I quickly learn that South Africa is really a beautiful country of contrasts and surprises. I have to admit that I didn't know what to expect when I first visited but I'm excited to see more. Heading to the Franschhoek and Stellenboch, the pristinely beautiful vineyard area where most of South Africa's wine is produced, we pass the notorious shanty towns where 3 million people still reside. The ramshackle, colourful buildings don't hide the sadness and are a reminder of South Africa's controversial past.
The wine country of Stellenbosch is the second oldest city in South Africa after Cape Town. It produces most of the wine in South Africa in wine varieties like chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Shiraz, Merlot and Pinotage, a hybrid of Pinot Noir and Hermitage and is said to be South Africa's signature varietal.
We visit Angus McIntosh a former Goldman Sachs London based stockbroker turned free range farmer. His farm, which he leases from his in laws started three years ago. On the farm, he farms cattle and incredibly, is one of the only two farms in South Africa that farm grass fed beef. He uses high density grazing methods. They have nine breeds of cattle including Hereford and Black Angus.
The regulations in South Africa mean that they must slaughter their cattle under two years so they are about 280 kilos at the time. Chef Neil Perry points out how healthy these cattle look in comparison to grain fed cattle which are so overweight that they can barely move.
They also have mobile chicken coops where the hens are truly free range. There are threat of foxes but for the most part this isn't a huge issue as the hens are locked up at night and the foxes and other threats dislike open plains which is where they keep these mobile coops. The hens are moved once every two days, any longer and the hens would lay eggs in the pasture and consider it home whereas they want them to lay the eggs in the coop. The fertiliser from the chickens would also burn the ground.
As we approach, the chickens come in droves to greet us (and they love giving you a little hello by pecking your shoes!). The 2,500 hens were chosen because they tolerate the hot summer weather well. There is no need to clip the beaks of the birds as they roam free and this is usually a preventative measure to prevent cannibalism which is a concern with caged hens due to the small living conditions.
Angus breaks a freshly laid egg and Neil marvels at the strong albumen in the egg. Angus sells directly to buyers through his farmgate and the delivery is made direct to the customers. "The problem for the farmers is that there are too many middle men" he says.
Leaving Angus's farm, we drive past pretty wildflowers and sublime views of the Simonsberg Mountain. These pave the way to Franschhoek which means "French Corner" in Dutch. When the French Huguenots first arrived in South Africa in 1694 and founded the town, they were allowed to stay but only one provision: the Dutch told them that they couldn't practice their language or religion. And with that one condition, the French language died in the area within a hundred years and although there are countless shops and streets with French names, the language has disappeared.
Franschhoek is a darling little town and well worth a stay and you could while away the hours shopping and eating. The restaurant Le Quartier Français uses the meat and eggs from Angus's farm. Every single day, their award winning chef Margo Janse also cooks for 65 underprivileged children from the local community.
The Holden Manz collection gallery features South African artists work. There are some beautiful pieces and artist Karin Miller from Pretoria's pieces are absolutely covetable.
At Huguenot Chocolates, they make all chocolate on the premises using the Belgian Callebaut brand. They have flavours such as Amarula, vanilla truffle which is coated in crunchy nuts and has a gorgeous, heady vanilla filling, milk praline which is beautifully nutty and whole dates dipped in chocolate. At 28ZAR or $3.50AUD for 5 of them, they're a steal. Nearby is Masquerade which features chic homewares at surprisingly reasonable prices.
Our stop for lunch is Grand Provence which is part of the Huka Lodge family. The buildings are a great example of Cape Dutch architectural which is signified by shutters over the windows, thatched rooves and rounded gables. Financier owner Alex Van Heeren bases himself at Grand Provence 9 out of the 12 months a year. The grounds span 47 acres which also encompasses the vineyard.
Grand Provence has been making wine since 2005 using estate and bought in grapes and they also manufacture and export the Angel's Tears brand overseas. We try a range of their wine including their 2011 Sauvignon Blanc aged for one year in French oak. All of the wines are light with soft tannins so that they are very accessible. We also try their bestseller, a 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon; a fruit cakey Merlot with a long, lingering palate as well as the Grand Provence flagship wine which is aged for 4 years on new French oak and they recommend ageing this for about 10 years in a cellar.
Whistles wet, we walk across the lawn, past the intriguing sculpture garden and head to Jonkersuis. Built in 1702, Jonkersuis is the private dining building. It's a stunning room anchored by a crackling fireplace and two enormous bespoke chalendliers made of recycled wine bottles.
Talented Durban born chef Darren Badenhorst is 26 years old and on the serious side. His food reflects local produce and seasonal ingredients but with a French and Asian influence.
Our amuse bouche is a slender cup of spiced butternut veloute with mussel foam, sprinkled with cinnamon on top.
Teriyaki duck and wild mushroom broth with smokey prawn wonton
The teriyaki duck and wild mushroom broth is made of duck and langoustine broth and has texture from very finely diced vegetables including six types of mushrooms. The duxelle of mushroom in the centre and deeply flavoured broth give it that umami sensation which Neil also remarks on.
Porcini dusted beef fillet
The main course, a porcini dusted beef fillet uses a Botswana grass fed beef. It is complemented with onion marmalade, truffles pommes Anna which is crispy and buttery and king oyster mushrooms. To finish it off is a Cabernet Sauvignon jus and a hollandaise.
Grand Provence Diddle Daddle
The dessert is a take on a South African caramel popcorn childhood snack called the Diddle Daddle. On the right is a verrine with layers of popcorn, caramel foam and candied walnuts which is light and surprisingly, not as sweet as one would think. To the left are dabs of salted caramel with pieces of popcorn.
We adjourn to the owner's cottage for Neil and Darren to film a braai or barbecue which today features chicken, lamb, beef and sausages. Darren tells us that the key to the braai is in the marinade and on the chicken he uses a mix of peri peri and lemon, herb and green tea. And I have to remind myself that we have dinner in just a few hours! ;)
We take the short drive to La Residence, our home for that evening. The vision of owner Liz Biden who was a former teacher and apparel label owner turned luxury hotelier, it is quite a special place indeed from the moment you drive up. Set on 30 acres overlooking Franschhoek Valley, the privately owned five star hotel has been the home away from home to a host of celebrities. It is where Elton John stays when he visits the area and he was present at the opening. Formerly a plum orchard, the hotel was built a few years ago to look like a renovated French barn.
Each of the 11 suites is decorated in a completely different style drawing from Liz's travels, in styles from Baroque, Versailles, gothic, Indian and Asian. My suite, number 4 is the Disa Suite named after the rare Disa flower. It is a gloriously feminine suite where should Marie Antoinette have been born in British Raj era, she would have flocked to. Indeed modern day divas like Ivanka trump and Liz Hurley have stayed there. Ivanka selected the Disa suite out of all of the suites for her honeymoon.
Walking in the first thing that hits you is the heady smell of fresh irises. What would be a small fortune in fresh cut flower arrangements are actually grown on the grounds. The smell is irresistible and then the second thing that catches your breath are the colours. Fuschia pink and light green are the predominant colours from the Disa flower and there is a sumptuous four poster wooden king sized bed.
Persian rugs line the floor and there is temperature adjusted heated floors and air conditioning. There is a gorgeous working desk, a pink chaise lounge and table holding a bottle of champagne and fruit, the latter also grown on the premises. Looking up, there is a high vaulted ceiling from which two enormous Indian glass chandeliers are suspended high.
Walking through to the bathroom, which is as large as the bedroom, there are Venetian mirrored his and hers sinks. A free standing bath sits to the left of the room, right near the window which reveals views of the valley and the outdoor balcony and lounges (and chase any sort of time outside in the chill with a dip in a bath oil and salt laden deep tub).
A large shower stocked with amenities is on the right and adjacent to this is a darling little dressing room with a dressing table and antique mirror and comb. A toile box holds adapters and other odds and ends. There are a choice of robes, a luxurious lined robe and a silky kimono. There is free wireless internet available. Toiletries are by Charlotte Rhys and include soap, liquid soap, shampoo, conditioner, bath oil, bath salts, cotton buds and cotton tips.
The mini bar with a selection of teas (alas no earl Grey, sugar or sweetener) is complimentary with a good range of local products including African chocolates, a cheese plate, fudge, biltong, nuts and lollies along with soft drinks and beers.
I'm tempted by the bath and it's a toss up between doing work and relaxing in the bath. Work wins for the moment as we've been out of contact for a long time and I make plans to come back and sit in the bath after dinner. Downstairs, in the main room, a table is set and Executive Chef Lennard Marais comes out to explain the meal to us. Out the back is a herb garden and small vegetable farm from which they pick produce. The atmosphere is opulent decadence but with a down to earth touch, as if you were at a friend's grand home which is a tricky combination to get just right but they do here.
It has to be said that all of the staff at La Residence are wonderful and nothing is ever too much trouble. Everyone, from the dapper managing director Edward down is uniformly charming. We are told that when Elton John stayed here with his entourage, they created a cornucopian feast with platters of whole salmon and racks of lamb. Elton was the last to arrive to the table and when he was asked what he would like to eat, he requested baked beans on toast. There were no baked beans to be had in the kitchen so they went to a staff member's house to find some and reportedly, he enjoyed his baked beans on toast (one of the cheapest brands too they tell us! ;) ).
Roasted butternut and carrot, mushroom souffle
It was unseasonably cold that evening so I went for the soup choice to warm me up. It was a smooth roasted butternut and carrot soup with a small eggy mushroom souffle in the centre which warmed me up perfectly, along with the fireplace. And the house baked bread walnut and fruit bread, which reminds me of an Irish Soda bread is wonderful buttered.
Oven roasted rack of lamb, garlic creamed potato, young carrots, fine beans, salsa verde
I think the cool weather meant that everyone at the table went for the richness of lamb which came as three juicy cutlets topped with a salsa verde and mint sauce. The lamb is a Karoo lamb which lives in a semi desert area in the middle of South Africa. It feeds on herbs and this is said to impart a flavour on the lamb much like saltbush does to lamb in Australia.
Franschhoek Valley Cheese plate
The cheese trolley is rolled out and staff member Evan describes the cheeses which are all local cheeses from Fairview and Truckles. There are seven cheeses to choose from including a drunken pecorino which is washed in red wine, gouda, brie, gruyere, camembert, gorgonzola and a Dutch cheese called Boeren Kass. The Boerenkaas and gorgonzola are my favourites, particularly the Boerenkaas and Evan kindly offers to get some cumin Boerenkaas from the kitchen to try which is also fantastic.
With an early start and the bath in mind, I push my tasselled keychain into the door and run myself a bath. I take out the chocolates from Huguenot Chocolates and the champagne and soak in the perfumed water breathing in the scent of lillies. South Africa is a country that surprises and while it is wine country today, I prepare myself for the next day-on safari!
So tell me Dear Reader, do you buy cage or free range eggs and chicken? And if a hotel has a bath, do you take the time to have a bath?
NQN traveled to South Africa as a guest of South African Tourism
Tel: +27 (0)82 379 4391
Holden Manz Gallery
30 Huguenot Street in Franschhoek
62 Huguenot Street, Franschhoek 7690, South Africa
Tel: +27(0)21 876 4096
Grande Provence Estate
Main Road, Franschhoek, 7690 7690, South Africa
Tel: +27(0)21 876 8600
Corner Kruger and Huguenot Street, Franschhoek
Tel: +27(0)21 876 3944
Elandskloof Private Road | Elandskloof Farm, Franschhoek 7690, South Africa
Tel: +27 (0)21 876 4100