How free is free range really? For the ducks living below Nhlosane in the Dargle Valley in KwaZulu-Natal, it is seriously free. Consumers who care about good quality and ethically produced food are naturally sceptical about the label ‘free range’ these days. The commercial definitions of free range are disappointing, often only marginally better than factory farming practices. It certainly doesn’t include farmyards, ponds, gooseberries and apple trees. Dargle Duck, run by Dean and Serene de Chazal, epitomises all that it good about country life and compassionate farming.
In 2009, Dean moved back to the farm from Durban, and Serene’s husband, Maurice, died suddenly. Thinking about ways to make the farm more profitable, Serene declared “One cannot find a decent duck – let’s do ducks”. She bought a book about duck rearing and with her son set about learning how to do it. She is bursting with enthusiasm and as we wander about the farm amongst the Pekin ducklings, she suggests “Shouldn’t we try some Aylesbury ducks for a change?”
In 2012 and 2013 Dargle Duck (nominated by Jackie Cameron of Hartford House) won the Best Producer in the Paddock Category at the Eat IN DSTV awards. After tasting at the Awards at the SlowMarket in Stellenbosch, Caroline McCann of Braeside Meat Market in Johannesburg commented that “It tasted really, really good”. Caroline only stocks ethically produced food and always makes a point of visiting her suppliers. “I often have people asking me to buy their free range/organic produce, but when I go to have a look, it is anything but. Dargle Duck is everything I could want and more. Their passion is phenomenal. They truly care about their ducks. I had to laugh when Dean chided his mum for picking a cabbage that was meant for the ducks’ supper, not hers!”
Many of the top restaurants in Durban and the Midlands buy their duck. Pino and Caroline Canderle of La Lampara in Balgowan ”We are firm believers in supporting local, ethically produced food and know that the de Chazals take great care of their birds. They are such quirky and interesting folk, which makes buying from them a pleasure! We get great compliments in the restaurant about their duck – often served with orange sauce – and we use the giblets in our stocks. Dargle Duck is a beautiful product.”
Determined that their ducks will always be “dux” and taste the very best, a wide variety of greens are grown for the ducks to eat as they roam about. Wherever one looks, there is an abundance of vegetation – sunflowers, cabbages, amaranthus, wheat, broccoli, cauliflower, radishes, rye and beans – to which the ducks have free access. The bigger ducks have a pond to splash in on hot summer days, while the little ones are clearly quite satisfied with preening in the spray. Under the shelter, plenty of maize, soya and sunflower seeds is dished up too. It’s a good walk – they are encouraged to get plenty of exercise – from the sprinkler, across the bridges, through the ditches and around the berms, nibbling on the greenery as they go. We watch a yellow ball of fluff (two week old ducking) trying it’s best to unearth a beetle that has sneaked between the planks on the bridge. “I’m thinking of breeding silkworms for them to eat,” say Dean. “It makes sense to me as they also originate in China.” The de Chazals promote the presence of earthworms with lots of mulch, to improve soil quality and provide snacks. Ducks are, after all, not vegetarian.
Aware of the need to be self-sustaining and use local resources as much as possible, shelters for the ducks are constructed from hay bales and gum poles felled on the farm – environmentally friendly, warm and snug. A cooperative relationship with a neighbour who mows the hay on their land and provides them with bales, illustrates their philosophy on the importance of community. “We need to support one another,” says Dean earnestly. Another neighbour, who was a blockman before he retired to the countryside, turns duck thighs into duck sausages. Dean and Serene are enthusiastic supporters of the Dargle Local Living initiative and can be found cooking duck breast and duck egg rolls for breakfast at the monthly Dargle Local Market.
Dean was a landscaper when he lived in Durban and his creativity is evident everywhere – from the organic shelters to quirky signs, crafting better lives for ducks is obviously his mission. Watching hundreds of ducklings frolicking joyfully under a sprinkler, illustrates that he is well on his way to achieving this. “These are the happiest ducks you ever will see” he grins as beaks clack, legs wiggle and feathers fly. “Nowadays I landscape for my ducks.”
Serene strides about the duck pens, collecting feed bags and giving instructions before taking a short cut to put the kettle on – “Mother you can’t climb over the fence, you are 75, remember?” says Dean. Serene is remarkable – a generous and charming hostess. Her urban friends fill many of their seven en-suite bedrooms for much of the year, enjoying walks on the farm, lunch on the terrace and sundowners with a view of the mountain. Paying guests are welcome too and immediately feel part of the family. Serene loves to cook, especially with local produce, ensuring dinners are memorable, breakfasts hearty (including duck eggs, of course) and lunches are lingered over. The hand painted sign in the self-catering cottage suggests ‘Sit Long, Talk Much, Laugh Often’ – there is no doubt that that happens a lot at Shayile farm. The de Chazals do enjoy eating their duck, the simpler the better for Dean, who loves a bonfire and a little drumming to accompany the food. Serene prefers duck confit with thyme. Serene has been holidaying in the area since she was eight years old when the whole family came up for a few weeks every summer to escape the humidity of Durban. Once married, she enticed her husband and children to visit the area too and when this 50 acre property came up for sale in the late 70’s, she simply couldn’t resist.
While it does sound idyllic, there are challenges, of course. Local wildlife is thrilled that a duck restaurant has opened in the neighbourhood and visits nightly to feast on fresh birds. Genet, Serval and mongoose are the main culprits. “I should set up a wildlife watching hide and encourage tourists – they are certain to see something exciting every night – these are sitting ducks.” quips Dean. The dreaded abattoir day is mentioned. It’s clearly not much fun. Dean catches each duck and pops them gently into the trailer with space to move about on the journey, trying to cause as little stress as possible. “I dread the traffic jams which are so traumatic for the ducks. I think vehicles transporting animals should be given the same rights as ambulances at those times”.
Unfortunately the mass market doesn’t appear to appreciate what whatthe Slow Food movement describes as good, clean, fair food, just yet and open range reared ducks are still a niche product. “Mass produced ducks are landing from Thailand and Brazil at almost half the price of ours” Nobody takes into account the environmental cost of transporting them thousands of kilometres. If the accounts were done properly, they would be three times the price.
Shayile farm may be a little off the beaten track, but is certainly leading the way in compassionate food production. “We live in heaven” concludes Serene, “I don’t want to ever leave.”