South Africa's Farm-to-Table Movement
Published: June 2011
By Douglas Rogers
In the Cape Winelands, a handful of inns and restaurants are shaping South Africa’s blossoming farm-to-table movement.
Consider, if you will, the vegetable garden. Every Afrikaner farm worth its salt has one—a testament to the white African tribe’s almost mythic love for the land—and there’s no reason why Babylonstoren, a handsome, 1692-built Cape Dutch homestead turned luxury hotel and working guest farm in the Franschhoek Valley of the Cape Winelands, should be any different. But this garden is on an altogether grander scale.
I’m sitting in the sleek kitchen of my suite, a modern glass cube attached to a traditional thatched-roof, 18th-century landhuisie (cottage), and I’m gazing out on eight acres of organic wonder: scented beds of thyme, rosemary, and wild garlic; a berry block with Cape gooseberries and mulberries; a pergola walk dripping with table grapes; an orchard of naartjies, nectarines, and grapefruit watered by a restored sluice system; even an apiary for honey. And vegetables, too—butternut and beets; rocket and radishes; peppers of impossibly bright hue. If it all looks meticulously landscaped, it is—by French designer Patrice Taravella, creator of the medieval monastery gardens at Prieuré Notre-Dame d’Orsan, in the Loire Valley. In the distance, clouds tumble over craggy peaks and vineyards stretch to emerald foothills, but it’s the garden that has me enchanted.
Best of all, it’s mine. In the ultimate farm-to-table fantasy, as a guest I get to walk its mazy paths, pick whatever herbs, fruits, and vegetables I fancy—there are some 300 edible varieties—and prepare them in my designer kitchen. And if I don’t fancy cooking? Well, I can just amble down the tractor-cut road outside my door to the farm’s restaurant, Babel. A milk-white, cement-floor room, it has a daily menu written on a tiled wall dominated by a giant ink print of a bull’s head—a pricey piece bought in Milan by Babylonstoren’s co-owner and designer Karen Roos. Why a bull? Well, this space used to be the cattle kraal, of course.
Twenty years ago, Franschhoek—Afrikaans for “French corner,” named for Huguenot refugees granted land here in the 1680’s—was a beautiful, though somnolent, farming backwater. In the mid 1990’s, as South Africa emerged from the isolation of apartheid, trendsetting pioneers arrived to open inns, wineries, and restaurants. A decade later the valley had been transformed into an African Provence (in a Switzerland-like setting), a hub for great food and wine and stylish living. Its top properties, Le Quartier Français and La Residence, and restaurants such as Reuben’s Restaurant & Bar, became destinations in their own right. In the past year, though, a slate of glamorous hotels and restaurants, with Babylonstoren at the forefront, have been upping the ante, embracing a confident new South African style that reflects the region’s past as much as the future.
Only a few years ago, the idea that a chic South African hotel could be a celebration of Afrikaner style and culture—let alone farm living—would have been unthinkable. But a generation since the end of apartheid, liberated from the guilt of the past, a wave of creative Afrikaners are forging a fresh identity. Afrikaans musicians are all over South Africa’s airwaves and beyond, and Afrikaans authors far outsell their English counterparts. Babylonstoren is the design equivalent of this cultural resurgence.
“When apartheid was at its most stolid, it was yech to be Afrikaans,” says Roos, an iconic fiftysomething style consultant and former fashion magazine editor. “Now with moral respectability has come a certain coolness.”
Roos and her husband, Koos Bekker, a multimillionaire Afrikaner media mogul, both grew up on farms and (as busy businesspeople often do) wanted a rural retreat. They bought the 590-acre property—one of the oldest and best-preserved Cape Dutch–style estates—in 2007 and opened it to guests last December. “One endearing trait about Afrikaners is a genuine love of the land,” Roos says. “Culturally, the idea of heaven for us has always been a piece of land of our own, even if it means having to scratch to make a living.”
What Roos has done at Babylonstoren is to merge its authentic, no-frills earthiness with contemporary design to create a sort of “haute Afrikaner” style. Take the check-in area opposite the restaurant. No farmer would require his guests to “sign in,” so the reception is modeled instead on a traditional farm store. There are computers here, but they sit on weathered tables hidden behind artfully placed mounds of fresh-picked beets and lettuce; there are shelves with mud boots and sun hats for sale, but these boots have designer labels, and the hats are stylish fedoras. This playful embracing and defying of tradition continues outside. You won’t find a shimmering blue swimming pool on the property—what farm has that?—so guests cool off in the farm’s reservoir. But this reservoir, as rendered by Roos, has water cascading over the edge, infinity-style, and is lined with chic lounge chairs. Nothing has been left to chance.
Beside the gabled manor house, accommodations are in 14 stand-alone landhuisies—all missionary-white stucco, set under the shade of pepper trees. The interiors, with their white sofas and rugs, claw-foot tubs, and four-poster beds, manage to combine the austerity of a traditional Boer farmstead with the cool minimalism of Philippe Starck. Even here, authenticity rules: each cottage has a library of some 50 books handpicked by Bekker, most in Afrikaans.
The garden, though, remains the centerpiece. Roos gave Taravella license to re-create the geometry of the original Company’s Garden established at the Cape by the Dutch in 1652 to supply fresh produce to their ships sailing between Europe and the Spice Route—the reason for the first Dutch landing at the Cape. To the formal rectangular layout of the garden with its 14 distinct blocks Taravella added his own flourishes: that avenue of dripping grapevines, pollination plants for the apiary, a lotus pond, and a series of pyramid-shaped towers draped in roses. If the history of the Afrikaner people can be traced back to the planting of a single garden, this is a glorious contemporary tribute.
Less than 10 miles from Babylonstoren, another tribute to Afrikaner heritage has gone up, this one at La Motte, a 420-acre wine estate owned by opera singer Hanneli Rupert-Koegelenberg. The sister of Johann Rupert, billionaire CEO of Swiss-based luxury goods company Richemont (owner of Cartier, Piaget, Chloé, and other brands), Rupert-Koegelenberg is effectively Afrikaner royalty. (In 2005, Johann famously withdrew advertising of his brands from Wallpaper magazine after it ran an article describing Afrikaans as one of the ugliest languages in the world.) The family owns three wine estates in the valley, one in partnership with the Rothschilds, but La Motte has the most interesting aesthetic, especially since Rupert-Koegelenberg unveiled a new museum and restaurant on it in 2010.
Set in rolling foothills near Franschhoek village, the estate’s approach is memorable for its 13-foot-tall bronze sculpture of a woman bearing an overflowing glass of wine; rising out of the vines, against a sheer mountain backdrop, it’s a dramatic sight. The museum and restaurant, surrounded by lawns and giant oaks, are both dedicated to South African master painter Jacob H. Pierneef, who was of Dutch and Afrikaner descent. Revered in his 1930’s heyday, Pierneef’s monumental South African landscapes—formal, flat, drained of color—had faded from fashion over the years. But in keeping with the current Afrikaner vogue, his work is poised to make a comeback. With fine timing, Rupert-Koegelenberg purchased 42 of Pierneef’s paintings for display in a glass-walled museum that faces the lawn.
Pierneef is also the inspiration for the estate’s new restaurant, Pierneef à La Motte, a sprawling space in muted green and cream tones that recall his dramatic landscapes. The menus and high-backed chairs are all embossed with portraits of Pierneef and his daughter. Hanging from barnlike ceiling beams are giant chandeliers made from replicas of porcelain dating from the Dutch East India Company era. The vintage plates, cups, and saucers chime like church bells when a breeze blows through.
In a state-of-the-art open-plan kitchen at the entrance, chef Chris Erasmus executes modern twists on traditional Boerekos—Boer food that dates back 350 years. Indeed, just as Taravella was inspired by the Company’s Garden, Erasmus spent months sifting through settlers’ diaries, cookbooks, letters, and manuscripts, finding original recipes and ingredients that had been lost over time. The result is extraordinary: a menu that’s a culinary archive of a people. A saffron fish curry recalls the food of the Malay slaves shipped to the Cape; a Huguenot fish pie was a favorite of those 17th-century refugees; and meaty dishes such as pomegranate-glazed pork belly and braised veal knuckle reflect the Dutch, German, and Flemish roots of Afrikaner food. “You can’t eat history, but you can be inspired by it,” Erasmus says.
At around the same time Babylonstoren and La Motte were opening, another property was unveiled in the area: Delaire Graff Lodges & Spa, a 55-acre estate located on the crest of Helshoogte Pass, a soaring mountain traverse that links Franschhoek with the more commercial wine and farming region of Stellenbosch. At first glance, the estate seems like a cosmopolitan mash-up. Billionaire British diamond jeweler and art collector Laurence Graff bought the estate in 2003 and spent six years building Delaire, hiring celebrated London designer David Collins (of Blue Bar at the Berkeley Hotel fame) to do the interiors. There are 10 lodge suites on the western flank of the property, each with an infinity plunge pool and a timber deck overlooking the Winelands. Stunning though they are, there’s nothing particularly South African about the suites’ aesthetic. Indeed, the estate’s Indochine restaurant indicates a certain Eastern sensibility at work.
But at its heart, the property is as grounded in the Winelands as those earthy Afrikaner properties in the valley below. The main restaurant-winery, at the end of the long, oak-shaded drive, has giant wooden doors that swing open onto a soaring reception area backed by the glass walls of a winery holding two floors of stainless-steel vats and oak barrels. Underfoot is a smooth, dimpled floor made of peach pips and red resin—a contemporary take on the peach-pip, cow-dung, and oxblood floors once used in Cape Afrikaner homes. The restaurant is a mirrored space with orange banquettes that recalls a New York City supper club, but the walls are lined with paintings by South African artists, among them a stunning William Kentridge portrait that’s as imposing as that bull at Babylonstoren.
The menu combines modern with traditional as well: a quail with zucchini and sun-dried olives has been roasted, old Cape style, in a wood-fired oven, and a grilled squid and prawn entrée is paired with a ragoût of white beans and bokkom—dried, salted sardines, which are a delicacy in the area. When I ask where my quail comes from, I’m directed to a farm in the valley; the oysters and mussels were harvested from Cape waters. As for the vegetables, they are very local: from Delaire Graff’s own garden. These days, it’s not just self-respecting Afrikaner farms that need vegetable patches. It seems any new property in the Winelands requires one.
Douglas Rogers is the author of The Last Resort: A Memoir of Zimbabwe.
Le Quartier Français Chic country inn beloved for its 21 individually designed rooms and its restaurant, the Tasting Room. 16 Huguenot Rd., Franschhoek; 27-21/876-2151; lqf.co.za; doubles from $436, including breakfast.
Great Value Plumwood Inn Guesthouse Relaxed rooms in a central location. 11 Cabriere St., Franschhoek; 27-21/876-3883; plumwoodinn.com; doubles from $82.
Fairview Wine & Cheese Beloved farm with a restaurant, winery, tasting room, and cheese shop. Suid-Agter-Paarl Rd., Paarl; 27-21/863-2450; fairview.co.za; lunch for two $40.
Pierneef à La Motte La Motte Wine Estate, R45, Franschhoekweg, Franschhoek; 27-21/876-8800; lunch for two $54.
Reuben’s Restaurant & Bar Spicy interpretations of the Cape Malay food chef Reuben Riffel grew up with. 19 Huguenot Rd., Franschhoek; 27-21/876-3772; dinner for two $75.
Stellenbosch Fresh Goods Market Produce and baked goods (try the melktert, or milk tart), as well as locally made wines. Oude Libertas, Annandale Rd., Stellenbosch; Saturdays, 9 a.m.–2 p.m.
Tasting Room Le Quartier Français, 16 Huguenot Rd., Franschhoek; 27-21/876-2151; dinner for two $186.
Tokara Restaurant Chef Richard Carstens pairs excellent dishes with wines from Tokara’s own vineyards. Helshoogte Pass, Stellenbosch; 27-21/885-2550; dinner for two $74.
Dombeya Enological rising star Rianie Strydom marries classic techniques and a philanthropic spirit. Annandale Rd., Stellenbosch; 27-21/881-3895; dombeyawines.com.
Ernie Els Wines Notable big reds with views to match, courtesy of South Africa’s preeminent golf star. Annandale Rd., Stellenbosch; 27-21/881-3588; ernieelswines.com.
Haut Espoir The full-bodied red blends of winemaker Nikey Van Zyl are as dramatic as the geography around his estate. Excelsior Rd., Franschhoek; 27-21/876-4000; hautespoir.com.
Thelema Mountain Vineyards Try its curious Cabernet, The Mint, which borrows notes from nearby eucalyptus trees. Helshoogte Pass, R310, Stellenbosch; 27-21/885-1924; thelema.co.za.
Villiera Wines Pioneer of the local Cap Classique tradition of sparkling wine. Stellenbosch; 27-21/865-2002; villiera.com.
Waterford Wine Estate Known for its Shiraz, Cabernet, and sweet whites. Blaauwklippen Rd., Stellenbosch; 27-21/880-0496; waterfordestate.za.
Welbedacht Wine Estate–Schalk Burger & Sons Award-winning Pinotages and velvety red blends on an estate 30 miles east of Franschhoek. Oakdene Rd., Wellington; 27-21/873-1877; schalkburgerandsons.co.za.