In the past ten years South Africa has moved from pariah state where racism and minority oppression was enshrined in law, to a modern liberal democracy. There are still many problems the country faces but it’s also true to say that its return to worldwide political acceptance has helped it build up its tourism industry and its wine export markets. In fact South Africa is not one country but many containing many different landscapes, languages, and cultures. Most westerners looking for a holiday will at some point head to Capetown. Known as the Mother city it was the first base for the Colonial Europeans in Southern Africa, and was a vital port for the Merchant Ships crossing between the Atlantic Ocean and the Indian Sea. Many Irish people have made their home here – like Bridget Booysen from Co Cavan who now runs a successful tour company from Pretoria. Others are more recent buying property all along the Garden Route. Still more are taking the opportunity to fly here for their holidays and sample the delights of the climate, culture and cuisine.
Safari So Good
Spending four hours or more jolting up and down in the back of a Land rover doesn’t sound that much like fun. But as Richard Hannaford reports when it’s done in the heat and dust of the South African bush you just can’t stop wanting to do more…
It was probably on the third morning that we began to feel like old hands. Before that we were simply cargo, holding on tight to whatever rail was available. Occasionally Ranger Natasha from the Madikwe Safari Lodge would lift one hand from the steering wheel and with great enthusiasm point to a spot in the far distance and with the engine roaring would shout “look a troop of baboons – between those two trees!” As I peered into that shimmering horizon I would just be able to make out some smallish shapes. ‘My God her eye sight is good’ I thought.
A few months earlier and back in Dublin we’d decided that this year we were going on Safari. For years friends returning from South Africa would tell us stories of how they’d witnessed two elephants mating, or a lion chasing a water buffalo. The tales of amazing meals eaten in luxury accommodation in the bush whetted our appetites even more. And when our six year old Dara began to show real interest in wild animals we knew the time was right.
The thing about safaris is until you’ve been on one you don’t know what to expect. And safaris differ according to where you are, which company you’re with, and what time of day it is. The first thing you have to think about is safety. Actually safaris are very safe. But many game park reserves are based in the eastern side of South Africa where Malaria is present. The disease is spread by the bite of the Anopheles mosquito and it can kill. It can be treated but clearly prevention is better than cure and if your visit takes you into any malarial area you must see your doctor beforehand. They will prescribe you tablets to take which will make it harder for any infection to take hold.
In fact deciding which animals you want to view will help you make choices about where to go. Most people want to see what’s known as the big five. That is Elephant, Lion, Rhino, Leopard and Water Buffalo. Other favourites include Giraffes, Wildebeest, and Cheetahs. For that the game reserves based in the enormous Kruger National Park are ideal. But others like Madikwe near the Botswana Border in the North or Shamwari near Port Elizabeth on the southern coast are equally as good and have the advantage of being malaria-free.
Of course wild animals do not conform to timetables and so each drive is different. Rarely can rangers and trackers guarantee that you will see a lion or a Leopard, let alone see them hunt and kill their prey. Of course the rangers all keep in contact with each other on their radio’s but it’s a competitive world they live in, and they don’t all share information on what’s moving about. Often you will find that friends will all turn up at a spot to view a particular animal. But there are also rules about how many vehicles can view an animal at one time (usually only about four) leaving others having to wait their turn. But even if you don’t see one of the Big Five it is surprisingly thrilling to see the smaller animals. Our six year old was much more amazed by the Dung Beetle we saw than the lions.
Parents will quickly find out that many Safari operators do not take children under 12. That’s because many of the lodges are in the Bush and thus not secure from wild animals. Even adults are often not permitted to wander from their rooms unescorted once the sun has set. There is also the question of behaviour. On the Jeeps and Landrovers there are rules about what you can and cannot do. For example you are not supposed to stand up. This is so as not to frighten the animals and particularly Elephants who are big enough to pick a fight with any 4×4 and come off the better. The biggest rule is that the Rangers are in charge. Having spent a long time learning about the animals in their reserves, they are very aware of how dangerous these creatures can be.
The best time to view animals in the wild is either early in the morning or in the dusk. That’s when the predators come out and are active. Getting up at 5am is quite hard and after four days you really feel it. While we were at the reserve in Kwandwe, near Port Elizabeth, we would get a knock at the door at a quarter to five and be expected to be having coffee in the main meeting area by 5.30am. At that time of day it is often quite chilly so its good to have some warm clothes. But at the same time after the sun has come up and sun block and hats are vital. As is wet weather gear. On one occasion we had just driven out of the camp at Madikwe when the clouds gathered and the rain soaked us to the skin. But whatever you bring, don’t forget your binoculars. They really do make all the difference.
Three of the best:
Madikwe Safari Lodge, North West Province, near the Botswana Border
Covering more than 76,000 hectares, and surrounded by more than 150 km of electrified fencing, Madikwe is one of South Africa’s biggest publicly owned wildlife sanctuaries. Twenty years ago it was a series of large farmsteads, but they have all been bought up and the land returned to its wilderness state. In 1991 it was the focus of the world’s biggest translocation exercise, Operation Phoenix, when more than 8,000 animals were brought here to begin a new life. The park now boasts a range of different habitats (including savannah and wet lands) and hundreds of elephants, zebras and wildebeest. It also has lions, leopards, and cheetahs as well as two packs of wild dogs and brown and spotted hyena. The Reserve has a number of different lodges provided by a number of private companies. Madikwe Safari Lodge is a fiew star luxury development run by the estimable Conservation Corporation Africa (CCAfrica) organisation, which is dedicated not only to protecting endangered wildlife, but also nourishing local communities. It has sixteen suites, each with its own bar, sun deck, and plunge pool and each is totally secluded. The Camp is divided into three distinct areas each with their own visitor area, library, and viewing deck. While we were we were treated to a star search with one of the rangers giving us a marvellous tour of the constellations of the southern sky.
River Bend Country Lodge, Addo Elephant Park, 70km north of Port Elizabeth.
River Bend is a luxury Country house with a series of small lodges set in a circle around a large swimming pool and well-kept gardens. Unusually it is set in the national Game Reserve and dates back to the early 18th Century. At that time the Elephants would migrate through the area causing a lot of destruction to the farm crops (River Bend still has a Lemon Grove attached), so the colonial authorities ordered the slaughter of all the Elephants. A well-known hunter was drafted in and he sat on a hill right next to River Bend’s veranda and simply potted them one at a time. Luckily some survived and were subsequently protected in a reserve which has grown to the size it is today. Like other safari hotels, River Bend has its own trained Rangers who will take you out on vast oversized Landrovers twice a day (7am & 4pm). Here the elephants are more docile than in Madikwe, and as a result you can find yourself sitting less than ten feet away from the matriarch of the herd. But River Bend has a secret. It also has its own game reserve just outside the park where it has black rhino, herds of Giraffe and a care centre. When we were there it was caring for a leopard and a park of wild dogs. It is very definitely child friendly and has a first rate restaurant and award winning chef.
Kwandwe, near Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape
Kwandwe is a fabulous nature reserve which, for its size, packs in an awful lot of wildlife. We saw Water Buffalo, Cheetahs, Warthogs, and Bat-eared Foxes. There are also lions here and zebras and Lizards and all sorts of creatures. The whole place is run by CCAfrica which provides the visitor with all the thrills of a big reserve balanced with a strong social commitment to the community its population and wildlife. There are in fact two hotels in the park; the first, Kwandwe Main Lodge, is built in traditional African style and is set along the banks of the Great Fish River. It has nine suites each with their own private plunge pool, and has magnificent views of the landscape. Ecca Lodge is a radical architectural departure featuring African pastels and rocks combined with a modern minimalists style. A sort of Milan meets Morocco feel. It is stunning and again each of the suites (more like full size houses) has its own sun deck and plunge pool.
If Safaris sound too much like hard work, the Garden Route is the holiday for you. As Richard Hannaford and Norah Casey report you don’t so much as drive the 1000 kilometres or so from Port Elizabeth to Capetown as pleasantly eat your way though some of the world’s most luxurious hotels set in the most spectacular scenery….
If you haven’t heard of South Africa’s Garden Route by now you really should get out more. Set along the continent’s southern-most coastline it extends from the old colonial capital Capetown to the industrial shipping harbour of Port Elizabeth. In between are a range of magnificent mountains, sheltered and sandy beaches, lush greenery, thick forests and of course thousands of ostriches being reared for their meat. For those who love the outdoor life there are beaches to beat the band and hills to track. Among all that are a number of small villages and towns that can boast some of the most sumptuous hotels and most memorable restaurants in the world. Here are a few of our favourites.
Kurland, near Plettenberg Bay by NC
Brad Pitt recently stayed at Kurland (sans Jennifer) – the exclusive Polo Farm and Hotel – and once you’ve been a pampered guest you will understand why he was here. Kurland is about 20 kilometres beyond Port Elizabeth and although situated towards the eastern end of the Garden Route it is an exceptional choice for few days – or even longer. Once you pass through the private security gates the sweeping drive leads to a pristine collection of white guest houses dotted around well-manicured lawns and gardens. The main house, in the old Cape Dutch tradition, dominates but all of the guest villas are brilliantly white washed and stand gleaming in the sun. The general manager Thomas Webber greets us and helps carry our bags to our wonderful home from home. No check-in or credit card swipes to spoil the impression that you are a guest in a friend’s wonderful stately home. Our quarters are luxuriously appointed.
The executive chef at Kurland, Ian Bergh, trained at the famous Constantia Uitsig and La Colombe restaurants. He’s a charming and easy-going chef – perfect for the Kurland clientele. During daytime Ian potters around the kitchen with a ready wit and laughs when I ask for the menu. “What do you want”, he says, “and I’ll cook it for you”. Bliss. For dinner Ian prepares a different menu every night
The old fashioned dining room is adorned with rose curtains and littered with vases of fresh roses from the garden. Silver candlesticks grace the tables and the walls are bedecked with an eclectic mix of art – traditional scenes interposed with contemporary. A dramatic large painting of three parakeets dominates the room with vivid turquoises and blues (by Scottish painter David Orr Kerr). Ian (dispensing with menu again) arrives at the table to tell us what he has prepared for dinner than night. It’s a wonderful personalised touch that Irish restaurants could learn from. There is a choice of two dishes for each course and to begin I choose the tempura friend black mussels with Thai style rice noodles and a tom yum veloute (a first for me). The fragrant and perfectly cooked mussels worked wonderfully with the oriental noodles and just the right portion size to leave you wanting more. An interesting combination. Richard opted for the more traditional starter – a salad of rocket (fresh from the Chef’s herb garden outside the back door of the kitchen) and vanilla poached pear with shavings of mature cheddar. The rocket had that wonderful (and rarely experienced) peppery flavour beautifully complimenting the warm, sweet pear. The main course was a delicious flavoursome Karoo lamb shank served with a beer jus – a hearty meal of local lamb enhanced by the rich beer gravy. Richard choose the fish alternative, a pan fried yellowtail served with a broth of lime juice, fish sauce, white wine, corriander, spring onion, ginger, garlic and chilli. An ambitious combination of flavours and the delicate yellowtail was a little overwhelmed. Then on to a tangy passion fruit sorbet for Richard, and a firm pear tarte with vanilla cream for me. A wholesome meal with enough ambition to keep us interested throughout. We opted for a sparkling wine from Haut Bay near Cape Town, Ambeloui Alexis 2001 (chardonnay/pinot noir) – the vinyard is owned by a Greek family – the Christodoulous – and dispenses only 25 bottles per customer of the prized Ambeloui. We enjoyed a glass of the house wine before hand – a very decent 2004 Sauvingon Blanc from the Constantia Uitsig vinyard.
The meal was wonderful – relaxed and friendly – an atmosphere that Thomas and Ian did much to engender as they chatted to guests throughout the evening. Dinner was our first chance to meet the other guests – at this particular time of year there was more than a hint of old public school and landed gentry (of a certain age). Thomas assured me that the clientele were very mixed and with 80% coming from Europe he is seeing more and more Irish people arriving in Kurland. Get booking is my advice.
Kurland, PO Box 209, The Craggs 6602, South Africa. Telephone: +(27)(44) 5348082, email: firstname.lastname@example.org, Web: www.kurland.co.za.
Hunters Country House by RH
The guide books describe it as a luxury estate near Plettenberg Bay and they lie. It is a magnificent estate with twenty-three thatched cottages. The grounds are full of flowers and plants which are all carefully tended everyday by a small army of gardeners. It is set between the Indian Ocean coastline and the Tsitsikamma Mountains and is at the same time the height of luxury and yet very informal. Each cottage offers a bedroom and lounge – some even offer a full eight seat dining table, a butler’s kitchen, and a private swimming pool. Children are very much welcomed here – even having their own private play area and staff. The lounge is furnished in that comfortable old stately house style and we spent many pleasant moments leafing through old library books while sipping Gin and Tonics while waiting for our table for dinner. And to eat here is very definitely a treat.
On the night in question, we began with an amusee bouche. A red pepper stuffed with springbok carpaccio and topped with feta cheese. As Norah has already indicated carpaccio is a traditional favourite of mine, given in this instance a South African twist with substitution of beef by antelope. (My favourite though has to be ostrich carpaccio which is both tasty and healthy at the same time). We had already identified our wine for the evening – a 2004 Spier Estate Private Collection. Its golden tones, aroma of nettles and gooseberries, and its slow finish went surprisingly well with our next course, the butternut and cumin soup. This turned out to be a well balanced dish which the addition of roast pumpkin seeds made all the more tastier. At this point our meal diverged and I went for the roast aubergine salad with lettuce, parmesan and cherry tomatoes. A simple Mediterranean style presentation and made all the more pleasing for me by the tender and not too oily aubergine. Norah opted for the Duck spring rolls which she was reluctant to share. A melon sorbet confronted us next. I’ve never been a great fan of melon (which can be insipid and bland) and this was less than successful. However Norah’s Pork Loin wrapped in parma harm with cous cous and pine nuts returned us to good humour, as did my Norwegian salmon with roe sauce. A slight doubt over the mash with olive tapenade flavouring was quickly banished by the perfect texture of the potato. A dessert of grilled mango and cinnamon pancakes fairly flew off the place. Hunters is part of the Relaix Et Chateaux directory and clearly for good reason. The service and quality of accommodation and food was second to none. Also in the grounds is a second hotel the more modern Tsala Treetop Lodge. Less traditional than Hunters, our meal there was another memorable experience.
Hunters Hotel P.O. Box 454, Plettenberg Bay 6600 (Garden Route)
Tel: + 27 (0) 44 532 7818 Fax: + 27 (0) 44 532 7878
Website : http://www.hunterhotels.com
Sand at The Plettenberg, Plettenberg Bay by NC
The Plettenberg, they say, is the only hotel to ‘own’ the incredible view of the Indian Ocean at Plettenberg Bay. Its unrivalled position overlooking the popular sandy beaches and sea views at Plett make it a popular holiday haunt for European holidaymakers. This is one of a trio of hotels – called The Collection – owned by Irish woman Liz McGrath. The Plettenberg hotel is modern and bright – and just far enough from the main street to make it a haven of relative calm. The contemporary décor is a welcome change from the overtly African-themed residences on the tourist trail. Glass predominates drawing the eye to the stunning views over Plett Bay.
The Plettenberg’s restaurant, Sand, is a busy haunt and a popular spot. We arrived for dinner and happily idled away an hour sipping a Mojita (rum, lemonade, lime and heavily laced with fresh mint) at the bar. After a leisurely read through we made our selections. We had tasted the 2002 Springfield Whole Berry Cabernet Sauvignon a couple of days previously and we were delighted to find in on the list – by the bottle and by the glass. The restaurants adults-only policy may make it a difficult stop for families but for us, with a babysitter secured for the evening, it was nice to relax with grown-ups for a change. To start with I had ventured for a Gorgonzola and goat’s cheese fritter with avocado and prosciutto – it was served on a bed of rocket and made more interesting by a drizzle of strawberry coulis. No complaints from me. I loved the salty creamy Gorgonzola with the fresh avo (surprisingly difficult to get in South Africa). Richard had the Carpaccio of beef (sliced a little thicker than he liked) served with pickled summer vegetables and sweet mustard dressing.
South African beef is excellent so I knew I was on to a winner with my choice of fillet of beef and it didn’t disappoint – it was served with forest mushrooms and delicate baby carrots cooked to perfection. Richard had the roast springbok loin (which I can’t quite bring myself to eat having watched them scampering through the bush earlier in the trip) – but according to my husband (the carnivore) it was delicious – less intense than the heartier venison we’re used to in this part of the world.
The Irish-owner Liz McGrath is widely regarded in South Africa for her flair for interiors, the quality of the service and standards at her hotels. She also published a cookbook in 2003 made up of recipes from the restaurants at her three hotels. The menu at Sands helpfully refers diners to the recipe in the cookbook so we asked for a copy to browse through while waiting for dessert. All five of her restaurants are over-seen by an executive chef, Christiaan Campbell, who divides his time between the three hotels. Christiaan served his time with Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saison in Oxford and worked with the Roux Brothers at La Gavroche. In any event we were tempted sufficiently to try the famous Crème Brulee’ from the cook book. A variation on the classic and the extent of its fame is not surprising
Brede River, near Witsand by NC
For something completely different, not to mention a great investment opportunity, head for the Breede River Lodge (about 300 km from Cape Town). This is not a gourmand retreat nor will you find fine wines – or indeed much by way of choice on the wine front – but if you want a real back to nature break its perfect. We were a bit wary of venturing so far off the beaten track. Port Beaufort – on the periphery of the De Hoop Nature Reserve in the Western Cape – is some 40 kilometres off the main road in a straight line towards the ocean with nothing but Ostrich farms on either side to relieve the monotony. And when you get there you might be forgiven for likening it to small town Ireland without the excitement. But linger awhile and you will grow to love it as we did. This is undiscovered South Africa – whale watching to beat anywhere else on this coastline (except the locals want to keep it quiet). The Breede River Lodge is currently being redeveloped so while some of the public areas are a little shabby the new spa and conference centre will soon be open and the duplex apartments have all been refurbished. We were lucky enough to stay at one of the waterfront cabins – owned by one of the investors and rented out to guests when available. The bedrooms were downstairs with doors opening straight onto the beach at the estuary of the Breede River – a mixture of golden sands and fascinating rock sculptured by the sea. With the Hoop Nature Reserve right on the door step this is great bird-watching territory (over 100 species) but the owner Derek Erasmus has an unusual passion for camels so the Lodge boasts two – available for camel rides (and a bit surreal when you arrive first). Still it’s all part of the charm of the place. The larger than life Activities Manager Mark Woof – (son of an Irish mother and brought up in Birmingham) will quickly make contact to chat about what’s on offer – Breede River would never lay claim to bespoke services but that is exactly what it has. We had the joy of a day’s fishing and eating the catch – a Grunter fish (the name became obvious after it was caught) which the kitchen cooked and served to us for dinner. We spent five days beach combing and enjoying total relaxation. There is a popular boat trip to one of the few pubs in the area – the Bush Pub – some 14 kilometres up the river. According to Mark the whales come in droves between May and November and are so plentiful that they are like “mobile reefs” – just off the point there were over 200 Southern Right Whales with 60 calves last year. Paul Garratt who engenders a friendly, family atmosphere runs the Lodge and he has ambitious plans to develop a conservation centre.
Breede River Lodge, PO Box 27, Witsand 6666, Western Cape, South Africa. Telephone: +2728 5371631; www.breederiverlodge.co.za; email: email@example.com
La Marine by NC
The former fishing town of Hermanus in the Western Cape is renowned for whale watching with Walker Bay boasting some of the best views of the Southern Right Whale during the calving season from July to November. We visited out of the whale-watching season and found it has much to offer by way of more land-based charms. The area is home to some acclaimed South African vineyards including Bouchard Finlayson and Hamilton Russell (both with tasting rooms). We stayed at the Marine – another of Liz McGrath’s exceptional hotels. This one hundred year old landmark’s cliff-top location offers stunning ocean views and the rooms are well appointed and individually designed. The genteel atmosphere extends to the public areas with a heated outdoor swimming pool in a secluded inner courtyard. The beauty spa offers a wide variety of pampering experiences and with the town of Hermanus on the doorstep, there is plenty by way of retail therapy. The Marine is reminiscent of an era of English seaside elegance (but with better weather) with its pristine white façade and impeccable service – our mucky car was returned valeted inside and out.
The hotel has two restaurants – the better of the two is undoubtedly the more contemporary Seafood at the Marine. The menu features staples such as fish cakes, ‘rich man’s fish and chips’, oysters and a variety of fresh line fish with more than a hint of Asian influence – Malay seafood curry, tandoori spices, chilli jam and wok vegetables. Desserts include the traditional Malva pudding served with buttermilk ice cream.
The Marine Hermanus, Marine Drive, Box 9, Hermanus, 7200, South Africa. Telephone: + (27)(28) 3131000; email: firstname.lastname@example.org; web: www.marine-hermanus.com
Franshhoek – a Gem set in a ring of mountains
Nestling in the mountains in the Cape winelands lies Franschoek, a stunningly beautiful town which is at the heart of the region’s food and wine industry. Franchhoek owes its name to the French Huguenots who arrived there in 1686 (translated means French Corner) and their influence is still apparent today. The steep drive down into the valley affords a breathtaking vista of the vineyards and the pretty town which is perhaps the culinary capital of South Africa. Here are some of the highlights we found…
La Couronne by NC
Perched on a hilltop overlooking the valley, La Couronne certainly has the best view in Franschoek. With a dramatic backdrop of mountains and a stunning vista of vineyards (owned by its sister company Mont Rochelle ) in front it is no wonder it is so popular. The bedrooms are tastefully furnished – all with equally wonderful views and diplomatically named after various wine varietals (rather than the more obvious – superior, deluxe and executive labels often used), and the toiletries are similarly themed so you get to bathe and shower in Merlot, Cabernet, and Shiraz! The hotel boasts a healthy lunch and dinner clientele and the Swiss chef, Roger Clement, works hard to keep the menu interesting. The Degustation Menu for dinner offers five courses paired with different wines. And while the food was more traditional that we would have hoped it was well presented and planned. We romped through some interesting wines over the course of the meal– the Mont Rochelle Alchemy 2002 and the Beaumont Chenin Blanc being the more drinkable although the Graham Beck Rhona Muscadel N/V was a pleasant accompaniment to the apple tartatin.
Although it’s a drive away from the main thoroughfare of Franshhoek, La Couronne’s beautiful location sets it apart from some of the other high-end hotels.
La Couronne, Dassenberg Road, Franshhoek, Cape Winelands, South Africa. Telephone +27 21 876 3000; web: www.montrochelle.co.za; email: email@example.com.
Reuben’s Restaurant by NC
The new kid on the bloc in South Africa’s culinary scene is definitely Reuben Riffel who scooped the Restaurant of the Year and the Chef of the Year in the 2004 Eat Out/Johnnie Walker Restaurant Awards. Reuben’s is situated opposite Le Quartier Francais in Franshhoek (a tough competitor in the dining stakes) and amazingly has only been opened eight months. Nonetheless this young entrepreneurial chef has carved out a definite niche and is rapidly building a reputation for imaginative cooking. The interesting twist to the Reuben story is that he’s a local boy who was lured home from England by Boekenhoutskloof’s Marc Kent and Vinimark’s Tim Rands – who backed the venture. The dinner menu is split between contemporary and classic choices and diners can enquire about the chef’s table where up to 10 people can enjoy a special meal served in the kitchen. Classic dishes include salmon trout fish cakes with poached organic egg, watercress and lime butter or grilled Indian prawns with chilli, garlic and wild rice. On the contemporary side there is pan-seared Karoo lamb loin chops with roasted fennel, sweetcorn and capsicum and tandoori lazed Franschhoek salmon trout with raita and Moroccan couscous. The front of house team is led by Reuben’s partner the ever attentive Mareika. Pre-dinner drinks were served in the funky Gooney Bar – which is actually the wing of an aeroplane (a triumph of form over function!). Being a lovely mellow Saturday evening we chose to dine outside in a Mediterranean-style courtyard strewn with white fairy lights, tables sheltered beneath the canopy of an ancient tree. In addition to the menu there were at least eight specials chalked up on the blackboard and diligently described to us by our waiter. A mix of Latino and Jazz played in the background just below the hum of diners (young and cosmopolitan). If the food is part of the allure of Reuben’s then so too is the décor. The dining room is a large high ceilinged space with an imposing Warhol-esque painting of tomato soup can – with a ‘Reuben’ label – the opposite wall has Reuben’s looping signature – large and unmissable. The claim is that this is the first signature restaurant in the Winelands and its obvious that this is Reuben Riffel’s place and he’s staking his name on it.
The other half, true to form, enjoyed what he described, as “the best carpaccio in the southern hemisphere” – meltingly wafer thin with strong shavings of Parmesan and fresh rocket. I enjoyed a classic Moules Meuniere with large fresh mussels drowned in a rich creamy sauce. To follow, himself had pan-fried liver with roasted apple, fried spinach and red onion – which he described as smooth and tender served with a great simple gravy with cloudy white mash – no lumps or bumps – perfect consistency – he was in heaven. Me, I went for grilled rib eye of beef from the classic menu – a great lean and flavoursome cut sourced fresh from Pretoria – it was served with béarnaise and French fries (done beautifully – very classic). We shared a dessert – an interesting strawberry and mascarpone pancake with Turkish delight ice cream – yum.
As this was a special night – our last – we treated ourselves to the acclaimed 2001 Boekenhoutskloof Syrah – an amazing Shiraz – elegant, deep red and spicy – a perfect treat.
Reuben’s, No 19 Huguenot Road, Oude Stallen Centre, Franshhoek, 7690. Telephone +27 21 876 3772 (booking ahead advised)
Le Quartier Francais by NC
Franchhoek ‘s acclaimed dining establishment, Le Quartier Francais, is often described as a restaurant with rooms. Fans of Le Quartier will be delighted to learn that this much-loved haunt has been thoroughly refurbished in the past year by the irrepressible Susan Huxter. No stranger to awards (over 20 national and international accolades in the last three years) Le Quartier Francais scooped the Best Small Hotel award for 2005 at the Tatler Abercrombie & Kent Travel Guide Awards at the Ritz in London last December – so the new look has certainly paid off. Susan Huxter has owned Le Quartier for over 15 years and she presides over an all women management team. Chef Margot Janse, herself a consistent award winner, was voted top chef in South Africa in 2003.
Le Quartier has an enviable location – right on the main thoroughfare in Franchhoek. Once inside, however, it’s a haven of peace and tranquillity. As you wander through the beautifully maintained gardens its hard to imagine the bustling street outside. There are seventeen suites all of which are individually decorated – and even a whole house with its own private swimming pool. There is also a private theatre which can be used to beam in the sports from around the world or watch a DVD with a crowd of friends. The clientele here is mixed ranging from romantic couples to the corporate crowd. Despite its reputation it has a very easy and relaxed atmosphere. We dropped in for Sunday lunch at the “Ici” Brasserie and were delighted by both the friendliness and service of the staff as well as the quality of the food.
Le Quartier Francais, 16 Huguenot Road, Franschhoek
Tel: +27 21 876 2151 Fax: +27 21 876 3105 email:firstname.lastname@example.org website: www.lqf.co.za
Boekenhoutsklouf – a growing force
There is a small but growing cult of devotees centred on an old settler farmhouse in the South African wineland town of Franschoek. Among its number are Bob Geldof, Bono and me. By Richard Hannaford
In a corner of the immense and fabulous valley that is Franschoek, lies an old settler farmstead. Originally built by the Hugenot refugees, fleeing French religious persecution in the sixteenth century, its whitewashed walls, thatched roof and green shutters have been extended and modernised by succeeding generations.
In the early nineties, however, it lay rundown and dilapidated until a group of investors decided to buy it and turn it back into a working vineyard. Old orchards were grubbed up, new vineyards of Merlot, Syrah and Viognier were established. The buildings were repaired and the old cellar was modernised. A new tasting room was added. And with more than a nod of appreciation to those original Frenchmen and women who brought their viticulture skills to the valley, they built a new boule court. But perhaps the best decision the new owners made was to bring in Marc Kent as their cellar man.
“I just love what I’m doing” says Kent. And why wouldn’t he? Born in Natal, originally he wanted to be a pilot in the South African airforce. But fortunately for the wine industry, the service suspended its recruitment drive and he found himself looking for a new career.
While he was still casting around for something to do, he did a stint in a restaurant in the Cape. It was there that his he met Gerald Ludwinski – a restaurateur, sommelier, and the man who inspired Marc with a love of fine wines. “Before I met Gerald I had little experience of wine – in fact in our house we never drank wine. Within a year I had tasted all the first growths” says Marc.
His passion grew and was cultivated by friends Walter and Jill Finlayson at the Glen Carlou vineyard near Paarl. He went off to learn all he could about winemaking and viticulture at Elsenburg College. He’d only just graduated when he landed the job at Boekenhoutsklouf.
“It was really my first job in wine producing” he says, “and the guys gave me carte blanche to run the cellar” That was back in 1995 and since then the wisdom of that decision has become more apparent. The wines they’re producing are now compared to the best in the world. The 2005 Platter guide gave the 02 Shiraz five stars – “an extraordinary fifth such award for this classy cellar”.
In fact the vineyard has three labels. The highly drinkable and less formal Wolf’s Trap and Porcupine Ridge marques (Porcupine Ridge is available here at Superquinn’s) make up roughly ninety five per cent of their production. The last five per cent is devoted to the elegant and frankly experimental Boekenhoutsklouf label.
The growth of the business has been astonishing. In 1996, their first year, the cellar produced 6000 bottles. By 2004 that figure had risen to 1.3 million. And for a small producer they have already succeeded in gaining export markets in Sweden, the UK and the US. How Marc and his colleagues have done that is an object lesson in business and winemaking.
At first they had to wait for their own vines to become established and fruit. While that was happening they began to make the Porcupine Ridge wines that are more value for money and less formal. That meant sourcing their grapes from other farms and ensuring they got the best. But outsourcing from other fields meant Marc could experiment with different varieties and terroirs. He’s a great believer in knowing the classics. “You can’t make good wines if you don’t know tasting” he says. “We’re not looking to make a blockbuster – something that will jump out of the bottle and hit you in the nose. We’re trying to make wine that is food friendly.”
The first reds were an immediate success. In 1997 the Syrah was given four stars by one wine panel, while the John Platter Guide described it as “superlative, a Cape classic”. Next year the Cabernet Sauvignon had the critics in raptures. Since then each new vintage has been greeted with delight. Even the less formal 2002 Porcupine Ridge Syrah has been awarded four stars by Platter’s experts.
And it’s not just in South Africa that the fame of Boekenhoutsklouf is growing. Earlier this year Bono and Bob Geldof were in South Africa to celebrate with Nelson Mandela ten years of that country’s democracy. While in Franschoek they made a special trip to the vineyard spending a few hours chatting to Marc and sampling the vintages. For Marc this was a very special moment “I’ve now got a couple of bottles signed by these guys”
In fact this year is a turning point for the vineyard. Their vines are now ten years old and are starting to mature. This year’s grapes will mostly come from their own fields. And to ensure continuity they have grown cuttings from the fields were they sourced their original grapes. “I want to make classic stuff and to do that you need to take a very traditional approach.” Says Marc. And to do that he regularly visits the Rhone in France. “ I’m very influenced by French wine making” he says, “for instance we only use French oak for our barrels, and only old oak for our syrah”. He’s a great believer in the power of oak. “Oak is a vehicle for slow oxidation and it’s a way to protect the integrity of the grape. ”
Unusually Marc can call on a great deal of marketing expertise from his co directors. Most have an advertising or commerical background. In fact the idea for the name of the Porcupine Ridge brand came from fellow director Tim Rands who came across a dead porcupine on the property. The design of the Boekenhoutsklouf logo is also a clever piece of marketing. Each label has a line drawing of seven chairs – a reference to the old furniture making days of the homestead and the fact that the company has seven directors. “I don’t like all those Christmas tree labels” says Marc with an implicit reference to some of those other new world offerings of which he is less than impressed.
And then of course there is the Chocolate Block. This wine took the South African wine world by storm back in 2002. A shiraz based vintage blended with grenache, cinsaut, cabernet and viognier it is the epitome of what Marc Kent is all about: experimentation and daring. “I get calls every day from restaurants begging for more bottles – but we only made a small supply and can only let buyers have twenty five bottles max” he says.
Its now ten years since Marc Kent joined the Bokenehoutsklouf band. Nowadays he is a well-known name in the South African wine industry, but it won’t be long before the rest of the wine world knows him and his wines as well.
Dessert Wines – A sweet success
As Richard Hannaford reports, from Vin de Constantia to Ratafia, there is a sweet wine with a rich history for every course and occasion…
When it comes to wines, those that go with the end of the meal are often the least appreciated. In fact they are not so much an afterthought as not thought of at all. And yet that is to miss out on some great experiences. And in South Africa gourmands and connoisseurs have for some time had a rich variety of dessert wines to match or even replace their final courses. But these wines not only complement those of us who love our puddings, many of them have a rich and complex history to bout. Here are six we enjoyed…
Graham Beck Rhona Muscatel 1996
Graham Beck is perhaps best known as the producer of such fine wines as the Cornerstone Cabernet Sauvignon , the Ridge Syrah and the highly quoffable Blanc de Blanc. But it also makes a delightful Muscatel. In fact Graham Beck encorporates two wineries one in Franschoek and the other from Robertson, in the Breederiver Valley area. This vintage comes from the latter’s farmstead where they produce 100% Muscat de Frontignan from 22-year-old vineyards. The grapes are lightly crushed, destalked and left on the skins for natural enzymatic fermentation. After 3 days the wild fermentation is stopped with the addition of neutral grape spirits. It then rests in a stainless steel tank for 1 year for the spirits and grape flavour to integrate. The result is a rich straw colour with delicate orange rind flavours. This is a big wine full of marmalade and mandarins and a very rich and heavy finish which would complement any sugary pastry dish.
De Trafford Vin de Paille 2002
Also known as Straw Wine, this is a delightful find. And we’re told the 2003, is even better. De Trafford is a well known producer from Stellenbosch who has gained accolades for their “au naturel“ approach to viniculture. This wine is described as a dessert all on its own – a real treat after a meal. And it is true. Made from air dreid chenin grapes we found its high sweet lemons and apricots, mixed with honey and roast almonds very compelling. It has a deep yellow colour and had a surprising delicacy which did not overpower. An ideal companion to a vanilla based dessert.
Klein Constantia Estate Vin de Constance 1997
This is a wine not only with real power and taste, it has a rich and illustrious history. It was first made in 1685 when the Cape Colony began its first wine production. By the 19th Century it had swept Europe with prime ministers and Emperors declaring it their favourite. Napolean in his windy exile on St Helena would drink nothing but. However the dread disease phylloxera arrived at the Cape, and wiped out the vineyard. This estate has resurrected this old classic. It has fine yellow golden hues and a remarkable delicacy which grows into a smooth and luscious honey dew. A complex wine with a long lingering finish.
Nederburg Noble Late Harvest 1997
Nederburg has been growing in reputation and authority for some years now. Based in Paarl this producer has won so many awards, and has so many star wines in its stable, that it seems almost embarrassing to single out just one. However the 1997 Noble Late Harvest was a clear delight – even against the Vin de Constance. A mix of chenin blanc, Rielsing and Semillion, its lightly yellowed colour and its thick consistency were complemented by its honey comb and mandarin tastes. There even were hints of light brown toffee, and whiskey from the glass. The finish was elegant and long and left us wanting more. Ideal, we think, with peaches or other tropical flavours, or indeed just on its own.
Pierre Jourdan Ratafia NV
This is another wine with history. Originally made in France it was brought over to South Africa by the refugee Hugenots. It is said that each time a treaty was signed this wine was drunk, hence the name. As you would expect the roots of this wine are in France from the champagne region where traditionally brandy is added to pinot noir grape juice. In this case the wine comes from Franschoek (trans: french corner) and the Haute Cabrière and Pierre Jourdan estate. And here the fruit is more likely to be merlot or a cabernet varietal. It has a warm golden colour, thick and sticky – think golden treacle – with aromas of vanilla, peach and apricots. The brandy is immediately apparent and hits the middle of the tongue. The aftertaste is long with a clean fruity finish. This is not so much a dessert wine as a fortified one, which would go as well with foie gras as a cheese platter.
Labourie Cellar Pineau 1996
Although bought by the KWV corporation some thirty odd years ago, Laborie in Paarl is another vineyard which traces its roots back to the French Hugenots more than three hundred year ago. Pineau de Laborie is a fortified wine made, uniquely, with Pinotage brandy. Softer than Port, it is a semi-sweet wine, dark in colour and almost Madiera-like. It is opulent and luxurious, with tastes of brandied plums but with a zip that keeps from cloying the palate. Definitely one for the cheese board.