Oaklands Country Manor, where permaculture is practised to grow organic vegetables. A former stable has been converted into a fermenting room. Picture: SUPPLIED
Oaklands Country Manor, where permaculture is practised to grow organic vegetables. A former stable has been converted into a fermenting room. Picture: SUPPLIED

When the bartender lines up shot glasses in the snug bar at Oaklands Country Manor, you suspect things may get a little hectic. But the pale brown shooter contains no alcohol — it is a pungent mix of garlic, ginger and chilli.

It’s called Fire Tonic and is hailed as being rich in probiotics to boost immune systems and act as a natural antibiotic to cure viral, bacterial, parasitic and fungal diseases.

Fire Tonic appears again at breakfast, with beet kvass and kombucha vinegar, all probiotic tonics to rebalance the gut before it is filled with homemade muesli, pastries and free-range ham and eggs.

Oaklands Country Manor near Van Reenen in the central Drakensberg is run by sisters Caroline, Kathy and Annie and their brother Simon Tully. They are creating a thriving business with their tonics, medicinal herbs and organic food.

About 55% of their guests are return visitors.

Food used to contain many beneficial elements but now the goodness is sterilised out of it, while genetically modified food, vegetables riddled with pesticides and meat fattened up on hormones are damaging human health, the sisters say.

They started using the practice of fermenting food, a health movement that resurfaced about a decade ago. Unpasteurised milk is used to create a whey that contains the necessary bacteria to fuel fermentation processes. That becomes a festering mass called a scoby (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast), which transforms recipes into tangy, fizzy drinks full of probiotics, organic acids, antioxidants, digestive enzymes, vitamins and micronutrients that improve the gut flora for better digestion, detoxify the body and boost immunity.

"Caroline started the fermenting about five years ago because she was diagnosed with leaky gut [syndrome] and had tried every probiotic available but nothing helped," Annie says. "So we started making kombucha tea, and if you leave it longer it ferments into vinegar, which is much more potent.

"We started in the kitchen for ourselves then gave it to our friends when they were saying we’re looking good and never get sick."

A former stable at Oaklands is now a warm and pungent fermenting room filled with steel churns. In some kombucha vinegar is brewing, made from black tea leaves, whey, clean water from the estate and organic brown sugar. After eight weeks some of it is bottled, and the rest has other ingredients added and ferments for a fortnight more to create Fire Tonic.

Other churns contain beetroot kvass, made from organically grown beetroot fermented with whey, pure water and Himalayan rock salt.

The siblings introduced permaculture, a system of agriculture based on the patterns of natural ecosystems, to the farm three years ago. Their 30 horses supply manure for the gardens, all the kitchen waste is composted, and a worm farm produces fertiliser.

"Food can be incredibly faddy but this isn’t about a style, it’s about permaculture, which is based on a lifecycle," Kathy says.

"Everything circulates back to itself, so it’s about providing for yourself and for your community when you have excess and helping to grow yourself and each other at the same time," she says.

Food can be incredibly faddy but this isn’t about a style, it’s about permaculture, which is based on a lifecycle. Everything circulates back to itself, so it’s about providing for yourself and for your community when you have excess and helping to grow yourself and each other at the same time,

They grow organic vegetables, source others from a collective in KwaZulu-Natal and buy grass-fed beef and free-range poultry from local suppliers. Most of the staff come from the nearby village, and many of the villagers have their own permaculture gardens in which they grow organic vegetables to sell to the hotel on the farm. They also grow beetroot to make kvass.

The hotel makes bread by fermenting stoneground, non-genetically modified flour with yoghurt culture for 48 hours. In the past, bread always had a long fermentation process to break down parts of the grain and make it easier to digest. But mass-produced bread strips out that process, and many people can’t digest the unfermented grains properly or absorb their beneficial nutrients.

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in Washington says fermented foods are trending for a reason.

"They directly inoculate your gut with healthy, live micro-organisms that crowd out unhealthy bacteria, improve the absorption of minerals and improve overall health," it says.

"Fermented plant-based foods are probiotics that have been found to improve the health of the intestinal cells, improve immune function, decrease allergies, reduce the risk of colon cancer, and treat diarrhoea." They may also help to prevent Type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol and mood disorders, the committee says.

The Oaklands herb garden is stocked with plants that are endemic to the area, including some that are used in the family’s neurotonic, which promises to reduce brain fog, calm people down and help them sleep. The sisters are now working on a herbal tonic that includes plants traditionally used to cure many ailments including headaches.

"All the medicines are ancient … it’s old stuff we’ve forgotten about," says Kathy, a chef who runs the kitchen. "There are lots of books we have been reading and we know all the medicinal properties.

"You have to be in touch with your body and know what it’s saying to you and how much you need to give it and what."

Kathy doesn’t care if cynics dismiss this as quackery. "I don’t care what people think because I know it works. Everyone is entitled to their opinion and everyone is entitled not to use it. But the human race has lost its fight against health. You don’t need to worry about what you are eating so much as its quality, and avoid GMO and glyphosate — that’s absolutely scary."

Glyphosate is a controversial pesticide sprayed on wheat just before harvest to dry the crop for processing. A US man who claimed herbicides containing glyphosate had caused his cancer is to receive $289m in damages from Monsanto. The company has vowed to appeal.

Oaklands’ fermented tonics and herbal brews are sold online and through 38 outlets in Gauteng and the Western Cape.

Kathy’s only regret is that it took the family so long to figure out that this was the direction they needed to take.

"Our medicinal business has a lot of growing to do and we have a lot of other ideas. It feels as if we should have started 10 years ago," she says.

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