Riverine Rabbit: Inventive Fine Dining with an Environmental Conscience (and a Spring Menu to LIVE for!)

With an emphasis on eco-conscious dining, Riverine Rabbit delivers a gastronomical experience that is both kind to the environment and its fauna and flora and, in equal measure, absolutely unforgettable to the diner. This is the chronicle of my epic 10-course spring menu tasting at this lauded Cape Town restaurant!

The Riverine Rabbit is a critically endangered animal found in the Western Cape, below the Nuweveld Mountains in the semi-arid Central Karoo of South Africa. In fact, it is one of the most endangered mammals in the world with a living adult population estimated at well below 1,000 individuals. In other words: it is a rabbit in trouble.

Riverine-rabbit-Endangered-Wildlife-Trust-min

This sounds a bit off, doesn’t it? After all, don’t rabbits bonk like, well, rabbits? Even if their habitat is being mercilessly destroyed and food is scarce, don’t females give birth to a dozen or more kits before the males get right back on that horse…or should I say lady rabbit? Yes and yes, to the last two questions but the Riverine Rabbit is rather special because females only produce one offspring per year. Rather than ruthlessly over-populating an area, as most rabbits are wont to do, Riverine Rabbits are rather chaste in their approach to multiplying. And, unfortunately, in the face of relentless agricultural development, they simply don’t stand a chance.

There’s an important metaphor in all this and one that sisters Head Chef Ash Heeger and Sommelier/General Manager Mandy van der Berg have employed as the powerful philosophy behind their eco-conscious, fine dining restaurant in Cape Town, Riverine Rabbit.

And, no, there’s no rabbit on the menu.

Eco-conscious fine dining

Farming in the Karoo has left much of the Riverine Rabbit’s natural habitat completely overgrazed and decimated, which has positioned them on the very brink of extinction. Thankfully, more and more of Cape Town’s eateries are shifting their dining philosophies to be more eco-conscious, environmentally friendly, and humane. Riverine Rabbit embodies that shift because Chef Ash Heeger prioritizes hyper-local, freshly caught or harvested, and sustainable ingredients.

“We are a family owned restaurant and strive to promote and encourage the sustainable use of our natural resources.”

With an emphasis on eco-conscious dining, Riverine Rabbit delivers a gastronomical experience that is both kind to the environment and its fauna and flora and, in equal measure, absolutely unforgettable to the diner. I should know because, last week, I was treated to a meal at the Chef’s Table!

Meet Ash, culinary boss babe

Riverine Rabbit Ash Heeger

Chef Ash Heeger has established a Herculean name for herself on the international restaurant scene. Having graduated from the Silwood School of Cookery, she cut her teeth (and probably several fingers) under the tutelage of Chef Luke Dale Roberts at La Colombe and then at The Test Kitchen, both top 10 restaurants in South Africa and, for various years, top 50 restaurants in the world. In other words: holy shit that’s impressive! 

Chef Ash then set sail for foreign shores to expand her repertoire and skillset, working with Brett Graham at The Ledbury in Notting Hill (London) followed by two years at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal at the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park. Both are Michelin 2 Star kitchens and, again, holy shit that’s impressive! Then, in 2018, she competed on The Final Table, Netflix’s version of Master Chef, except that the participants are all vastly accomplished chefs from all over the world. 

Today, Chef Ash Heeger has become somewhat of a household name and if you aren’t suitably impressed by the above biography then you might as well eat at McDonalds because you are beyond redemption.

Meet Mandy, manager and sommelier extraordinaire

I never got to meet Mandy but after tasting the wines she selected for each course of our expansive meal, I am utterly convinced that I’d love the heck out of her. With an astute business background in marketing and events planning, Mandy runs all aspects of the front of house at Riverine Rabbit with a focus on training, curating the incredible wine list, and general administration. Somebody’s got to do it. She also has her WSET Level 3 in wines, which is not only an extraordinary feat of pronouncing virtually unpronounceable French and German wine growing regions but also of palate perceptivity, smell memory, and covet-worthy intelligence.

Together, Ash and Mandy are a formidable team and their restaurant, Riverine Rabbit, is a testament to the spectrum of stratospheric skill they bring to the table. And now that you have met the talent behind the restaurant and the exigent philosophies behind the name, let’s delve into the dining experience!

Riverine Rabbit Restaurant

Spring has sprung!

Indeed, spring has arrived in the Cape and with the warmer weather comes the need for reinvention. Being seasonally inspired by locally available ingredients, Riverine Rabbit’s menu is implicit in this transition, and it was our task – three media folk – to play guinea pigs for Chef Ash’s spring menu, which is due to launch mid-October. What a life, I tell you!

Riverine Rabbit chefs table

We were seated at the luxurious chef’s table, a little nook adjacent to the open plan kitchen, and from where we (and the whole restaurant really) could see Chef Ash and her team at work. What a thing this is to witness! Whisper quiet, the kitchen operates like a well-oiled machine with each and every team member knowing exactly what is required of him or her. Barely a conversation was necessary. Then began the procession of Riverine Rabbit favourites and spring-inspired dishes paired with truly sumptuous wines from all over the Cape winelands….

The opening act

Our epic ten-course meal kicked off with some freshly baked focaccia and a trio of “snacks”: pani puri with chickpea curry and lime yoghurt; “cheese on toast” with burnt onion mayo and truffle; and Riverine Rabbit eggs benedict, all served with a flute of crisp yet biscuity Colmant Cap Classique Brut Reserve NV from Franschhoek. Chef Ash literally invents these titbits daily. 

Then, I smacked my lips through the beef dish, featuring tender pink slices of beef with honey, anchovy, rich egg yolk, aged Balsamic vinegar, garlic, potato, and locally foraged mushrooms. This absolutely exceptional dish was paired with the floral fragranced Paul Cluver Riesling 2017. Finally, we were served the soba noodles from Riverine Rabbit’s autumn menu, a savoury, umami-laced noodle and broth dish featuring chilli, kimchi, seasonal vegetables, and dashi, all served cool and paired with the uber sexy Saronsberg Viognier 2017.

Riverine Rabbit sobu noodles
Sobu noodles

The main event

Four courses down, we relinquished ourselves to a further deluge of sumptuous, imaginative dishes: leeks smothered in vegan béarnaise with breadcrumbs, hazelnuts, and herbs (paired with the exquisite Catherine Marshall Chenin Blanc Fermented in Clay 2018); mushroom and potato with blue cheese, egg yolk, onion, and herbs (paired with the Lismore Chardonnay 2016); and sustainably caught Red Roman linefish with cucumber, fennel, leeks, dill, and hyper local “sea vegetables”, such as West Coast sea lettuce (paired with the Diemersdal Wild Horseshoe Sauvignon Blanc).

Our meal reached a crescendo with the duck served with turnip, cashew nut, citrus, and mustard and paired with my favourite wine for the evening: the Catherine Marshall Pinot Noir. If Ash had served us nothing but this dish and Mandy conceived of nothing other than this wine and food pairing, I would have gone to bed equally as satisfied. I’m certainly not complaining that we were treated to nine other wine paired plates of foods, although my liver had a little something to say about it the morning after.

Riverine Rabbit duck dish

Sweet finale

Finally, after a blackberry, buttermilk, yoghurt, and black pepper palate cleanser, complete with liquid nitrogen sending great blankets of vapour cascading all over our table, we faced off with dessert. Having recently returned from a trip from New Zealand, Chef Ash was inspired to put together this absolutely delicious Hāngi steamed pudding of potato, caramel, honey, crème fraîche, and vanilla, paired with the saccharine Noble Late Harvest from Diemersdal Wine Estate in Durbanville.

An epic experience with an important message

Riverine Rabbit delivers experimental gastronomy that is inventive, beautiful to behold, brave, and – importantly – absolutely delicious. Most importantly, however, is the subliminal, yet pervasive messaging that the Cape is home to a cornucopia of fresh, sustainable ingredients that if harvested in an eco-conscious manner could prevent the loss of precious flora and fauna, like the Riverine Rabbit. I found the experience to be an education, a visual feast, and a hedonistic indulgence (you’d better skip lunch) with intelligent wine pairings in a cosy, unpretentious atmosphere. And I believe Chef Ash to be a true artist and master of her craft. Mandy, your choice of wines and pairings are testament to your enviable skill as a sommelier and wine lover!

I may have rolled out of Riverine Rabbit but I’ll certainly be back again for more, more, and more of all of the above!

Riverine Rabbit

For more information or to make reservations, please contact Riverine Rabbit on info@riverinerabbit.com or +27 (0) 21 424 7204.

81 Church Street, Cape Town, www.riverinerabbit.com

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Oldenburg Vineyards: a must-add to any boozy Stellenbosch itinerary

It is all too easy to wax lyrical for paragraph after paragraph about how spellbindingly beautiful the Cape Winelands are. For example, here’s an excerpt from an article I wrote for Southern Vines magazine about a year ago:

“Perched high up on Helshoogte Pass in Stellenbosch, Tokara Wine & Olive Farm affords visitors the kind of views that words fail dismally to convey. From here, you can see the Cape farmlands’ patchwork quilt of emerald green fields and autumnal-coloured vineyards bordered by dramatic, craggy mountain ranges turned blue by a low haze.” 

And another earlier this year:

“I’d need the romantic turn of phrase and poetic dexterity of William Wordsworth to describe the view from Cavalli Estate’s restaurant. An extensive terrace juts out over a small farm dam that reflects an endless vault of creamy blue sky. A neat, yet explosively coloured Fynbos garden thrives around the perimeter of the dam, in and out of which canaries, sunbirds, and prinias flit. The sky was completely unblemished, saved for the occasional soaring raptor, and the sun gently gilded the surrounding rolling hills, rugged mountains, vineyards, and horse paddocks.”

Evocative enough?

So now I sit here, kalaeidescopic memories of Oldenburg Vineyards emblazoned across my mind, trying to cook up a clever new way of conveying its particular allure because I dare say it’s one of the most beautiful of all the Cape’s wine estates I have ever visited. Top three at least!

In fact, to describe the sweeping amphitheatre of dramatic mountainscapes, undulating vineyards, and fiery flowering Fynbos gardens as merely “beautiful” is to nonchalantly say Thai food is “okay” or “Ja, she’s pretty” about the actress from the latest Wonder Woman movie. Beautiful, pah! Such a pedestrian, everyday adjective is almost slanderous in this context. A litany of far more adoring words come to my writer’s mind: mouth-wateringly delicious, heart-breakingly gorgeous, and knee-weakeningly divine…and yes, these apply to both Thai food and Gal Gadot.

So there you have it. Oldenburg Vineyards sprawls across a setting that will blow your mind in the most exquisite way possible and if you receive any visitors to the Cape and want to send them home with immediate plans to relocate, bring them here:

Oldenburg Vineyards Stellenbosch Rondekop

I told you I could wax lyrical for paragraph after paragraph…and I haven’t even started talking about the wine yet!

Wine, glorious wine

Oldenburg Vineyards’ wine tasting centre

On the subject of wine, let’s talk about wine! Located at a higher elevation to most Stellenbosch farms and in the rocky embrace of the Groot Drakenstein and Jonkershoek Mountain Ranges, the valley in which Oldenburg’s vineyards sprawl is several degrees cooler on average. Three to be precise.

Upon arrival at the estate, the velvety-voiced and charismatic Stefan Reinmuth, Oldenburg’s wine ambassador, greeted us with a glass of the estate’s <CL° White Blend. There’s a great story to that name, which I’ll share in a minute but first I need to express how very delighted I was to receive a welcome drink of lightly wooded white wine as opposed to the usual crisp rosé or MCC…not that I have anything against MCC (quite the contrary actually), but a change is as good as a holiday, isn’t it? Also, I’m amongst the endangered species that love a good, wooded Chardonnay.

Yours truly with a grotesque volume of Chardonnay in hand. Awesome.

Oldenburg Vineyards <CL° is a white blend of 63% Chardonnay and 37% Chenin Blanc, both partially wooded. The name is a composite of nerdy symbols, the key to which is provided on the back of the bottle. “CL” is the vehicle registration for Stellenbosch, “<” is the mathematical symbol for less than, and “°” is the symbol for degree, as in temperature. Ergo, slapped together, the name alludes to the fact that the terroir here is cooler than central Stellenbosch, which, in winemaking, is a very good thing.

Oldenburg Vineyards CL-White-Blend-2018
Oldenburg Vineyards <CL°

The <CL° on Oldenburg Vineyard’s bottles of White and Red Blend is what the estate’s marketers call a “message in a bottle” but what the dashing Stefan Reinmuth jokingly prefers to call a “dad joke in a bottle.” I prefer the latter, probably because I was raised on an interminable diet of dad jokes.

(Hopefully this doesn’t get you into trouble, Stefan.)

“Jy dink jy’s cooler as ekke”

Profoundly foul-mouthed philosopher and poet, Jack Parow

Okay, so why is cooler better (within reason)?

Grapes typically take longer to ripen in cooler microclimates and a longer time on the vine means more nutrients for the grapes, a better development of the fruits, and more concentrated flavours. Quality fruit is the bedrock, foundations, and building blocks of an excellent wine. The winemaker is the architect. 

If you’re still struggling to grasp the relationship between temperature and fruit quality, consider the following: have you ever eaten ripe tomatoes off the vine? Aren’t they delicious? Bursting with citrusy, sweet, and vegetal flavour? Quite a bit different to the tomatoes you buy in the supermarket, which are watery by comparison. This is because the latter are typically plucked off the vine when they are green and then ripen en route to the store, in the store, or even after they’ve been purchased. These tomatoes have been cut off from the steady feed of nutrients from the parent plant and so aren’t nearly as delicious and flavoursome as their vine-ripened cousins. This is why “vine-ripened” has become a sexy word in gastronomy and on menus.

So there you have it: the longer the ripening period, the greater the development of those fruit flavours winemakers (and wine drinkers such as myself) covet so dearly.

The wine tasting

After gagging over the view and sipping delicately on my “dad joke” in a glass, we took our seats around a long table in the stylish wine tasting centre to sample the fruits of Oldenburg’s vineyards and winemaker, Nic Van Aarde.

Oldenburg Vineyards Winemaker Nic van Aarde (HR)
The architect.

First up were the Oldenburg Vineyard Series Chenin Blanc 2018 and Chardonnay 2018. The first, a beguiling golden hue in colour, delivered aromas of yellow apples, fresh pineapple, and honeysuckle, followed up by a lovely texture on the palate, filled with flavours of ripe peaches, apricots, and gentle oak spice. The wine was fermented in a combination of egg and older barrels, and matured in 300 litre French oak barrels for eight months, of which 17% were first fill.

Oldenburg Vineyards Chenin Blanc & Chardonnay
Chardonnay on the left, Chenin on the right.

The Chardonnay 2018 was 100% barrel fermented and thereafter matured for eight months in 300 litre French oak barrels, 35% of which were first fill. Bright yellow in colour, the wine imparted a nose of gorgeous ripe tropical fruits: litchi, banana, papaya, and ripe citrus with warm oak spice. The palate was a study in balance between fruit and oak, delivering mouth-filling flavours of tangerine and dried pineapple with a fresh, crisp finish.

Next up were the Oldenburg Vineyard Series Grenache Noir 2017 and Syrah 2015. Mercifully, the tables were decked with great platters heaped with Dalewood cheese, olives, sweet green grapes, charcuterie, and crackers that were as delicious as they were deafening to crunch on in the quiet around the table, while Stefan walked us through the tasting. Oh, and by the way, these platters (minus the charcuterie – we’re special) are served to all guests who visit Oldenburg Vineyards for a wine tasting!

Oldenburg Vineyards Grenache Noir & Syrah
Grenache Noir on the left, Syrah on the right.

The Grenache Noir 2017, a gorgeous, silky red, was matured for 16 months in 300 litre French oak barrels (28% new and 72% second-fill barrels). The wine has a dark plum hue and aromas of rich red fruit, raspberries, hints of liquorice, and pleasant herbal notes. The wood from the oak is elegantly integrated into the body, while the sturdy tannins are rounded off by luscious fruit flavours, leaving the wine smooth and succulent.

To those of you scratching your heads over my persistent referencing to first and second-fill barrels, here’s the deal: oak imparts a distinctive flavour to wine that is strongest with new oak barrels (first fill). After a vintage, the barrels are thoroughly steam-cleaned and sterilized to receive their next consignment of vino, to which they also impart a lovely oak flavour but not as concentrated as the first. Oak barrels can be used many, many times over but each time they impart less and less “oakiness” to the wine. Some wines benefit enormously from being fermented and matured in new oak, like rich, heavy red wines.

Oldenburg Vineyards - barrels

Other wines can be ruined by too much oak, as is the case with Chardonnay and that blasphemous “ABC” movement – Anything But Chardonnay – to which I say: clearly, you aren’t drinking the right Chardonnay. Some wines, such as crisp whites like Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio, typically aren’t oaked at all but are rather fermented and matured in great steel containers. There’s more to it – winemaking is mind-bogglingly complex – but consider this your crash course.

The Oldenburg Vineyards Series Syrah 2015

The reason I have given the Oldenburg Vineyards Series Syrah 2015 its very own subheading is because this wine – this liquid velvet ambrosia – was my absolute favourite from our tasting. First, it must be explained that the 2015 vintage here in South Africa is widely considered to be the best ever for our country’s wines. Not merely “one of the best”…the best. Cooler conditions throughout February 2015 allowed for slow, even ripening of grapes early in the season, contributing towards the development of the fruit’s colour and flavour, particularly in the red wine cultivars.

Syrah, Syrah! Whatever will be, will be!

The Syrah 2015 was matured for 20 months in 300 litre French oak barrels (40% first fill, 30% third fill, 20% fourth fill, and 10% fifth fill barrels.) On the nose, this dark crimson wine delivers a powerful, ripe red fruit profile laced with vanilla oak and sultry savoury notes. On the palate, it boasts brooding, dark chocolate flavours with cumin notes and a firm, muscular structure. I fell so ardently in love with this wine that I bought a bottle after our tasting, even though my wine collection overfloweth and, with plans to relocate to Canada in the next six months, I should be whittling down my collection rather than adding to it.

Next was the bold but elegant Cabernet Franc 2015, matured for 19 month in a mixture of new, third, fourth, and fifth fill French oak barrels. This wine, another beautiful velvety red, is a deep, plum-red in colour with a nose of ripe cherry and savoury notes and the most succulent palate of liquorice, violets, raspberries, and red fruit and a mouth-watering pepperiness of capsicum, paprika, and black pepper, particularly appreciable after hoovering down 17 olives (no one else was eating them!)

Oldenburg Vineyards Cabernet Franc & Cabernet Sauvignon
Cabernet Franc on the left, Rondekop Cabernet Sauvignon on the right.

Finally, we were treated to a tasting of the Rondekop “Per Se” Cabernet Sauvignon 2015, one of three wines from Oldenburg Vineyards’ top tier range. The grapes for these wines are grown on a low, rounded hill (Rondekop or “round head”) visible from the winery. Like a contagious laugh on an already attractive person, the presence of this geological feature within the valley adds further desirable idiosyncrasies to the microclimate. The result is that the fruit grown here is not just good; it’s blerry good. In fact, only ten barrels showing exceptional quality and potential were selected and left to age in 50% new oak and 50% second fill barrels for 24 months to create the Rondekop Per Se 2015.

Oldenburg Vineyards Rondekop
View from Oldenburg Vineyards’ winery with Rondekop poking its rondekop above the Fynbos gardens.

The subsequent brick-red Cabernet Sauvignon delivers a profound herbal aroma with dried peach and hints of vanilla and a gorgeous full body of broody black currant, plum, and red fruit flavours. The tannins are as soft as a fall-of-the-bone lamb shank, but structured enough to allow ageing of 20 years or more. And, according to the winemaker, “this virile, succulent wine is a textbook example of what Cabernet Sauvignon is all about.”

Sufficiently titillated? Buy Oldenburg Vineyard’s wines here!

Wine estate worthy of your next Stellenbosch visit

Oldenburg Vineyards is a must-add to any boozy Stellenbosch travel itinerary – the wines here are simply superb and the views, as I explained ad nauseum, heart-breakingly gorgeous. The only downfall to visiting such an exquisite wine estate is that you might find yourself insufferably critical of all others to follow!

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Stellenbosch in Spring!

The country’s best wine and food celebrated against a backdrop of blossoms, tender leaves, and singing birds

The sun is peeking out, the once skeletal fruit orchards are bursting into white and pink blossoms, the birds are singing their little love-struck hearts out, and the gnarled grapevines are sprouting tender green leaves. Spring has sprung and there’s no better vantage point for the bountiful show than a Stellenbosch wine estate…or two! So we packed up the car and headed to Le Pommier Wine Estate for an overnight spoil followed by a wine pairing and Sunday lunch at Skilpadvlei Wine Estate.

Le Pommier Wine Estate

Ah, Le Pommier… apple of my eye. Located on Helshoogte Road in Stellenbosch, adjacent to Zorgvliet Wines (to which the estate used to belong), Le Pommier is a wine estate that’s also home to a luxury country lodge and a rustic country-style restaurant. It used to be an apple orchard, hence the name, which means “apple” in French, but while its acreage is now dedicated to growing quality grapes, you’ll still find apple trees scattered throughout the estate.

Le Pommier Country Lodge

Le Pommier Country Lodge

Le Pommier is decidedly “country” in feel and agenda, delivering a more laid-back, authentic Cape experience coloured with staggeringly gorgeous views, thick embracing nature, easy drinking wine, and honest, delicious food. Our accommodation for the night was a suite within the luxury country lodge, which features six suites, seven rooms, and two self-catering units. The décor here is simple: clean white wood furnishings with red highlights courtesy of scatter cushions, couches, and curtains. There’s a king-sized bed, freestanding Victorian bath, bedside fireplace, and large flat screen TV. The suite overlooks a generous wooden deck and a dam heavily fringed with reeds and tangled nature; craggy blue mountains beyond that.

What more could you need?

Le Pommier Country Lodge
Le Pommier Country Lodge

Wine tasting

Wine, of course! And so we walked the short five-minute walk (ten if you like to stop and look at birds) to the wine tasting room adjacent to the restaurant. Here, with awe-inspiring views of the imposing Simonsberg and the quilted farmlands and vineyards between, we sipped and smacked our way through Le Pommier’s range of wines in the dappled shade of the spring sun, under the guidance of charismatic wine ambassador, Zin. I wonder if that’s short for Zinfandel? My favourite wine of those we tasted was the Le Pommier Red Blend 2018 (R105), a rich blend of Cabernet Franc and Merlot with a powerful nose of dark berries, a full, firm structure, velvety tannins, and a generous, lingering aftertaste.

Wine tasting at Le Pommier: R40 for four wines

Le Pommier Wine Estate

Le Pommier Restaurant

Dinner was taken at Le Pommier Restaurant, which spills out onto a two-tiered shaded al fresco dining area. Ambitiously, we sat outside to enjoy the sunset but with winter still clinging to the Cape, we headed inside where it was cosier and a fire had been lit. For sustenance, we enjoyed a hearty country meal of creamy, thick chicken and noodle soup and roasted tomato and basil soup, followed by a shared portion of spaghetti and meatballs. The lovely servers looked quite disappointed when we didn’t order dessert but I would have had to be carried out of that restaurant in a stretcher if I’d had another bite.

In the morning, after a long languorous night in soft sheets, we completed our luxurious overnight at Le Pommier Wine Estate with a “build-your-own” breakfast of scrambled eggs, tomato smoor, chicken livers, and farm-baked bread. Ah, my mouth waters as I fondly remember the meal!

With such a spoil under our belts (literally), we could quite happily have headed home to rest up and recover but it’s spring in Stellenbosch and it would have been a travesty to waste the good weather. So we hopped on over Skilpadvlei Wine Estate for more wine and food.

Le Pommier Wine Estate: +27 (0) 21 885 1269 | www.lepommier.co.za | Helshoogte Rd, Banhoek, Stellenbosch

Skilpadvlei Wine Estate

Skilpadvlei Wine Estate on Stellenbosch’s Polkadraai Road is a special slice of heaven. First of all, driving in, I spotted a great-crested grebe paddling in the estate’s dam, which, being a birdwatcher, instantly made me happy. You don’t see them too often and they are beautiful birds with an exceptionally beautiful courtship dance.

Skilpadvlei Wine Estate Great Crested Grebe
Great Crested Grebe spotted at Skilpadvlei Wine Estate

Secondly, Skilpadvlei’s tasting room is gorgeous, rustic, and cosy with the heat of an enormous fire lapping gently at your back. Here, we sat down to a very goedkoop soup and wine pairing for only R100. This indulgent taste experience pairs (1) the Skilpadvlei Grenache 2017 with a creamed butternut and coconut soup, roasted nuts, and crispy bacon; (2) the Skilpadvlei Shiraz 2018 with a roasted tomato and chicken soup with deep fried mozzarella balls and paprika; and (3) the Skilpadvlei ML Joubert (the estate’s flagship Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot blend) with a seafood chowder, crispy prawn, and coriander…

All with freshly baked bread.

Skilpadvlei is open for wine tasting Monday to Saturday, 08:00 to 16:00 and Sunday 09:00 to 15:00:

Lunch at Skilpadvlei

And because we apparently hadn’t had enough food the entire weekend, we skipped across to Skilpadvlei’s restaurant right after our tasting for a truly hedonistic lunch of steak, chips, and onion rings; and fried calamari, Greek salad, and pan-fried vegetables. Oink. Aside from the fact that Skilpadvlei serves up really excellent, honest South African cuisine, they’re gearing up with a suite of “Ruggas Specials” for the coming Rugby World Cup and, very truthfully, I can’t imagine a better place to watch a game, enjoy a meal with friends, and sink a couple of glasses of their beautiful wines or Stellenbrau beer.

Skilpadvlei Wine Estate

Yes indeed: spring is in the air and while Stellenbosch’s wine estates are making it exceptionally hard to get the body summer-ready, there simply is no better place to celebrate the arrival of the warmer weather than on a deck overlooking the winelands, or in a festive restaurant with delicious food and wine before you!

Skilpadvlei Wine Estate: +27 (0) 21 881 3237 | www.skilpadvlei.co.za |

Skilpadvlei Farm, M12 Polkadraai Road, Stellenbosch

Skilpadvlei Wine Estate

This blog article was originally written for Southern Vines magazine, the largest lifestyle and leisure magazine in the Western Cape of South Africa: https://www.southernvines.co.za/2019/08/29/enjoy-stellenbosch-in-spring/

Gabrielskloof Restaurant Celebrates 10 Years of Cape Country Cuisine

Happy birthday to you, I’m going to eat all your food, wash it down with your wine too, happy birthday Gabriëlskloof!

Just so that you can all appreciate how obnoxiously spoiled I am as a “person of media”, I attended the 10-year anniversary of the restaurant at Gabriëlskloof wine estate (Botrivier, Western Cape, South Africa) and left with a belly full of their food, a head full of their wine, and a gift of their freshly-baked goodies in my hand. Disgusting, isn’t it?

Nevertheless, I have an important job here…and it’s to pay homage to a country-style restaurant that has endured 10 long years in an industry in which country-style restaurants very quickly go out of style. Add to this the fact that Gabriëlskloof wine estate is situated in the middle of nowhere – according to Capetonians who think that anything more than five minutes away is in the middle of nowhere – and you can appreciate just how important this milestone is.

An important milestone, yes… but certainly no miracle: the restaurant at Gabriëlskloof delivers a hedonistic trifecta of delicious food, wine, and spectacular winelands views of vineyard carpeted valleys. And on Friday 16th August, a clutch of media folk and I travelled from Cape Town to celebrate this esteemed restaurant’s birthday by eating all their food, drinking all their wine, and leaving with a present in our hands.

Happy birthday to me, I mean, you Gabriëlskloof Restaurant!

Robust South African country-style fare

GK Butternut and barley risotto LR

Gabriëlskloof Estate is located just under 100 km from Cape Town, outside Bot River on the Swartrivier Road off the N2 highway. In other words, it’s firmly in the sticks and one heck of an excuse to go on a mini-road trip. The restaurant itself serves robust, seasonal South African fare, plus there’s a wine tasting room with a courtyard and a fluffy little poodle to pet between sips of wine.

Food is prepared with great love by the owners of the Gabriëlskloof Restaurant, Frans and Mariaan Groenewald, who are passionate about using local produce from neighbouring farms and villages. The menu changes with the regularity of the weather in Cape Town and the result is a torrential downpouring of delicious, hearty dishes that don’t require you to make a pit stop at McDonalds on the way home, as is often the case at wine estate restaurants that charge R200 for a sliver of beef and a cough of foam.

Birthday Celebrations

The restaurant at Gabriëlskloof is elegantly appointed, yet maintains an unpretentious, country feel. To the one side, the dining area spills out onto a large veranda-embraced courtyard and to the other, a clipped lawn with vast views of buttery yellow canola fields, vineyards, mountains, and False Bay beyond. It’s quite something to behold.

And as my eyes were adjusting to the sheer majesty of it all, I was handed a flute of the estate’s crisp Madame Lucy Méthode Cap Classique (MCC), named after that poodle I mentioned. For those of you who don’t know, MCC is South Africa’s answer to “champagne” – and, yes, there is actually an answer to champagne. MCC is made following precisely the same methodology. The only difference is provenance. Let’s hope there are no French people reading this.

Gabrielskloof restaurant Wontons

After harassing the servers mincing around with trays of canapés – and a second glass of bubbly, this time of the estate’s gorgeous 2010 100% Pinot Noir MCC – we took our seats to enjoy a grand lunch featuring the food for which Gabriëlskloof restaurant has earned its lip-smacking reputation. This kicked off with a basket of dense, freshly-baked farm bread and Cape Malay spiced Cape salmon wontons with peach sweet chilli sauce (pictured above).

For mains, a literal smorgasbord was laid out before us: duck leg bourguignon, carrot and barley risotto, pulled lamb waterblommetjies (edible aquatic flowering plant) (above), cauliflower and aubergine in coconut, and steamed greens. This proudly South African feast was paired with both the original and the current vintages of Gabriëlskloof’s Landscape Series wines to allow us to appreciate how they have evolved over time. The Landscape Series features two whites and three reds: Magdelena Sauvignon Blanc, Elodie Sauvignon Blanc / Sémillon blend (both named after the owner’s sisters), Syrah on Sandstone, Syrah on Shale, and Cabernet Franc. Yep, I tasted them all and, yep, the conversation on the ride home was several decibels louder than it was on the way to the estate.

Dessert was a creative take on an Irish coffee – coffee creme brûlée with whiskey ice-cream (let’s hope there are no Irish people reading this) paired with a tot of the estate’s Broken Stem Late Harvest wine.

Grown men DO cry

“It’s hard to believe that 10 years have passed,” declares chef patron Frans Groenewald, who launched the venue in 2009 with his wife, Mariaan, and fellow-chef Juan van der Westhuizen. “When we started out, people said if we can’t make onion rings like the local steakhouse, we’re done for!”

Well, look where are you now, dear Frans and Mariaan! Who needs to compete with Cattle Baron, anyway? Gabriëlskloof Restaurant is a beautiful place run by passionate people whose love and dedication to their craft is as evident in the quality of the food as it is in the tears that rolled down their faces during certain “welcome” speeches to media guests.

Throat catching aside (and how endearing that was!), Frans and Mariaan made us feel welcome and even though it was their restaurant’s birthday, they wined, dined, and treated us like we were the ones turning a year older. It compelled me to write the following birthday song, which is pending a patent so don’t get any crafty ideas:

Happy birthday to you, I’m going to eat all your food, wash it down with your wine too, happy birthday Gabriëlskloof!

Here’s to another decade of success – I’ll be watching my inbox for that birthday invitation in 2029!

Gabrielskloof Restaurant stoep HR

Gabrielskloof Restaurant is open Monday to Sunday, 09:00 to 17:00. For bookings and enquiries, please email restaurant@gabrielskloof.co.za or call +27 (0)28 284 9865.

http://www.gabrielskloof.co.za

Sublime Wine Tasting in Hout Bay Vineyards’ Subterranean Cellars

Hout Bay Vineyards

Since having “flown the coop” after a childhood spent growing up in Hout Bay, I have, amongst other accomplishments, evolved a devastating love of wine. And so, a return to the valley to explore Hout Bay Vineyards’ wines seemed like a bit of an aligning of the cosmos to me; a prophecy fulfilled. More than anything, I was fascinated to see how the valley’s terroir – the same soil I had under my fingernails as a child – expresses itself in wine. As it turns out, Hout Bay is the progenitor of some extraordinary things.

Its wine is pretty decent, too!

Hout Bay Vineyards

Hout Bay Vineyards: a family affair

In September 2003, Peter and Catherine Roeloffze embarked upon a bold adventure that is the Earthly ambition of all wine lovers. They planted vineyards on their property at the top of Grotto Way in Hout Bay. Not even the immense boulders strewn about their slopes or the accidental herbicide dousing and subsequent obliteration of their precious vineyards threw them off their intended course of one day being able to make their own wine. Working in alliance with nearby farms in Hout Bay and Constantia Nek, Peter and Cathy were able to source the grapes they needed to produce Méthode Cap Classique and Sauvignon Blanc while they waited for their replanted vines to flourish.

Hout Bay Vineyards was officially opened in December 2007 and, the following month, the estate’s first harvest of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier grapes were juiced, fermented, and bottled. In 2011, after three years of bottle fermentation, Hout Bay Vineyards popped the cork on the estate’s maiden vintage of Méthode Cap Classique!

Hout Bay Vineyards

Today, the independently owned and family-run estate produces a handsome range of wines that includes (in addition to those previously mentioned) a blush wine (rosé made from the second pressing of MCC grapes), Merlot, Shiraz, and a Rhone-style blend. From the tragedy of having to rip up and replant their vineyards to establishing a respected Hout Bay winery that routinely sells out of its product, Peter and Cathy have created a legacy to be very, very proud of.

First impressions

The boutique family winery perches high atop the rocky, northwest-facing slopes of Bokkemanskloof. With its lofty altitude, apron of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier vineyards, embracing eucalyptus trees, and a nearby pond populated by numerous noisy ducks and geese, the Hout Bay Vineyards feels like an enchanted forest – like what one might discover on the other side of Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia.

Hout Bay Vineyards

First, however, we had to make our way up the driveway, which reared up towards the house at a frightful 45-degree angle. With the car protesting furiously and all clutch control out the window, we parked on a grassy verge and completed the short, calf-busting journey to the winery by foot. At the top, we were greeted by the lovely Catherine Roeloffze, the graceful yet down-to-Earth owner and winemaker of Hout Bay Vineyards.

A winery, not a gallery

The Hout Bay Vineyards is, first and foremost, a winery. Second to that, it is a family home. It is not an art gallery, fancy restaurant, ode to history, manicured garden, or any of the other things that so many Cape wine estates manage to be. There are no elaborate entranceways, sculptures by well-known South African artists, or clipped hedges to flatter your eyeballs as you walk in; only raw nature, stunning views, and delicious wines.

This is a boutique winery that produces an exceptional range of wines. As such, a visit here – which must be arranged beforehand by appointment with Cathy or her husband – offers a privileged peek under the petticoats of a working winery and cellar. We discovered this as we wound our way through a regiment of imposing fermentation vats and snaking pipes (and two very enthusiastic, waggy-bum family dogs) to the dimly lit interior of the wine tasting room.

Hout Bay Vineyards

The wine tasting room and cellar

Hout Bay Vineyards’ tasting room is a simple yet atmospheric affair: a single large table occupies its centre with benches for seating and a vaulted brick ceiling keeps conditions cool. Dusty collections of wine bottles occupy the corners and line the walls. A large window overlooks the basement/wine cellar, where thousands of bottles of wine lie in hibernation, and it was in this gorgeous and moody subterranean heaven that we explored Hout Bay Vineyards’ extensive wine range.

First up was the “Klasiek by Catherine,” a bone dry, zesty, and vibrant MCC with a lovely citrus and fresh brioche nose, made from grapes grown on the property. This was followed by a crisp, acidic Sauvignon Blanc with a grassy nose and fruity palate, made from two vineyard blocks – one located on the opposite side of the valley at about 150 meters altitude and the other higher up at 190 meters on Constantia Nek (still Hout Bay wine of origin area).

We then embarked upon the red wines, starting off with Hout Bay Vineyards Merlot 2016, a lovely pale ruby red wine with fruity cedar notes and a long, languid finish; the gorgeous 2016 Shiraz, an intense dark berry, fruit-forward wine with peppercorn spice and silky tannins; and finally, the 2014 Petrus, a Rhone-style blend of Shiraz, Grenache Noir, Mourvedré, Carignan, and Cinsault made by Cathy’s husband. The 50% Shiraz is sourced from their Constantia Nek farm, while the remaining grapes are bought in from Wellington.

Cathy hosted the tasting from beginning to end, lovingly presenting each wine to us and fielding our relentless questions. Every tasting was delivered from a bottle opened on the spot and at the end, we were welcomed to help ourselves to a glass of our favourite wine while we sat around happily chatting away.

Unable to choose, we purchased and went home with the entire wine range in the boot of our car.

Hout Bay Vineyards

Well worth a visit

People tend to visit Hout Bay for the harbour market, the fish and chips, the beach, and the spectacular views of Chapman’s Peak Drive. Well I say an even better reason to visit than all of the afore-mentioned is the Hout Bay Vineyards, a boutique winery, a family home, and a truly magical slice of heaven. It is also a place I would love to get accidentally locked in overnight, provided I’m left with a source of light and a bottle opener. The wines here are a loving expression of Hout Bay’s quality terroir and the passion that winemakers Cathy and Peter have for wine and for what they do.

Hout Bay Vineyards offers tasting by appointment only. Tastings cost R50 per person with a minimum charge of R300. For bookings and enquiries, please contact Cathy on +27 (0) 83 790 3303 or cathy@4mb.co.za

www.houtbayvineyards.co.za

1 High Meadow Estate, Grotto Road, Hout Bay

Live Your Pizza Fantasy with 95 at Parks’ REAL Italian Pizza Menu

Let’s talk about pizza crust.

Pizza crust is by far the most forgotten, most neglected part of the pizza. In fact, many people go so far as to discard it entirely, eating the soft cheesy interior and leaving behind sad semi moons of pizza perimeter.

I am guilty of this crime against pizza. Stomach real estate is a precious commodity when you’re facing off against an entire large pizza and so you can’t afford to stuff your belly with bland, bready crust.

The sausage crammed or cheese-filled crust was some pizza houses answer to this global tendency towards crust wastage. At 95 at Parks in Constantia, Cape Town, Milanese Chef-proprietor Giorgio Nava’s answer is to craft pizzas that are – crust to cheesy centre – so absolutely delicious that not even a crumb is left behind on that plate.

How does he do this?

Quality pizza = quality ingredients

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The not-so-secret is the freshness and fine artisanal quality of the ingredients. Forget processed mozzarella cheese, tinned tomato sauce, and mass, factory-produced dough. Within the kitchen at 95 at Parks, pizza is made the Italian way: with fresh, quality ingredients and components, sauces, and stocks that are lovingly and patiently hand-made.

“Our pizzas have been leavened with a mother yeast and beer and then left for 48 hours,” says Chef Giorgio, who has received nothing but praise for the 95 at Parks pizza menu from his Italian friends. “Resting the dough for two days, makes the pizzas much easier to digest and will never leave you feeling bloated.”

Pizza menu of Italian classics

Starting with these flavoursome and crisp foundations, Chef Giorgio layers lashings of rich tomato sauce made from pomodoro san Marzano (plum tomatoes), extra-virgin olive oil, and fior di latte cheese, a traditional semi-soft and creamy Southern Italian mozzarella.

From here, it can go one of six ways:

It can be crowned with a bushel of basil for the simple, yet trusted Pizza Margherita; scattered with olives, grilled broccoli, spinach, and mushrooms for the Pizza Orto (vegetarian); dressed with olives, anchovies, and capers for the Pizza Siciliana; swathed with prosciutto crudo di Parma (Italian dry-cured ham) and rocket for the Pizza Prosciutto Crudo; layered with prosciutto cotto (cooked ham), basil leaves, and Grana Padano cheese for the Pizza Prosciutto Cotto; or prepared with mortadella sausage, basil, and grana Padano for the Pizza con Mortadella.

Nea-poli-tan Mon-tanaa-raaa

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The crowning glory of Chef Giorgio’s small but authentic Italian pizza menu is the Neapolitan Montanara. Say it slowly: Nea-poli-tan Mon-tanaa-raaa. The very words sound edible, right?

This is, essentially, a Margherita pizza but instead of getting baked in the oven as is usually the case, the pizza dough is quickly deep-fried and then layered with that wonderful plum tomato sauce, creamy fior di latte cheese, fresh basil, and Grana Padano shavings. The result is a pizza that is, from crust to cheesy centre, eye-closingly delicious and satisfying.

The crust of Chef Giorgio’s Neapolitan Montanara can be likened to vetkoek: savoury, flavourful, and crisp on the outside, yet soft and steamy on the inside. And if that’s not enough to convince you to polish off the entire thing, you can always drizzle a little extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar on your plate and eat the crust with that!

Pizza for lunch

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Truth be told, our lunch at 95 at Parks was the first time I’d ever heard of the Neapolitan Montanara pizza and yet, it is apparently a culinary creation of legendary proportions. After browsing my way through one with a glass of the Terra Del Capo Sangiovese (when in Italy, right?) I can fully understand why it has achieved this status.

The Neapolitan Montanara is sensational.

But just to make sure that Chef Giorgio Nava’s other pizzas are as authentically Italian and, ergo, delicious as promised, my plus one and I shared a Pizza Orto and Prosciutto Crudo over a bottle of the Muratie Melck’s Blended Red 2015. I’m proud to say that while we didn’t finish everything on the plate, all leftovers were bagged and enjoyed later for dinner. The wine, however, didn’t stand a chance.

95-at-Parks-Muratie-Wine

Tip: if you ask for fresh chilli or garlic with your pizza at 95 at Parks, they will chop it fresh for you in the kitchen and then serve it to you swimming in extra virgin olive oil. Bellissimo!

By the way, 95 at Parks also offers a regular à la carte menu so if your partner is on some boring diet, you can still indulge your pizza fantasy.

Highly recommended

95-at-Parks-Pizza

Since 2017, 95 at Parks has been the Southern Suburb’s go-to authentic Italian eatery and now they are placing a renewed focus on that most famous of Italian dishes: the pizza and in particular the Neapolitan Montanara. So if you love your pizza – and would like, for a change, to enjoy your pizza crust – I can ardently recommend that you pay 95 at Parks a visit.

Priced from R100 to R140, 95 at Parks’ pizzas are available for dinner, Mondays to Saturdays (18:00 to 22:00), and for lunch on Thursdays and Fridays (12:00 to 15:00). For bookings and enquiries, call +27 (0) 21 761 0247 or email parks@95keerom.com.

This blog article was originally written for Southern Vines magazine, the largest lifestyle and leisure magazine in the Western Cape of South Africa: https://www.southernvines.co.za/2019/06/18/live-your-pizza-fantasy-with-95-at-parks-real-italian-pizza-menu/

Blockhouse Kitchen serves “try-not-to-lick-your-plate” delicious food

If you’ve had your ear tuned in to the Cape Town foodie / culinary airwaves, you’ll likely have heard about the recent opening of Blockhouse Kitchen at the arrestingly beautiful Constantia Uitsig Wine Estate. It has generated quite a bit of noise. Situated in the oldest wine-producing region in South Africa and, in fact, the Southern Hemisphere, Blockhouse Kitchen is headed by Executive Chef Brad Ball, who returns to the estate after 12 years at the helm of the previous restaurant, River Café (and who completed a five-year stint at nearby Steenberg Farm’s Bistro Sixteen82). Curious to see whether the restaurant is worthy of the hype, we paid it a visit on a blustery winter’s evening.

The look, the feel

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The weather actually couldn’t have been better suited to our purposes. On a cold evening, there’s nothing quite as inviting as a rustic, country-style restaurant in an historical building older than the Titanic and whose various dining rooms are warmed by raging fires. The main area of this 250-seater restaurant exudes a country-chic, contemporary feel while the two smaller ancillary rooms are simpler, barer, and more rustic in appeal. Ceramic pitchers and bowls of fresh produce like lemons, pears, mushrooms, and chilli peppers function as farm-style “décor” and enormous tapestries with textured prints adorn the walls.

The kitchen is separated from the main dining room by countertops and a glass wall (so you can watch the magic in action) and a combination of the tantalising aromas wafting from its stovetops and the wine cellar, which is visible through a floor-to-ceiling glass wall, heightens the anticipation of the food and wine experience to come!

Blockhouse-Kitchen-1 Constantia Uitsig

Food, glorious food (and wine)

Blockhouse Kitchen offers an all-day dining experience that is both healthy and eco-conscious. Here, nose-to-tail and root-to-leaf philosophies are applied to every dish, which not only constitutes a more sustainable approach to dining but also means that dishes are generous in portion and pricing. The menu is varied, packed with local and seasonal ingredients and dishes, and is guaranteed to please both foodies and those with more conventional palates.

For starters, we shared two small plates, one off the menu and one off the specials board: the crunchy, deep-fried squid fritto miso with courgette, fresh lemon, and garlic, and a divine harissa-spiced aioli; and the earthy, wild mushroom ragu with pistachio pesto and polenta porridge. These, we paired with a glass of the Uitsig Chardonnay Reserve 2016, an elegant, well-structured and balanced wooded Chardonnay with earthy and citrus aromas of lime and orange.

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Squid Fritto Miso
Wild-mushroom-ragu-blockhouseWild Mushroom Ragu

On a side note, while the restaurant does maintain an impressive and varied selection of local and international wines, I most ardently recommend that you pair your food with Constantia Uitsig’s spectacular repertoire of wines. “When in Rome”, as they say!

For mains, I had the slow-braised lamb shoulder, which was so tender and soft I didn’t know whether to eat it or use it as a pillow to sleep on. This was smothered in a rich, red wine jus, whole baby carrots, winter caponata (a Sicilian eggplant dish), and Parmesan polenta. My plus one chose the winter Bolognese casarecce: twisted tubes of homemade pasta served in a rich, savoury Bolognese sauce made from slow-cooked, grass-fed beef and dusted generously with Parmesan cheese.

Braised-Lamb-shoulder-blockhouse
Braised Lamb Shoulder

For this course, I chose a glass of the Constantia Uitsig Red Horizon, the only red wine the estate makes, and a delicious, light, and elegant blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc. The wine had a lively nose of bright, red cherries with lingering tobacco and ripe plum notes and lovely soft tannins, which paired beautifully with the lamb.

Bellies happily filled, we opted to forego dessert in favour of a glass of the Constantia Uitsig Muscat D’Alexandrie, a rich and soft dessert wine bursting with ripe peach and flower fragrances. The Constantia valley is historically and internationally acclaimed for its Muscat or Muskadel (to use the South African term) or Moscato (if you prefer Italian) – are you keeping up here? So, naturally, Uitsig’s expression of this sweet wine could quite aptly be compared to the ambrosia of the Gods.

Blockhouse-Kitchen-Dessert-Wine

Blockhouse Kitchen confirms the rumours

The rumours abound were that Blockhouse Kitchen serves a mighty good supper and that the food is unpretentious but absolutely delicious. I can confirm that these rumours are indeed true. Chef Brad Ball and his team create environmentally conscious dishes that are take-home-in-a-doggy-box tasty; swat-your-partner’s-hand-for-trying-to-sneak-a-bite flavoursome; and have-to-make-a-concerted-effort-not-to-lick-your-plate delicious. So, if you count yourself as someone who loves a good “foodie” spoil but isn’t comfortable with the expense and measly portion sizes of other fine dining establishments, Blockhouse Kitchen is a must-visit restaurant to add to your culinary bucket list!

Blockhouse Kitchen is open for breakfast and lunch from Monday to Sunday, 09:00 – 11:30 | 12:00 to 22:00 and dinner from Tuesday to Saturday. For bookings and enquiries, please email info@bhkitchen.co.za or call +27 (0) 21 794 3010. 

www.blockhousekitchen.co.za

Constantia Uitsig Wine Estate, Spaanschemat River Road, Fir Grove, Constantia

This article was originally written for Southern Vines, the largest lifestyle and leisure magazine in the Western Cape of South Africa: https://www.southernvines.co.za/2019/07/01/blockhouse-kitchen-serves-try-not-to-lick-your-plate-delicious-food/