Table manners


The many geographical influences in Cape Town have provided it with a diverse food and wine scene full of passionate locals and innovative newcomers. Sally Webb delves into the epicurean delights of South Africa’s oldest city.


There’s a hospitable ring to the name Table Mountain, but 30 minutes into our 700-metre scramble up Cape Town’s iconic landmark, the weather closes in. It’s freezing, impossibly windy and the driving rain stings legs and faces on the two-hour climb. Our reward of breakfast-with-a-view from the top, 1000 metres above sea level, has been blown away too. Down below, the sun shines across the city, but now a heavy tablecloth of cloud has covered the mountaintop, we can’t see a thing and the peak has shut down in the face of the onslaught. It’s our second morning in Cape Town and despite my intrepid delusion, I’d rather be sipping coffee on Kloof Street than battling the furiously inhospitable summit. 

Adverse weather has closed the aerial cableway (our intended method of descent), so almost as soon as we reach the top of the Platteklip Gorge trail we have to gingerly retrace our steps in descent.

The blustering wind refuses to abate; the cableway remains stilled for the rest of our stay, so we never see the fabled summit view. Summer’s prevailing south-easter, known as the Cape Doctor, can play havoc with your plans in Cape Town, we discover. The sea gets so choppy that ferries to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for 18 years, are cancelled.

Ironically the blustery weather is a leave pass to explore the pleasures of Cape Town’s other table, with its generous local wine lists. In February 2009, during our visit, the region marked the 350th anniversary of the Cape’s first wine being made. We’re more than happy to raise a glass in celebration as we explore the local food scene. 

Cape Town is South Africa’s oldest and most cosmopolitan city, boasting a stunning natural setting that makes it one of the world’s most impressive metropolises. From 1488, the Cape provided safe anchorage to Portuguese, Dutch and British ships – one guidebook poetically dubbed it “a glorified tuck-shop for European seafarers travelling to and from the east” – but it wasn’t until 1652 that the Dutch East India Company, under Commander Jan van Riebeeck, established a base here and started shaping the city that we see today.
Tremendously appealing for the visitor, Cape Town has a bit of everything: stunning coastline, gorgeous beaches, a pristine national park with unique flora, a vibrant city centre with excellent museums, shops and restaurants, wineries within the urban sprawl and wonderful architecture. There’s 17th-century buildings established by the Dutch, to Victorian-era bathing boxes at Muizenberg beach, art-deco commercial edifices, and the distinctive pastel-coloured dwellings of Bo-Kaap, the Cape Malay quarter. Historic precincts and the historical scars of apartheid land clearances are juxtaposed with brand new developments. Urban regeneration is breathing new life into areas such as De Waterkant, where former industrial edifices now house “lifestyle” apartments and dining and retail complexes, and Green Point, where the massive 68,000-seat stadium for the World Cup in 2010 is taking shape on the foreshore parkland. The city is easy to navigate and security is less of an issue here than elsewhere in this still troubled country.

Equally appealing, South Africa one of the few places where the Australian dollar is still worth something. Buy a glass of very good wine in a restaurant or bar and you’re likely to receive a glass of twice the size (up to 250ml) for half the price you’re used to paying, which makes it four times better value.

Our first culinary stop leads us to familiar faces. Sydney gourmands may recall Laurent Deslandes and Cyrillia van der Merwe for their two-hat restaurant Collits Inn, an historic whitewashed inn at the Blue Mountains’ western foothills. It was named best regional restaurant in the 2006 Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide.

For South African-born van der Merwe, returning to her homeland meant that they could be closer to family and to France. Their new bistro, Bizerca in the heart of Cape Town’s commercial hub, is wowing the local food cognoscenti in a cool if quirky space (it was previously a church) with polished concrete floor and white tables with graphic black designs.

“After Collits Inn we really liked the industrial space – something modern and simple and without dust,” says van der Merwe. Deslandes gives an elegant sheen to his casual bistro approach, with a liberal sprinkling of offal amid a blackboard menu of French staples, such as poached veal tongue, sweetly minerally local oysters with ginger and cucumber, a luscious bouillabaisse that sings of the sea, and a clever tomato tasting plate demonstrating the depth of the chef's classical French training. Cassoulet Toulousain proves you can take the chef out of France, but his palate will never leave.

The next evening we head to Carne, a hip new steakhouse from the team behind the popular city stalwart 95 Keerom. As we pull up in the crowded cul-de-sac outside, a man pokes his head through the car window offering to park the car. I can’t work out whether it’s a ruse to take off in our rental vehicle or clever job creation. Valet parking seems a touch too LA and quite out of place here, where you are often guided, for a “tip” of a rand or two, by self-styled “parking attendants” into empty spaces that you’d have no trouble finding, or negotiating, yourself.

Carne, as the name implies, melds an Italian sensibility to meat. A masculine warehouse-like space of timber and steel, it has wooden bench tables and Philippe Starck Louis Ghost chairs. The timber still smells of varnish as we settle ourselves into a low sofa in Carne’s bar, barely days after opening, and order glasses of sparkling white marketed here as Méthode Cap Classique, the local denomination of méthode champenoise. With a fine bead and a yeasty nose it comes pretty close to imitating actual champagne, were it not for the $4.50 price tag.

Slabs of raw protein – steaks from the Karoo-raised Italian breed, Romagnola, in all shapes and sizes, awaiting the chargrill – are presented on a platter and explained as a precursor to any decision. Along with antipasti and pasta, the menu also explores local game, from kudu tartare to a gamey ostrich lasagne as well as the fifth quarter (offal). Presentation is simple, with the flavour paramount, in keeping with the Italian approach.

The Javanese convicts, political dissidents and Muslims brought to Cape Town by the Dutch gave the region one of its most distinctive modern food styles and cultures, Cape Malay. Biesmiellah, named after the Muslim prayer that begins the meal, is an institution in the Malay quarter, Bo-Kaap. There are flasher alternatives to this slightly shop-worn street-corner setting, but you can still taste the history in spice-laden dishes such as tomato bredie (braised lamb with onions and tomato) and denningvleis – lamb cutlets in a tamarind-laced sweet-sour sauce, served with almond- and raisin-studded saffron rice and mashed potatoes. While Biesmiellah is now on the tourist trail, despite serving no alcohol, it remains a quintessential Cape Town experience.

From our smart boutique hotel Derwent House in the Tamberskloof area, we’re only steps away from Cape Town’s busy cafe strip on Kloof Street. We make repeat visits to the gorgeously styled Manna Epicure, one of Cyrillia van der Merwe’s favourite haunts, which is bright and breezy with chirpy staff dressed in white, and a menu offering excellent breakfast fare plus tasty options for lunch or brunch – doorstopper-sized open sandwiches, tomato tarte tatin and meal-in-themselves salads. The funky little Portuguese-styled, shiny red chain, Vida e Caffe, produces the best coffee we taste in South Africa, while Melissa’s providore and cafe serves up indulgent brunch dishes, including wicked eggs Florentine, and packages of home-made everything, from meringues to moussaka. High tea on the shade-dappled veranda of the pink Victorian-era, Mount Nelson Hotel, which is set amid glorious gardens just off Kloof Street, is a lovely old-fashioned experience giving a glimpse of the British colonial past.

South of the city is a long peninsula, bordered by False Bay to the east and the Atlantic to the west. At the pretty fishing harbour of Kalk Bay, where a small fleet offloads its daily catch, there’s a cluster of groovy cafes and a couple of excellent seafood restaurants. Further south is Simon’s Town, a pretty Victorian-era town and the main base for the South African navy, and Boulders Beach, home to a colony of 3000 African penguins. Beyond here it’s another half hour or so to the Cape of Good Hope, but we’ve left it too late to get there and back in time for dinner. 

South Africa’s “Big Five” usually refers to lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino – traditionally the most dangerous wild animals for game hunters to pursue. But there’s an alternative “big five” in the Cape – sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, chenin blanc, colombard and cabernet sauvignon – which don’t involve quite as much danger, except to the liver.

It’s just a few days after the 350th anniversary of Cape Town’s first wine being pressed when we head to Constantia, a bucolic suburb just 15 minutes’ drive from the town centre. We drive into the glorious grounds of Constantia Uitsig Wine Estate on the southern slopes of Table Mountain, with a winemaking history dating back to 1685. It also hosts 16 luxurious guestrooms and cottages, rows of vines stretching up the mountainside, English-style gardens, a destination spa, two casual eateries and La Colombe restaurant.

The casual garden and blackboard menu of this smart winery restaurant setting is deceptive. Many regard La Colombe as South Africa's finest restaurant. While the thwack of leather on willow echoes from the adjacent cricket field, glimpsed through verdant oak trees, the kitchen is belting a few boundaries with elaborate, cleverly conceived dishes, blending indigenous produce and French technique with Asian flavours. You might start with a fricasse of quail and langoustine with baby corn, spring onions and micro-herbs, followed by deftly cooked veal with morels and peas, and finally, peanut butter parfait to finish. This is assured cooking, using the latest techniques, presented with panache and supported by an encyclopaedic wine list.

Further afield, but still less than an hour’s drive from the city, are the Cape Winelands. Stellenbosch and Paarl are “big five” habitats, both large commercial towns with winemaking as their focus. We head instead for Franschhoek, population 13,000, which boasts that it’s South Africa’s food and wine capital. Originally known as Oliphantshoek (Elephant Corner), after the vast elephants herds once roaming the area, the valley was renamed Franschhoek (French Corner) after more than 200 French Huguenots, fleeing religious persecution, settled there in 1688. The wine and food culture of their homeland was soon put to good use.

Franschhoek is also, arguably, the world’s most spectacularly beautiful wine region, almost completely ringed by towering peaks rising 1500 metres from the valley floor. In ten years it has been transformed from a sleepy farming community to a vibrant tourism destination. “The French Huguenot history and their knowledge of wine growing combined naturally with the theme of food,” says Jo Sinfield, a past chief executive of the Franschhoek Wine Valley & Tourism Association, who now runs a collection of lovely self-contained lodgings in the town centre. “The village now has 40 restaurants, many of them award-winning, and has been given the label of the gourmet capital of South Africa. The success of the valley has been driven by a set of common goals which the community has endorsed.” It’s a success story that other wine regions want to share. In 2008 Sinfield was invited to speak to a forum of South Australian wine and food region tourism officials at the World Food Exchange, including representatives from the Barossa and McLaren Vale. We meet the affable Sinfield, who’s as handsome as the landscape around him, when we check into the Map Room, a comfortable, quirkily decorated cottage (the walls are covered in maps, as you might expect, and the well-equipped kitchen shelf has jars of sands from African deserts). Over a bottle of local sauvignon blanc, he directs us to a couple of standout wineries which are making a splash.

At 32, Gottfried Mocke is one of the region’s most exciting young winemakers. Cape Chamonix Wine Farm is part of the first parcel of land granted to the Huguenots in 1688 and has some of the highest vineyards in the Cape.

Chardonnay has always been a Chamonix specialty and Mocke’s elegant Reserve 2007 is full-bodied, yet refined with Burgundian inclinations, while his sauvignon blanc, from 22-year-old vines, is sensual, surprising and a standout for such a ubiquitous varietal.   
Whilst cellarmasters describe the alcohol evaporating during fermentation as the angels’ share, Boekenhoutskloof’s winemaker Marc Kent has to deal with the baboons’ share. These fearless primates descend from the dramatic mountains encasing this picturesque setting to feast on the winery’s ripe chardonnay grapes. Up to 50 per cent of the crop is devoured. Tasting the wine you have to admire the annoying local wildlife’s choice. But the main reason for a visit is their cult wine, Chocolate Block – a blend of syrah, grenache, cabernet sauvignon, cinsault and viognier – which is hard to find even in Cape Town. Its flavour is as evocative as the name.

Franschhoek has a plethora of enthusiastic, talented chefs staking fine dining claims, but from our experiences few if any of them get the balance right. If only they understood that less can be more and let the bountiful fresh South African produce shine as brightly as the wines.

High on the Franschhoek Pass, Le Petit Ferme restaurant and cellar door is an essential stop – if only to drink in the spectacular view before lunch on the veranda. The heartily rustic fare is pleasant and generous, if a little overwrought. A perfectly good eggplant parmigiana for example, was squired by superfluous mushroom bruschetta. Pale pink warthog bresaola is folded like a rose into choux pastry, the sweet meat ultimately overwhelmed by a cheesy leek filling.

The chic Le Quartier Francais, a Relais & Chateaux property in a jumble of low-slung whitewashed buildings on the main drag, Huguenot Street, is a classy enterprise offering stylish, upmarket accommodation as well as a casual bistro and the Tasting Room, one of Franschhoek’s – and South Africa’s – fine dining beacons. But we are underwhelmed by clever food that outwits itself in trying to marry disparate flavours and elaborate ideas via a series of sauces dotted around the plate. With apologies to Coco Chanel, the Tasting Room should follow the great designer's advice and before the food leaves the kitchen, chef Margot Janse should take something off the plate. Attentive service and a parade of delightful wines lubricate a nonetheless pleasant evening.

The sun-dappled courtyard of Bread & Wine at Moreson Wine Estate provides the setting for our most enjoyable food moment in Franschhoek – a bountiful charcuterie platter, the meats cured in house by chef Neil Jewell and breads, including a more-ish sage focaccia, baked on the premises. While the wines are forgettable (when my dining companion declares that one smells like bong water, I begin to wonder how he knows), this simple, perfect dish lingers in the memory.

Given the dramatic social and cultural change that has occurred in South Africa in less than 20 years the nation has made progress that Australian reconciliation experts must marvel at. Solms-Delta is an admirable example of practical reconciliation. Wine has been made on the estate for more than 300 years, but the current owners, including neuroscientist Professor Mark Solms, are redressing the semi-feudal social structure that has existed most of that time. With the establishment of the Wijn de Caab Trust, the historically disadvantaged labourers have become joint owners of the Solms-Delta estate, and 50 per cent of profits are reinvested in housing and education for the staff. It’s a rare and admirable commitment to a future in which a whole community has a stake. Irrespective of the social good, the wines speak for themselves. As we taste our way through their cellar door offerings, we raise a glass to what a difference 350 years can make.

Guide to Cape Town

Getting there
Qantas has daily flights from Sydney direct to Johannesburg. British Airways and South African Airways have connecting flights to Cape Town. 

 

Where to stay

*T+L choice*
Derwent House
Friendly, stylish and well positioned, with a nice pool and great breakfasts.
14 Derwent Road, Tamboerskloof; +27 21 422 2763; derwenthouse.co.za; doubles from $268 including breakfast.

Constantia Uitsig Hotel
English-style garden cottages, hotel rooms and suites set amid verdant gardens and vines.
Constantia Uitsig Wine Estate, Spaanschemat River Road, Constantia, +27 21 794 6500; constantia-uitsig.com doubles from $475.

*Great value*
The Map Room
Relaxed, comfortable self-contained two-bedroom apartment, with a well-equipped kitchen and huge living room. For larger groups, the beautifully appointed Explorers Club, also run by Jo Sinfield, is a block away and sleeps up to 10. 21 Cabriere Street, Franschhoek; +27 72 464 1240; doubles from $212.

Le Quartier Francais
Sleek, classy boutique hotel in the heart of Franschhoek, with rooms in three categories – Auberge Rooms, Auberge Suites, and the super exclusive Four Quarters Suites. 16 Huguenot Road, Franschhoek; +27 21 876 2151 lequartier.co.za; doubles from $597.

Owner’s Cottage, Grande Provence
For those seeking the ultimate in privacy and luxury. Cocoon yourself in the Virgina Fisher-designed “cottage” (though many would call it a mansion) on the stunning Grand Provence Estate (owned by the Dutch entrepreneur Alex van Heeren, of Huka Lodge fame).
Main Road, Franschhoek; +27 21 876 8600; grandeprovence.co.za; oubles from $1837.

 

Where to eat

Bizerca
Jetty Street, Foreshore; +27 21 418 0001; dinner for two $70.

Carne
70 Keerom Street, City Centre; + 27 21 424 3460; dinner for two $88.

Biesmeillah
Corner Wale and Pentz Streets, Bo-Kaap; +27 21 423 0850; lunch for two $40.

La Colombe
Constantia Uitsig Wine Estate, Spaanschemat River Road, Constantia; +27 21 794 2390; lunch for two $145.

Melissa’s
94 Kloof Street, Gardens; +27 21 424 5540; breakfast for two $25.

Manna Epicure
151 Kloof Street, Oranjezicht; +27 21 426 2413; brunch for two $32.

Bread & Wine
Moreson Wine Farm, Happy Valley Road; +27 21 876 3692; lunch for two $80.

La Petite Ferme
Franschhoek Pass Road, Franschhoek; +27 21 876 3016; lunch for two $60.

Reuben’s
An excellent breakfast spot in the main street, which spruces up to be a smarter eatery for lunch and dinner. 19 Huguenot Road, Franschhoek; +27 21 876 3772; breakfast for two $25

The Tasting Room at Le Quartier Francais
16 Huguenot Road, Franschhoek; +27 21 876 2151; dinner for two from $200 (four courses with wine).

 

Cafes and bars

Vida e Caffe
34 Kloof Street, Gardens; +27 21 426 0627; coffee and pastries for two, $8.

Mt Nelson Hotel
Lovely terrace for traditional afternoon tea. Stay on for something stronger at the groovy Planet cocktail bar, which is a happening scene on Friday nights.
76 Orange Street, Gardens, +27 21 483 1000; afternoon tea for two $52.

Wineries
There are 43 wineries in the Franschhoek Valley. Wine tasting maps are available at most hotels and wineries. Also see the Vignerons de Franschhoek website, franschhoekwines.co.za, which lists contact numbers and opening hours.

Boekenhoutskloof
Excelsior Road, Franschhoek; +27 21 876 3320; boekenhoutskloof.co.za.

Chamonix
Uitkyk Street, Franschhoek; +27 21 876 2494; chamonix.co.za.

Solms Delta
Delta Road, Franschhoek Valley; +27 21 874 3937; solms-delta.com.

What to do

Township tours
A township tour is an absolute must to understand the heart and soul of the Rainbow Nation. While the townships are fully of poverty and disadvantage they are also full of hope and a strong sense of community. Even people who have done well, and could live elsewhere, are choosing to return to or stay in the townships. Camissa (+27 21 462 6199, gocamissa.co.za) runs half day tours daily ($55) which focus on Langa in the Cape Flats. The Gospel Tour on Sunday includes a visit to a township church where the singing is spine tingling and moving.

Robben Island
Weather permitting, take a ferry to the island gaol where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for 18 years, which is now a museum ($27, book online at robben-island.org.za) and UN World Heritage Site.

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