(image: Bertus Basson Facebook)
Of the myriad food trends that besiege us from season to season, few are quite as divisive, I’d venture, as the small plate, or in its more socialist form, the sharing plate. Its champions extol the virtues of variety, and the added engagement it brings to the communal act of eating together, while detractors will decry the high prices such plates frequently demand, and annoyance of finding a dish you adore, only to have the rest of the table pile in and demolish it. It’s a trend that’s not new, certainly, as anyone who’s spent more than a few minutes in Spain over the last seven or eight hundred years will tell you – but as contemporary food approach, it’s risen, stumbled, and is now wobbling along with various degrees of certainty.
I’m mostly in the sharing camp, based on little more than the scope it gives me to explore more of a menu – nothing evokes self-pity in a restaurant like food envy, and I recall watching the arrival of many orders far lovelier than mine with bitter clarity. You risk over-ordering (my first visit to the old Fork in Long Street many, many years ago), and you risk an almighty bill (I suspect much of Eskom’s debt stems from a Christmas lunch at Haiku), but the reward can be immense – particularly if you find yourself at Bertus Basson’s Spek and Bone in Stellenbosch.
You might have seen Bertus at one of his assorted restaurants – the famed Overture, perhaps, or the excellent Eike From the magnificent beard to the tattoos, to the checked shirts that suggest a quiet desire to one day fell trees in Canada for a living, Bertus is a cup of organic Fairtrade coffee short of the stereotype. But the image belies a chef with a natural genius for both food, and the sense of space he presents it in.
That space is particularly personal at Spek en Bone, starting with the name – it’s a tribute to Bertus’s dog, and his pig, apparently the best of mates. The personal aspect also dictates the feel of the restaurant: Bertus and his wife wanted a place they could eat laidback food, drink good wine, and listen to music – and wear shorts and a t-shirt doing so. And by and large, they’ve pulled it off, although laidback food when you’re a celebrated chef is a little different to the laidback food the rest of us might make.
There’s a lovely quail option (even if – as is usually the case with quail – it’s a challenge to make the most of without a surgeon’s touch), a moreish pile of spiced pork belly, strips of sirloin lathered with aubergine purée, deep fried gnocchi for a different spin, and a plate of raw black bream that’s the best tartare I’ve had in ages. There were several other dishes in there as well, but they fell victim to a particular hazard of sharing plates: two rugby players at the table, with one, in particular, a large hooker called Barney. David Blaine couldn’t make plates disappear more impressively…
But for all Bertus’s outstanding food – and he really does serve up an exceptional menu – it’s the wine list that is my star attraction. It’s not the broadest, and for the cautious drinker seeking comfort in familiarity, this is not the list for you. But for a carefully curated tribute to independent producers, garagistes, small-batch producers, and the rare and unusual, I’m not sure there’s a more delightful offering to stumble upon in culinary South Africa.
Orpheus and The Raven Number 42? Natte Valley Cinsaut? The Blacksmith Barebones Colombar? Tick, tick and tick.
After an age, we settled on the Migliarina Chardonnay, a wonderfully rounded riposte to anti-Chardonnay prejudice, and the 2015 Heimwee Cabernet Sauvignon, JD Pretorius and his Klein Wijn Koop offering up a wine that gets better every time I try it.
I left with enormous satisfaction, with the intention of returning soon (sadly they weren’t open for breakfast the next morning), and with a copy of Being Bertus Basson, which much like many of favourite books of late – Pete Goffe-Wood’s A Life Digested, David Higgs’s Mile 8 – stories of food and life interwoven with recipes, rather than out and out cookbooks.
Bertus’s latest book takes you through his restaurants, their philosophies, and the food they make, and the resultant journey is a pleasure to take. But the greater pleasure is to touch down at the restaurants themselves, and particularly Spek en Bone, where Stellenbosch’s culinary hipster oversees a fabulous place to drink wine.
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What I’m drinking this week: I’ve had reason to celebrate this week: The Dan Nicholl Show kicked off its ninth season on television, Dan Really Likes Wine announced a new headline partner, and my kids have decided on their future occupations; the four-year-old wants to teach swimming lessons when she grows up, and the two-year-old wants to be a horse… Such grand ambition demands bubbles, and so to a perennial favourite of mine: Charles Fox. Charles swapped corporate Johannesburg for a fruit farm in Elgin, swapped the fruit for grapes, and now has a champagne maker join him from France each year to oversee a small but wonderful batch of Cap Classique. The Cipher is the flagship, and it’s lovely, but I find myself partial to the vintage brut: crisp, effervescent, refreshing, and another firm reminder that while we can’t call it champagne, South Africa’s answer to bubbles frequently delivers just as much joy as France’s marquee brands.
Want to see what else Dan Nicholl has been drinking? Watch his latest episode of Dan Really Likes Wine!