For those of a certain age, De Volkskombuis in Stellenbosch was where you went to enjoy South African fare at its best. And then it fell off the radar. KERNEELS BREYTENBACH now celebrates its happy return.
Living history. That’s what the renovated, improved De Volkskombuis is. The moment you arrive, you can feel Stellenbosch’s history enveloping the building.
Two centuries ago this was a farm called Vredenburg. In 1902, Herbert Baker was commissioned to build labourers’ cottages on this very site. Over the ensuing decades the farm was subdivided and subjected to subtle changes until, in 1968, it was purchased by Historical Homes of South Africa. Great effort went into restoring the cottages to their original character and finally the restaurant De Volkskombuis found a home in these buildings.
People lucky enough to have lived in Stellenbosch in earlier times will have mixed feelings when thinking back to the days when the town boasted only a handful of restaurants. De Volkskombuis was one of the top eateries, famous for its ‘Meraai se Pie’, a creamy chicken pie that had people flocking from far-flung parts of the country.
To the great advantage of the local tourism trade, more foreign visitors began to grace South African shores in the early 1990s. I remember attending various functions, celebrations and book launches at De Volkskombuis in the ’80s, but from 1990 onwards big tour buses delivering tourists, especially from the Far East, became a more familiar sight in Aan-de-Wagenweg. I visited De Volkskombuis in September 1992 to review the restaurant for a Cape Town daily and found the restaurant crammed with Japanese tourists. In respectful silence they devoured the traditional fare: bobotie, oxtail and, obviously, ‘Meraai se Pie’.
But as time went by, the popularity of the restaurant started to wane, partly as a result of the boom in new establishments in Stellenbosch. For a number of years De Volkskombuis stood vacant and derelict. Then in 2016, the Rupert family initiated a full restoration.
One of the effects of the Covid-19 era is an acute awareness of space. While retaining the historic outer shell of the buildings, architect Johann Slee simultaneously created a restaurant with abundant space and light. Gone forever is the gloomy, musty interior. Wood fires burn in the hearths in wintertime, creating a homely cosiness as warmth permeates the entire building. The restaurant’s fireplace alcoves were tastefully restored, as were all the doors and windows.
In fact, the ambience of the new Volkskombuis firmly retains a connection to its predecessor. The traditional art and objects remind us of historical Stellenbosch: old copper pots and pans recall the days when Stellenbosch still had an active coppersmith, collections of porcelain reinforce ties to the colonial settlers.
The menu, however, no longer focuses on a wide range of old-style dishes. Only three offerings are vaguely traditional: a curried lamb stew attributed to one Koekie, an oxtail potjie and a lamb rack. The origin of the mysterious Koekie eludes me, but the people at an adjacent table partook of her lamb curry and its fragrance almost convinced me to pay homage to her. But I had other plans.
The menu encourages punters to enjoy a starter or a salad before advancing to the main course. At our table the potato gnocchi, Caesar salad and walnut and pear salad found favour; the salads were enjoyed with gusto, the potato gnocchi not so much. Then came the main focus, a choice of steaks and other delights for the carnivore: Slow-roasted Pork Belly, Pan-seared Line Fish, Wood Fire-roasted Baby Chicken and a very respectable De Volkskombuis Beef Burger.
Since Johann Slee added verandas to create outside dining space and magnificently restored the open-air dining areas under the age-old oak trees, it stands to reason that the chef would augment the menu with food ideal for alfresco dining on warm summer days. His choice fell on pizza, of which seven options are on offer, plus 12 add-ons ranging from pineapple to smoked BBQ chicken. I was tempted to order one; either the one that boasted biltong among the toppings or the Helderberg, which is really paella in another guise.
But I digress. We struck it lucky with our main course selections. The line fish of the day was yellowtail, its moist and tender flesh complemented by seared, brilliantly crispy skin. Looking at the accompanying potato niçoise, green beans, a poached egg, parmesan cheese and lemon butter sauce, I recalled my gruesome experience in 1992, when the old Volkskombuis managed to serve double-boiled broccoli. More evidence of how much things have improved.
Across the table there was an order for sirloin steak and from my left came the only interest in traditional fare. Having ordered the lamb rack served with pomme anna, sweetened carrots, broccoli and cauliflower in a white sauce, she responded with enthusiasm. I felt a pang of jealousy when I eyed the lamb rack, but I had nothing to complain about. My choice fell on the rib-eye steak, all 600g of it. Medium-rare as ordered and an absolute pleasure. The steaks are served with French fries and salad, and my only gripe concerns the salad. Not everyone enjoys vinegary salad dressing, especially if the person drizzling the salad did so with a rather heavy hand.
You’ve probably noticed I failed to mention my own starter. I asked for a starter portion of one of the main courses on offer, the smoked tomato risotto, and this became my culinary highlight of the year thus far. Ever since I watched French chef Raymond Blanc demonstrating on television how to extract tomato essence, I’ve been trying to emulate the way he uses that essence to make tomato risotto. The basic technique is actually quite simple: chop up some vine-ripened tomatoes, sprinkle with salt and chopped garlic and hang them in a muslin cloth for a day or two. The resulting liquid, says Chef Raymond, is the essence of tomato and it’s the cornerstone of a tomato risotto. The challenge lies in how you prepare the dish, especially the amount of liquid you use, but I have never encountered anyone who could make a convincing tomato risotto.
That is, until I had De Volkskombuis’s smoked tomato risotto. It is a joy to savour and I can’t recommend it too highly. Subtle and rich in flavour and with the added taste sensation of parmesan and mozzarella cheese, macadamia nuts and basil, it made the visit to De Volkskombuis absolutely worthwhile.
I can see myself in the coming summer months, sitting outside and enjoying the tomato risotto once again as a starter before trying the Helderberg pizza. The way I feel right now, I can even see myself tempted to order the risotto as a dessert.
Good things come to those who wait – and the resurrection of De Volkskombuis has proven to be thoroughly worth the wait.
From the cellar
By Chris Otto
Stellenbosch is wine country, where the first vineyards were established as long ago as the late 17th century. The wine industry developed slowly and, except for ever-increasing volumes of often dubious quality, not much of significance happened until the latter half of the 20th century. But then things started changing, standards improved markedly and our winemakers are now producing world-class wines.
Not just wine country, Stellenbosch is Cabernet Sauvignon country, with many superb offerings. Since De Volkskombuis has been part of the local restaurant scene for decades, it is fitting that its wine list should include a wide selection of outstanding Stellenbosch Cabernets. But that’s not all it includes. We started with an impressive L’Ormarins Blanc de Blanc MCC 2013 and, still one of my favourite Chardonnays, an Uva Mira (2019).
Then onto the Cabernets. The Neil Ellis Jonkershoek Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 was sublime and confirmed the Ellises’ reputation as makers of outstanding wines. This was followed by the Simonsig Labyrinth Cabernet 2017, which again proved the Malans are winemakers par excellence. We couldn’t resist the temptation to try another of the Stellenbosch stalwarts: the Thelema Cabernet 2017. Again, the best, although this wine, like the others, could probably age for another 20–30 years.
If this sounds like too much wine, I should point out that there were eight of us and we were sitting in front of a roaring wood fire with caring and enthusiastic service. Were it not for the Level 3 lockdown, we might have spent the night.
The wine glasses were up to the fare and everything was well presented. No BYO.
Good to know: De Volkskombuis, Aan-de-Wagenweg, Krigeville, Stellenbosch, +27 (0)21 741 0980.