by Ron Swilling
The thorny green !nara plant grows determinedly on desert hummocks – as if defying the gods – presenting green bursts of life in a sandy sienna world.
The rambling leafless plants with their long branches and paired thorns thrive in the extremes – heat, wind and the absence of water – of the Namib Desert, where little else has the tenacity or verve to survive.
Stefanie and Volker Huemmer, like most Namibians, knew of the tasty !nara seeds, and Volker, a chef by profession, began experimenting with them, adding them to his homemade ice cream and roasting them to introduce their rich flavour to his dishes.
The couple, while working in the hospitality industry, entertained the idea of one day pressing the seeds to extract the oil. This became a reality when they left the lodge they were managing east of Windhoek and moved to Swakopmund. They visited the Kuiseb area and spoke to the resident Topnaar families to find out the possibilities of acquiring the seeds. It took a while to locate a press for the hard-shelled seeds, but finally, on 12 May 2008, they pressed their first !nara oil.
After half a year of experimenting, they established that they needed to press the seeds three times a month for three days (for periods of nine to 12 hours) at a stretch, and were rewarded with the knowledge that they had produced one of the most unique and scarcest food oils on the planet, a true Namibian oil.
Tests reveal that the oil contains 57% omega-6 fatty acids, vital for several of the body’s metabolic processes. The !nara-oil bottles bear a label featuring the main seed-disperser of the !nara – the black-backed jackal – against the backdrop of sand dunes, the home of the nutritious plant.
The husband-and-wife team operated from home, cold-pressing the oil and experimenting with several exciting products. Volker used roasted espresso beans to enhance the fruity-nutty flavour of !nara oil, and also made a vanilla-flavoured !nara oil, adding the subtle sweet flavour of fresh vanilla pods. Two years ago Stefanie began her !nara cosmetic range, utilising the soothing, healing and replenishing properties of the plant. She started by making a hand-and-body cream, and has since extended the range to include face cream, tissue oil, after-shave balm, sun cream, bath salts, and soaps, establishing over the years which were the best ingredients to use.
!Nara oil cosmetics are now sold at small outlets and lodge souvenir shops throughout the country, as well as from the Huemmers’ farm stall (on Saturdays), situated 20 km from Swakopmund along the Swakop River road.
While Stefanie was inspired by the omega fatty-acids in the !nara oil, Volker was inspired by its culinary possibilities, and began making pestos, homemade pasta, home-baked bread and spices with !nara oil. When the two realised they had a sufficiently wide range of delectable and appealing products to offer, they opened their ‘desert hills’ home and farm bistro to visitors on a Saturday from 11:00 to 16:00 for a delicious self-service brunch or lunch (or coffee and cake) – made by Volker – and an opportunity to browse in their farm stall-cum-delicatessen.
The two offer a range of organic vegetables, freshly baked bread, !nara-oil spice rubs, gourmet vinegars, chai teas, and even !nara dog biscuits made from the by-products. A visit to Desert Hills makes an enjoyable outing away from Swakopmund, to savour wholesome light meals while enjoying sunny desert views, and celebrate the Namib and its potential, surrounded by desert.
On a more serious note, the Hümmers acknowledge their social responsibility and are involved in the Gobabeb Training and Research Centre on the banks of the Kuiseb River, to ensure the continued survival of the !nara plant. They join visiting school groups to Gobabeb to remind the children about their important !nara heritage and to find !nara ambassadors to keep the cultural flame alive.
Archaeological evidence suggests that the !nara plant existed forty million years ago and played an important role in the life of prehistoric man. Today it remains a hardy desert dweller, providing nutrition as well as a vital source of income for the Topnaar people, and representing an indelible component of the Topnaar culture.
The !nara (the ‘!’ denoting a palatal click in the Damara-Nama language) melons have traditionally been harvested for centuries by the Topnaar (#Aonin) people who live along the lower Kuiseb River course, east of Walvis Bay. When the melons ripen in late summer, they are collected by the Topnaars, who travel to the !nara fields on their donkey carts and stay in temporary camps to harvest the fruit.
The soft inner flesh and seeds of the melons are removed from the rind and boiled in a drum over a fire. The seeds are scooped out and laid out on the sand or plastic sheeting to dry, some to be eaten and others for trading, as they have been for hundreds of years. The pulp is boiled down to a highly nutritious porridge that is eaten, fed to donkeys, and made into a !nara cake, ≠hoagaribeb, a thin layer of cooked pulp that is spread onto the ground and dried into a substance resembling dried fruit roll, to be stored for later consumption.
Endemic to the central Namib Desert, the !nara plant, Acanthosicyos horridus, is a desert-adapted wonder that relies for moisture on underground water and fog wafting in from the Atlantic Ocean, its tap root probing 15 metres or deeper to reach underground water resources. It grows along the lower reaches of the ephemeral west-flowing river courses and amongst the dunes in places where it can tap into water sources. The seeds require a combination of specific conditions to germinate, and the plant can live to over a hundred years.
!Nara is a keystone species, the bushes performing the important role of stabilising the desert environment, creating little oases offering shelter for insects and reptiles. It is a cucurbitaceous plant, a member of the cucumber family, its spiny, nutritious melons supporting countless organisms, providing an important food source for humans, mammals such as jackals and gerbils, and crickets, beetles and other insects.