A taste of paradise

Has the COVID-19 crisis changed Stellenbosch for the worse, wondered writer Kerneels Breytenbach as he returned to the town for a weekend break. Happily, he was reassured…

A story is told of the pope granting an audience to three American tourists who were visiting Rome. His Holiness asked what had brought them to the Eternal City. They replied that they wished to learn the secrets and history of Rome. How long would they be staying, the pontiff wanted to know. A month, the first tourist replied. The pontiff frowned and replied that it was hopelessly too little time. The second tourist was taken aback, he had only a week in Rome. Well, said the pontiff, he might learn more than the first tourist. The third tourist was even more astonished to hear the pope’s view on the three days he would be in Rome. “You’ll learn the most,” was the verdict. “You will not have enough time to fall under the spell of the Eternal City.”

Driving from Betty’s Bay to Stellenbosch to spend the first weekend there after lockdown had been downgraded to level 2, I wondered if the pontiff’s view would also apply to Stellenbosch. Nowadays my visits are limited to lunches or dinners. I have rarely had cause to stay over after finishing at varsity. Would the dorp still have the same ‘feel’? Would the allure be the same?

The weather looked promising when we arrived on the Friday afternoon. The town seemed to still be suffering the after-effects of lockdown: traffic was light (in Stellenbosch terms) and the only sign of crowds was at some of the eateries along Dorp Street. We checked in at Bonne Esperance Guest House – into one of the penthouse suites, to be specific – and from that moment on, as we stood on the balcony and took in the mountain ridges from the Pieke to Jonkershoek, the weekend instantly felt like a homecoming, a return to the wonders of Stellenbosch.

Bonne Esperance in the gathering dusk, with summer on its way in the abundant herb gardens.

I can’t imagine a more apt starting point than Die Eike Restaurant to gauge the town’s response to the lifting of the most restrictive lockdown rules. Bertus Basson and his team immediately promised as little contact with the staff as possible, and that is exactly what happened. Truth be told, some of the staff were obviously still getting back into the swing of things, but Die Eike nevertheless offers one of the best fine dining experiences in the Western Cape, if not the country.

Die Eike restaurant

The menu has been reduced – presumably not all supply channels are back to full capacity after lockdown – but it still provides an outstanding and wide-ranging experience of South African cooking at its imaginative best. Starting with appetisers comprising a local take on a typical French quiche, grilled snoek and mosbolletjies with homemade makataan butter, diners are then presented with a choice between smoked ham hock galette and a garlic and potato soup for starters. Sounds easy, but the fragrance wafting from the soup gave those who decided on the galette pause for thought.

Bertus is adept at the layered approach: the galette was combined with pickled beetroot, Jerusalem artichokes and sweet mustard, while the soup was supported by a soft poached egg, dried fish (bokkoms) and lumpfish roe. The main course, too, seemed to be a simple choice between roasted hake and beef sirloin. The thing is, Bertus does not do mundane. The hake is served with a smoked West Coast mussel sauce and mouli; the sirloin is complemented by an exquisite monkeygland sauce, pumpkin fritters, gem squash and beef fat jus.

These unusual combinations are the reason why Bertus Basson is such a gastronomic force; he transforms the ordinary into something remarkable. The desserts (a ‘flambie’ of naartjie sorbet, orange, meringue and spekboom leaves or a baked date pudding) give further clues to the way in which he wishes to seduce your palate. A wondrous evening but we had no inkling of what delights the remainder of the weekend held in store.

Bertus Basson, one of the restaurateurs who met the challenges of the lockdown head-on, in Die Eike, his flagship restaurant.

Stepping onto the balcony early on Saturday morning, I caught a whiff of an evocative wintry Stellenbosch smell, all vegetation and rain, redolent of my student days. Once the sun rose on an exceptionally balmy spring day, I could not escape the feeling that I had regained paradise.

Off to the Taphuis at Lanzerac for breakfast, memories of the early 1970s flooding my mind. The old pub has been restored to its former glory and the giant hearth brought back recollections of trying to impress a girlfriend at the very same table. But then the smell of coffee and a stack of buttermilk flapjacks with smoked bacon, toasted pecans, blueberry syrup, fried banana and sour cream brought me back to the present. Can life possibly get any better?

The famous bar at the Lanzerac Hotel, restored after a fire gutted the original structure, functions as both brilliant breakfast nook and unforgettable restaurant/bar.

Yes, she replied from across the table, yes it can. She ate at a slower pace and I enviously watched her relish each bite of lemon dill cream on poached eggs with salmon and asparagus, served with herb salad and butter potatoes. Sauntering towards the parking lot from the Taphuis, I was overcome by calm as I looked at the vineyards, aware of each bud preparing to burst with the joys of spring. In its inimitable way, Stellenbosch effortlessly conjured up yet another champagne day.

The magic continued. Nothing prepared us for the overwhelming impact of the next attraction: Dylan Lewis’s sculpture garden, situated on Mulberry Farm on Paradyskloof Road. Dylan is a sculptor of international acclaim, his career spanning two decades and exhibitions in Paris, Sydney, Toronto, Houston and San Francisco. How to describe an experience that immediately became the highlight of my year? How to express the overpowering effect the garden has on the senses: the visual impact of the varying statures of the sculptures, the pungent scent of indigenous fynbos, the sounds of water flowing over ancient stones, the juxtaposition of the wild and the tamed? The garden is undoubtedly Dylan’s largest sculpture to date and speaks of his meticulous attention to detail.

A lengthy visit to Dylan Lewis’s sculpture garden just off Paradyskloof Road is a must. The garden seems to be sculpted with just as deft a touch as the amazing works of art.

We had the privilege of having as our guide Hanlé Hill, whose years of experience at the garden contributed to the lasting impression the visit left on us. Her understanding of the dynamic landscape and of Dylan’s vision for each contour and bend, her knowledge of the indigenous and rare flora were testament to a deep connection with this piece of creation. The sculpture garden is located between two worlds: the rugged mountain wilderness on one side and the manicured suburbs of Stellenbosch on the other. But within the garden you are in a unique sphere, one that will remain with you forever. One of the many highlights is the recent addition of Willem Pretorius’s bonsai collection, which creates a remarkable contemplative atmosphere. A word of advice: be sure to book your visit and a guide and, above all, don’t rush.

Yet another highlight of our weekend awaited us: a wine tasting at Blaauwklippen, where winemaker Narina Cloete mesmerised us with her knowledge and her enthusiasm for her craft. The Dylan Lewis garden may have been an extravaganza for our visual and other senses, but Narina made our taste buds sing. Basking in the sun on the veranda as we listened to Narina analysing the wine in fine detail, we suddenly realised the most serious impact of lockdown was finally a thing of the past. Paradise indeed regained …

The rustic splendour of Hamm & Uys at Blaauwklippen invites you to linger over your meal.

Our next destination, the Hamm & Uys Eatery, was only a few steps away. We were rather late (understandably so), but fortunately a lot of diners were still enjoying their meals. We soon understood why; lingering over your meal here is clearly de rigueur. After the previous night’s festivities and with the wine tasting sending clear signals to our stomachs, we enthusiastically tucked into the Manna du Jour (sourdough bread with farm butter and jam) followed by a vegetable chiffonade with tomato soup (adapted from Louis Leipoldt’s book Kos vir die Kenner; ‘Food for the Connoisseur’) and then frikkadels in vetkoek. This last can only be described as a bite of pure joy: beef meatballs wrapped in blanched cabbage, then cooked in vetkoek dough and served with a salad of shaved cabbage, preserved lemon, cumin and tomato. The vegetable chiffonade, however, was the true hero of the day: blanched parsnips, potatoes and carrots, green bean kimchee, macerated celery and celery leaf oil, pearl barley and split peas.

No meal at Hamm & Uys is complete without a Suzette-sister, the chef’s playful take on the traditional koeksister, accompanied by a glass of Blaauwklippen potstill brandy. Need I say more?

We concluded our day’s activities with a light repast at De Warenmarkt, consisting of oysters, vegetarian curry and pork belly. Social distancing was also implemented here but aside from that, nothing had changed; the standard of food was as high as ever and I’d still highly recommend the chef’s pork belly.

Our last day in Stellenbosch arrived all too soon. We started it off with Bonne Esperance’s strong coffee and a breakfast platter of pastries, fresh fruit, yoghurt and cold meats, followed by the joys of French toast with crispy bacon and Camembert. Before reluctantly taking our leave, we thanked Annemien Kotze for making us feel so welcome. Nothing here could be faulted and the hospitality of the staff couldn’t have been better.

So how would we conclude such an impressive weekend? Fortunately, art fundi Mike Mavura had the answer: a walking tour of the Masked Masterpieces project. Works of Vladimir Tretchikoff, Irma Stern, Gerard Sekoto, Zanele Muholi and Maggie Laubser, all with masks, reminded us of the stark reality of Covid. Yet, Sunday morning in Stellenbosch evokes a rare sense of tranquillity and experiencing these grandiose works of art strangely made us feel more at peace with this new sign of the times.

A final word: three days to experience Stellenbosch is not remotely enough, so make sure you can spend much more time than the pontiff would have advised.