A recent trip around the country took Father out of his
comfort zone. The first overnight stop was Upington, after a journey that might
have been improved had we travelled in the new Mercedes G63 AMG 6×6 – some of
the provincial roads in the North West province are not dissimilar to the
designated 4×4 trails we later encountered in the Western Cape.
What’s impressive about Upington is the extent of the
wine growing area and the scale of the Orange River Cellars operation. But what
the town has yet to appreciate is the allure of the combination of wine and
food perfected by the Western Cape.
Choices for dinner, we were advised, were the Dros and an
establishment with the delightful name of Bilo. The name Bilo, or so we were
told, is derived from an American retail chain, and presumably reflects a
corporate mission statement to the effect that one could buy low here, whatever
that might mean. Nothing was said about selling high.
The décor had a touch of authenticity – tables in the
outdoor area were thoughtfully protected from the Kalahari sun by what appeared
to canopies fashioned from the base of a galvanized iron water tank, with
agricultural and industrial memorabilia tastefully scattered about. We were
spared these objects d’art and given a table inside, with a view onto the open
Some restaurants (Jordan in Stellenbosch springs to mind)
inspire confidence by the uninterrupted view of a well-disciplined brigade at
work. Bilo is not one of them. The view was one of a failed division of labour,
and worse. The Little Woman swears that she saw the grill chef drop a piece of steak,
pick it up from the floor and return it to the grill in a single, deft
movement. The advantage of the open-plan kitchen, of course, was the knowledge
that the aforesaid steak was destined for someone else’s plate.
The Cedarberg Heritage trails offer a unique package – a
hike through what must be some of the country’s finest mountain scenery, with
overnight accommodation provided by the communities of remotely situated
Moravian villages. The trade-off is obvious and noble; hungry and weary hikers
are fed and watered by the local people, who are paid a cut of the income
generated by the trail.
First stop was Langkloof, a village of about 25 families,
situated at the end of a spectacular valley and accessible only by a North West
province type road. Here, 79-year-old Oom Kosie and his wife welcomed us to
their home where dinner was later served.
Authenticity is the key word here – fried chicken,
stoofboentjies, rice, roast potatoes and pumpkin- all sourced from the
subsistence existence that is the community’s way of life, as it has no doubt
has been for decades. Dessert was a baked pudding, accompanied by a massive
bowl of custard.
What struck me about our meal (and those that followed it
over the course of the long weekend), was not only the sense of humility one
inevitably feels at the generosity of those sharing the little that a deprived
community like Langkloof has at its disposal, it was the obvious pride with
which the food was prepared and served.
For me, this was a rare encounter with culture and
authenticity in the sense of truth to origins and to oneself, expressed through
food. The breakfast and packed lunch for the next day’s hike were no different.
They stood in stark contrast with the breakfast pack prepared by the
Clanwilliam Lodge on the first morning of the hike, an assembly of chips,
chocolates and an admittedly good muffin, all of which were no more authentic
than a party pack prepared as a takeaway for a kiddies’ birthday party.
An overnight stop in Swellendam found us at Powell House Restaurant, an
establishment run by Glaswegian Alan Caw, who has worked in the hospitality
trade in South Africa for some years. The menu showcased traditional South
African cuisine, including curries, bobotie, malva pudding and souskleitjies.
In other words, authenticity in the sense of truth to origins.
The fare was clearly appreciated by the German tourists in the restaurant,
who insisted on the recipe for the Malva pudding. The food was good, the
service excellent and the prices more than reasonable, but what impressed most
was the low mark-up on the wines. I had bought a bottle of Riebeek Shiraz in
Riebeek Kasteel the same morning at a cellar price of some R10 less than what
Caw was asking. His philosophy is clearly sell low and move the stock. who’s to
A mention in despatches must go to Grand Café Robertson, on Route
62, run by Simon and Wendy Bernstein. An impromptu stop for lunch was rewarded
by a fine trout salad and chicken pie made with the freshest ingredients, good
coffee and retro-look décor. The service, like the food, was faultless. It’s
the kind of place that for many has no doubt become a destination venue.
(Rumour has it that the scones and clotted cream are unsurpassed.)
Authenticity is a contested concept, and no one would seriously contend that
food must necessarily be authentic to be good. But there is something about
food which is an integral element of identity that sets it apart from the rest.