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As Cape Town’s drought bites, designers are experimenting with food grown using sea water

Johno Mellish for Studio H
“Pass the salt”
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

The drought threatening a disastrous shortage of water in Cape Town has spurred at least one group of designers to imagine a future in which the salty waters of the ocean that borders the city might serve as source for cultivating food.

Studio H, a Cape Town-based collective that creates experiences through the lens of food, is conceiving a cuisine that uses fruits and vegetables grown in fields irrigated with saline.

The initiative, known as S/Zout (a mash-up of the Afrikaans and Dutch words for salt), features a pantry of products that emerged from a collaboration between Studio H and Salt Farm Texel, a Netherlands-based enterprise that throughout the past decade has been growing salt-tolerant potatoes, carrots, onions, lettuce, cabbage and barley.

At Dutch Design Week in October, Studio H invited visitors to sample ketchups, atchar, pickles and candies made with produce trucked in from Texel. Upon returning to Cape Town, the designers continued to conceive foods created with a minimum of water.

Johno Mellish for Studio H
Ostrich and chips

There is cereal made entirely from carrots and carrot sugar that goes by the name Carrot Loops, an assortment of ketchups, and cake made with cabbage, with the veggies underlying the foods all grown in saline-irrigated soil. Though these are prototypes—Studio H sources the produce in South Africa, where it is irrigated with freshwater—the pantry presupposes a menu that could be created just as readily from crops irrigated by the sea.

“We’re very much focused on water at the moment,” said Hannerie Visser, founder of Studio H. “We’re running the pantry on a speculative basis, but it’s a fantastic springboard for us to start a conversation about challenges in the food system and to approach the water crisis from the standpoint of a solution.”

Visser and her colleagues have begun to translate S/Zout to the table. The studio recently hosted two four-course dinners that featured a minimum of water consumed in their preparation.

The menu included salt-baked ostrich fillet with fried ostrich egg, and strawberry camel-milk ice cream—a nod to two animals that can survive for long periods of time without water—as well as crudités such as chips and ketchup made from salt-tolerant veggies, which Visser notes taste the same as those grown with freshwater. The designers paired the food with cocktails featuring gin distilled from foraged wildflowers and beer brewed with sea water.

Studio H sold a total of 50 tickets to the dinners to symbolize the limit of 50 liters of water per person per day that officials in Cape Town are asking residents to honor starting this Thursday. The studio plans to open a pop-up shop at this month’s Design Indaba Festival that will sell foods from the S/Zout Pantry.

With rationing of water across Cape Town projected to start April 12, Visser says that the future of food depends on awareness of the limits of resources. “Our new normal is a world where we’re looking at alternatives,” she said.

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