It isn’t the most auspicious start to the night. I feel queasy from an excess of wining and dining but I’d snagged a coveted reservation at popular farm-to-table restaurant Babel, in the lush Cape Winelands region of Cape Town, which I have no intention of cancelling.
So off I go, planning to graze lightly – or so I thought, until the first dish arrives. An honest-to-goodness farm-style salad, the tangy, crisp scent of freshly harvested produce from the establishment’s 3ha garden begins to revive my fatigued palate. It takes one tentative nibble of the juiciest nectarine I have ever sampled and the battle is lost even before it began.
In a reflection of the season, and of the fruit and vegetables ripe for picking at the moment, the salad comprises a seemingly haphazard mix of passion fruit, pineapples, heirloom carrots and various greens and edible flowers, pulled together with a fluffy smoked trout terrine and viognier dressing. The more I eat, the more I feel perked up.
And thus my feast continues. Such is the restorative effect of a produce-centric meal, that one is well-fed and properly nourished but does not suffer the after-effects of a bacchanalian overindulgence.
Epicureans with a soft spot for farm-to-table cuisine will be delighted to discover that the lush Cape Town region of South Africa offers particularly ripe pickings of restaurants that showcase the sublime tastes of local flavours. From the wild tastes of foraged cuisine to refined interpretations of regional produce, there are a myriad ways to enjoy the abundance of the land and the sea in the beautiful Mother City, as Capetonians call it, and its surrounding environs.
To start off, get down and gritty with foraging specialist Chris Erasmus at Foliage in the Winelands town of Franschhoek, about an hour’s drive from Cape Town’s city centre. This wild child of fine dining heads out daily to pick plants, fungi and flowers to complement the free-range and game meats on the menu, giving rise to an eclectic and unpredictable menu that constantly surprises.
Case in point was the game dish of the night – a paleo-eater’s dream meal of robustly flavoured kudu boudin sausage, melt-in- your-mouth springbok loin, bone marrow and viscera sauce, offset by sweet honeybush jus, which was a fascinating introduction to the game of Africa.
Another of Erasmus’ specialities is to distil the essence of the foraged ingredients into stocks that pack an umami punch. If it is available, order the Asian-inspired dumpling soup featuring a dense mushroom broth; it will get tastebuds tingling with every sip.
For an unparalleled gourmet experience, cajole your way to a reservation at Greenhouse, the flagship restaurant of Relais & Chateaux hotel The Cellars- Hohenort, well in advance of your travel dates. (We got our table only after the managing director of our travel agent A2A Safaris, which specialises in travel to Africa, kindly made enquiries on our behalf.)
Located in the historic Constantia Valley, the oldest wine-producing region in the Southern hemisphere, Greenhouse serves up a glorious experience featuring local ingredients at their most refined. The full eight-course African Origin menu is a great way to fully appreciate the pompand circumstance of the meal, where every dish is plated so beautifully, it will be difficult to resist whipping out the camera.
From the amuse bouche of raw game fish served on a kelp “spoon” to succulent calamari with fresh figs and free-range beef fillet garnished with “things” – local herbs and roots – of the earth, consider this a crash course in the bounty of South Africa.
There’s humour, too, in the food. The dish of beer, crisps and pretzel is actually a sorbet-based palate cleanser that would give the real deal a run for its money. Find room to savour the wine-pairing of regional specialities as well, because every pour has been specifically chosen to complement, and even elevate, the flavours of each dish.
When it is time for a more casual meal, find your way to The Pot Luck Club, in the hip Woodstock district of Cape Town. It may be the sister restaurant to The Test Kitchen, widely regarded among food aficionados as the best restaurant in South Africa, but it certainly holds its own as a dining destination.
The menu is made up of tapas- sized sharing plates categorised according to the five basic tastes – salty, sour, sweet, bitter and umami – making it a walk in the park to pick dishes that will hit the spot, in a manner of speaking.
There’s plenty to linger over, including the fish sliders with chickpea fries, springbok carpaccio with a honey and soya dressing, and crispy octopus, but I especially loved the chef ’s take on the peri peri chicken, cooked to perfect tenderness and slathered with a moreish and spicy sauce. Sometimes, comfort food is the best kind of food.
Finally, do not leave Cape Town without stopping by the hugely popular Neighbourgoods Market, held every Saturday morning at Woodstock’s Old Biscuit Mill. With about 100 speciality traders offering farm-fresh produce, artisanal purveyors and speciality stalls, this is the gathering point for conscious foodies in the city.
After experiencing the multi- faceted inventiveness of modern South African cuisine on a series of plates, there is something extremely gratifying about seeing, smelling and touching the fresh produce in its original form. It is inspiring enough to make you want to harvest (or buy) some fresh food to cook your own meal, or, better yet, to extend your stay at Cape Town, for even more of where all this came from.