When Antonia de Luca opened her restaurant, leafy greens cafe, in 2010, the concept of a hip, mostly vegan eatery was relatively unheard of. Five years on, her weekend buffets cater to upwards of 300 people each day, as discerning foodies seek out truly delicious fare in a country-farm location.
‘I grew up in the restaurant business, and when I was 12 my family became vegetarian,’ says Antonia. ‘My parents own Casalinga, which is on the same property, and from an early age I would help them to prepare dishes. On Monday nights we would always have dinner with my Italian grandmother – she’d cook straight from her garden and create delicious, authentic meals.’
At the heart of all this good eating is the De Lucas’ 1.6-hectare vegetable garden. It’s part of a sizeable farm, which, once you’ve run the gauntlet of Beyers Naudé Drive, feels as if you’re in the heart of the unspoilt countryside. Bordered by tall pines and set on a gently rolling slope, it has views of the blue Magaliesburg beyond and the unmistakable scent of abundant, healthy produce. Antonia’s father, Peter, started the garden 25 years ago when he first opened Casalinga. ‘My own Nonna was brilliant at growing veggies and sold all her fresh produce – it definitely runs in the family!’ he says. ‘The first trees we planted here were the figs, and our food forest has evolved to include peach, lime, quince and walnut trees.’
Wandering through this edible profusion is a joy. And while it’s not overtly rigid in its layout, there’s a soothing visual rhythm to the broad rows of plants: the grey-green leaves of wild garlic, mini trees of curly kale, purple-flowered artichokes and gently swaying sunflowers. ‘The entire farm is run on organic principles,’ explains Antonia. ‘That extends from using no pesticides or insecticides, right down to the type of laundry powder and household cleaners we use.’ Interplanting with comfrey and marigolds, for instance, keeps aphids at bay. And to maintain the soil in peak shape, the team layers the garden with home-grown compost and vegetable waste from the restaurants, assisted by earthworms from their wormery. ‘It’s about doing things the old-fashioned way,’ says Peter, ‘and getting optimal nutritional value and flavour from everything we eat.’
Antonia admits that this venture has been a challenging one. ‘For years, popular media has insisted that the only proteins available are animal-based. But there’s fantastic protein in kale! I’ve always wanted to change the way that people view organic and vegetarian food; to dispel the bunny-hugger myth. The reality is that there’s been a strong shift in health education, and people are looking for alternatives to things like refined sugar and gluten. Take raw honey and coconut blossom nectar, which are delicious, healthy sweeteners. Or almonds and dates as a cake base, rather than flour. We’ve been so conditioned to biscuits and condensed milk that these “new” or unexpected ingredients are leading to a gastronomy of their own.’
And if you think you might be faced with, well, just greens at this restaurant, you’re in for a spectacular surprise. It’s a feast of colour, variety and downright scrumptiousness. ‘We have a team of incredibly creative chefs,’ says Antonia, ‘and every dish, whether raw or cooked, has at least one ingredient from the garden.’ Take the brinjal baba ganoush, gleaming oxheart tomatoes, spicy veggie curries or crystal rice paper rolls. And whatever fruits and veggies are in season take centre stage.
For Antonia, the real reward lies in knowing that her business has a real purpose. ‘I know I’m changing the world one meal at a time. People are becoming more educated, eating for health and energy. It’s wonderful to be part of that transformation.’ leafygreens2010
Originally published in April 2015