A nun from rural Mahlabathini makes wine from beetroot – much to the surprise of Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang.
The health minister and other officials tasted the wine at the Richards Bay Agricultural Expo.
“She was with the late Zulu historian Reggie Khumalo and they were both lost for words,” said the nun.
The 69-year-old Sister Lydia Ngema OSB (Order of Saint Benedict) joined the Thwasana mission in Mahlabathini, northern KwaZulu-Natal, at the age of 14 to become a nun.
She was trained by German nuns, who were running the mission at the time. They were self-sufficient and produced everything they consumed. “I learnt a lot from the German nuns, but I have modified everything they taught me. I now make what is truly my own recipe.”
“My parents loved farming. They used to sell mealies and sugar beans and they bred livestock,” she said.
She became a nun because she “admired their humility, compassion and respect”. Her parents were against it at first but eventually let her go.
Sister Ngema started playing with fruit and vegetables while still young and has since made juice, jam and canned fruit. She even teaches youngsters to make juice and jam.
Sister Ngema started making wine in 1977 as a hobby.
“Only in 2002 did I realise I could make it big because of the response I got from people who tasted my wine,” she said.
She believes nuns should not consume alcohol but the St Benedictines do drink moderate amounts of wine during meals and on special occasions in certain countries like Germany.
“Here, we are not allowed to drink any form of alcohol. I don’t taste my own wine.”
Sister Ngema said her wine-making had been controversial because people assumed she drank what she made. “I don’t touch it. None of us drink here,” she said.
It was no random decision to make beetroot wine. “I was always fascinated by the distinct taste of beetroot, especially in salads; so I decided to include it in my wine production.”
She said almost any fruit or vegetable could be used to make wine. “I make seven types – from beetroot, plums, carrots, oranges, grapes, grapefruit, and mixed-fruit wine. Virtually anything can be turned into wine.”
She has attended a number of expos in the province and has won accolades for her impressive wine display.
“That encouraged me to try harder and seek assistance from the other nuns and community members to make more wine and plant more ingredients,” she said.
A teetotaller, Sister Ngema cannot classify the wine accurately. “I don’t even drink it so I don’t know what a semi-sweet tastes like. It’s a little sweet I presume.”
One of her wines bubbles much like champagne, but she cannot confirm if it is indeed a sparkling wine. “When the evaluations are done they will tell me which wine is which and the alcohol content.”
According to Sister Ngema, it takes five years to make a good wine, but she said big companies had a way of speeding up the process. “Which is what makes my wine so unique – it’s made from ordinary fruit and matures on its own.”
She uses fruit and vegetables mostly from the mission’s plantations to make it. Since the climate in Mahlabatini is not suitable for growing fruit such as grapes, she buys these.
“We will need an irrigation system if we go commercial and I have not yet discovered a good place to buy in bulk. So I still buy from the local market,” she said.
Sister Ngema, is registering her business and is reluctant to give out her recipes. “I once had visitors who begged me for my recipe. They said they would pay me whatever I wanted.
I told them the aim of the project was to uplift the community and it was not meant to bring me profits,” she said.
The department of agriculture and Citizen Entrepreneurial Development Agency are helping her get the business off the ground.
“Once the results come back, we can plan the logistics. If this works, it will help the community a great deal,” said Sister Ngema.
Her adviser from the Department of Agriculture, Dudu Buthelezi, said, “Once the (evaluation) results arrive, we will take it further.”
“The evaluation is being done in the Western Cape by wine experts from the Agricultural Research Council. The Mangosuthu University of Technology is doing tests to establish the alcohol content. Once complete, Ceda has promised to help the sister with labelling, packaging and so on,” said Hlengiwe Ngubane, another official from the Department of Agriculture.
Sister Ngema said she hoped the business would flourish because it could create jobs.
“Everyone will benefit, the educated and the uneducated. We will need administrators, marketers, drivers and a lot of others,” she said.
She has yet to be licensed to make wine and sell alcohol. Consumption is not yet legal either because the alcohol content has not been measured.