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South Africa's Farm-to-Table Movement

White stucco landhuisies at Babylonstoren.

Photo: DOOK

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.”

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