exactly as I had remembered them, and brought up memories from my childhood and early twenties. But nobody knew what they were. Several people suggested that they may be Tsamma Melon seeds, but they aren’t. Tsamma melon seeds look like this:

A friend put me in touch with Timm Hoffman, an ethnobotanist working at UCT, who very kindly pointed me to some articles:

The […] reference to ‘botterpitte’ is for a Namibian species Acanthosicyos horridus – the !nara which is in the Cucumber family.  The best place to start finding out about this species is probably on page 34 of Ben-Erik van Wyk and Nigel Gericke’s 2007 publication entitled “People’s plants. A guide to useful plants of southern Africa” published by Briza Publications. 

There is a ¾ page explanation of the species and some information on the history of trade in the seeds including reference to Ursula Dentlinger’s 1977 study: (Dentlinger, U. 1977. An ethnobotanical study of the !Nara plant among the Topnaar Hottentots of Namibia. Munger Africana Library Notes, 38: 3-37).  If you are able to find a pdf of this reference I would appreciate receiving a copy but I am not sure that it exists.

I also came across the following reference to the broader ecology of the Kuiseb which from the Abstract looks really interesting:

Mizuno K & Yamagata K 2005.  Vegetation succession and plant use in relation to environmental changes along the Kuiseb River in the Namib Desert.  African Study Monographs, Suppl. 30: 3-4, March 2005.  (available at: http://jambo.africa.kyoto-u.ac.jp/kiroku/asm_suppl/abstracts/pdf/ASM_s30/1MIZUNO&YAMAGATA.pdf

I got the articles (and sent Timm the .pdf). The story is very interesting.

It turns out that botterpitjies are the seeds of the !nara melon, a thorny leafless relative of cucumbers that is endemic to the Namib Desert, with the species name of Acanthosicyos horridus.

from https://i0.wp.com/www.gondwana-collection.com/uploads/pics/nara_melons_twigs_-_desert_hills_12-11_web.jpg

According to Ursula Dentlinger, there is archaeological evidence for a trade in the seeds of the !nara melon going back 8000 years. Seed remains dated at 8000 years old were found by archaeologists at Mirabib Hill Shelter, where the melons do not grow now, and seem never to have grown. The nearest source of !nara was a considerable way off.

Today these melons are harvested by the Topnaar people, click-language speakers who are a sub-section of the Nama, perhaps the last speakers of a Khoi-Khoi language. Their name, “Topnaar” refers to the !nara with which their lives are interwoven.

The above picture, of Topnaar women harvesting the plant, (from www.namibian.org) comes with this dismal sentence: “The Topnaar hunting grounds are now part of the Namib-Naukluft park and they are no longer allowed to hunt and the !nara melon is under threat due to the falling water table.” It looks as if the Topnaar are in trouble.

There are about 500 Topnaar people living along the Kuseb River – a seasonal river which (sometimes) flows through the Namib desert. It is one of the most inhospitable regions of the planet. If you ask Google Earth for “Gobabeb, Namibia” you will see what I mean. Do go there and look around. It’s a revelation.

gobabeb

Their main source of income is from migrant work or employment in the Gobabeb research centre, but every year they sell a few tons of the !nara seeds.

Here is Ursula Dentlinger’s account of the !nara trade in 1977:

I found that Mr John Webster, a wholesaler in Walvis Bay, was the agent for the nara kernels. Between October and April he makes his rounds along the villages of the Kuseb and buys the dried kernels. The Topnaar also come to him to sell their harvest of kernels, which they transport by donkey cart. Mr Webster himself drives as far as Soutrivier to purchase his yearly supply; he told me that this may amount to as much as five tons, on which he makes a profit of as much as fifty percent. However, Mr Webster considers that the trade in nara seeds is a rapidly declining concern.

The unit of measurement is a hessian sugar bag weighing about 30 kilograms, for which he pays the Topnaar R3.50. The standard price in 1974 was 10 cents per Kilogram. Mr Webster sells the kernels at 18 cents per kilogram to his most important customer, Mr Ahmed of the Atlas Trading Company in Cape Town. Mr Ahmed, in turn, sells to Atwells, a well-known bakery in Cape Town and to stall holders on the Cape Town “Parade”. Here one can buy packets of “butter-pits” weighing about 50 grams for 35 cents.

The final price being about 70 times higher than what the Topnaar gatherer gets.

To earn their 1/2 cent for each bag sold, they had to schlep into the desert at the hottest time of the year and, using a pointed digging-stick, test the melons for ripeness amid the tangle of barbed stems. A !nara melon weighs a kilogram or more and is covered in sharp thorns Those suitable for harvesting then need to be prized from the tangle of thorns and carried in a bag to the place where they will be split and processed, the flesh being boiled into a sort of sweet porridge, and the seeds dried and stored for food and possible sale. Think hours of back-breaking, skin-lacerating work in the hottest desert sun.

I don’t know what the situation is today, but the seeds are still available. The packet I got cost my friend 16 Rands (1 Euro). If the Topnaar are still getting as bad a deal, (I doubt it and hope not) then some family got all of 22 cents.

The !nara plants can send their roots down an astonishing 15m or more in search of water, but if the water table drops much lower they can’t survive. As things stand, the !nara plants and their owners (Topnaar people own particular plants, but not the land) are in some trouble. Climate change over the last 500 years, accelerating in the last 50 or so, has impacted on the Kuseb river, which no longer has annual floods of the size or duration that it used to. The river has been dammed upstream, and water diverted to the Rössing Uranium mine. Less rain falls on the Kuseb’s catchment than before, and the trend is expected to increase.

In addition to this, the sand dunes slowly encroach on the !nara patches, with the sand that the !nara plants need to survive building up and getting caught in the tangle. As the dunes get higher, they reach a level where even the !nara’s phenomenally deep roots are unable to find water, and the plants die. The build-up of the dunes also forces the remains of the Kuseb further underground.

!nara plants are endemic to this region of the world, and are reluctant to germinate elsewhere, especially not in captivity. As the climate changes and rain continues to decrease for the Kuseb’s catchment, they and the Topnaar who depend on them for sustenance for a part of the year may well vanish into air.

__________

Thanks to Henri Laurie, Uma Mesthrie, Timm Hoffman and Julia Martin.

Useful info on !nara plants here.

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