Where does the Queen of England (or rather her kitchen) find specialty vegetables for the royal table? It could well be that the baby turnips, golden beetroot and other niche categories were flown in from South Africa where they were grown on 24 farms for Afrex Trading 2003.
The company supplies top-end markets worldwide with micro and baby vegetables year-round, all produced in Gauteng Province, flown out as soon as six to eight hours after harvest, but always within a day. From the Western Cape they supply fynbos flowers and foliage.
Cucumber flowers in a clear punnet (photo supplied by Afrex Trading)
“In order to stay ahead you need interesting products,” notes Etienne Taitz, procurement and logistics manager of Afrex Trading 2003 in Johannesburg, “and every market has a different emphasis. No two markets are the same. For instance, in Russia they would rather take carrots without tops but that wouldn’t work for a French supermarket who wants carrots with the stalks and roots to allow the chef maximum creational freedom in top end cuisine. When you’re cropping carrots, you lose a lot of tops when they’re pulled out of the ground, so it’s important to also have a market for carrots without tops.”
“Russians are also very interested in cabbages and cauliflowers, while other markets have the products in which they are more interested.” Cabbages are packed into punnets with four 50g little cabbage heads, of four different varieties.
Very labour-intensive product lines
“The main issue is that micro veg and baby veg require a lot of labour. Even the cheapest labour that European producers can afford, is still far more expensive than ours and even with the air freight, we’re still able to compete,” Etienne explains. For this reason, their sales don’t show the usual counter-seasonal fluctuations of South African produce, but rather a steady demand right through the year.
Their share in different markets changes every year, along with the economic situation in various countries, and at the moment the United Kingdom is their largest market. “The UK is probably the leading market for cuisine, stimulated by the highest number of millionaires per capita in the world. We supply wholesalers to the restaurant trade, for top end restaurants and celebrity chefs who use food as entertainment. They’re looking for food that holds the attention. In these top restaurants every course is a tiny amount but each bite is meant to thrill,” he says.
An example of the thrilling food they supply is the buzz button flower (Acmella oleracea) which produces a numbing sensation in the mouth. Edible flowers are a growing category, again pushed by the UK. “They’re aware of the high nutritional value of flowers and by leading in this respect, others are following. New edible flowers are being developed all the time and flowers fit the scale and interest at the moment.”
Buzz button flowers (photo supplied by Afrex Trading)
Even more unusual than edible flowers (and their fynbos flower portfolio run by their Cape Town branch) are their melons: the Mexican native cucamelon, a thumbnail-sized crunchy cucumber and the horned melon (also called a horned cucumber) that grows wild in Zimbabwe and the Lowveld of South Africa.
“The horned cucumber is a heavy product to fly out but it’s so unique,” says Etienne. “It fits in with the idea of food as entertainment, for chefs looking for something unusual. We generally sell more cucamelons than horned cucumbers, but you never quite know how a season will go. There have been seasons during which we’ve sold hundreds of kilos of horned cucumber.”
Horned melons (or cucumbers)
“You’ve got to be pretty aware of what’s going on in the different markets,” he continues, “and we regularly attend exhibitions. We go to Berlin, Hong Kong and we’ll be at this year’s World Food Russia.”
“We enjoy what we’re doing. Everything we sell, we taste ourselves. It’s not just a product to us.”
Afrex Trading 2003 will be at World Food Moscow . Visit their stand (South Africa Pavilion 2 Hall 1 Stand: C431) to see their unique products of baby and micro vegetables destined for the very top class restaurants and caterers.
Cucamelons, also called mouse melons or miniature watermelons
For more information:
Afrex Trading 2003
Tel: +27 11 394 6225