Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Tasting the Good Life at Waterkloof Wine Estate

On the scale of romantic daydreams, few wine estates let your expectations soar as high as Waterkloof does. Before you even arrive you have visions that maybe, just for one day, you can feel like a millionaire, meandering the in the vineyard, taking in the view, nibbling on artisanal cheese and sampling world-class wine. “This is the good life,” you might say to trusty Jeeves while gazing out the window, “by golly, this is the good life indeed.”

The windows at Waterkloof are no ordinary windows – no, no – they are 10-meter tall walls of green glass set into a concrete frame that form a work of modern architecture set proudly on the slopes of the Schapenberg. Vineyards surround the building, rising 300 dramatic meters above sea level, against the backdrop of the Hottentots-Holland and Helderberg Mountains beyond. From inside, the open plan space feels decadent – and with a view like this you can’t help but stand a little taller. A section of the dining area peaks out farther from the building – seeming to float in midair – greedily taking an extra helping of the view. The tasting area, defined by leather loungers, is centrally placed. The gravitational cellar, set behind another pane of glass, gives you the feeling you’re observing a rare species in very a glamorous aquarium focused on the wonders of another kind of liquid altogether.

I had always wanted to visit Waterkloof so when the opportunity to enjoy a tasting and Ploughman’s lunch with my dearest presented itself, I jumped for it. Better yet – we were also going to explore the vineyards on a two-hour meander by horseback – part of a special seasonal package. The timing couldn’t have been better – in the last few weeks before the silly season I was feeling like a getaway more than ever.

At last, the day came. We arrived at Orion Stables & Riding Academy where we would begin our ride, a loop from the stables to Waterkloof and back again. We met our guide, Monique, who introduced us to our horses – or “mounts,” as they say. The wind was blowing and whipped my hair wildly – I felt like I was caught in the draft of a giant outdoor hair dryer – and this was not helping my mood.

I was feeling a little anxious.

You see, I had only done this once before. And she was standing right in front of me – looking down at me, towering over me. She was so much bigger than I thought. She stared at me with those dark, soft eyes, and waited for me to make the first move. Her name is Monami, a former world-class show jumper now enjoying her retirement in the Cape wine lands – something many humans dream of but never attain. Our guide assured me she’s a gentle thing – and she was, sweet as pie. We met and I took my place in the saddle. While we waited for the others I talked with her, “Nice girl,” I said, “Beautiful, girl. My, just look at the view, it’s the Cape Floral Kingdom before us.” We began our journey and carried on talking in this way, or at least I carried on talking in this way, as we went.

The vines were shining in the sun, glowing shades of green and yellow. My mind wandered. I felt like I was in a scene from the pioneer days – wafts of the past flickered across the landscape. These fields, set up high with a perfect few of False Bay, were once used more than 300-years ago as a lookout by Willem Adriaan van der Stel, once an unscrupulous Governor of the Cape who sent his men to be the first to spot the trading ships entering the bay. The ships would be in need of fresh supplies and whoever got there first would make the sale. For competing Cape farmers, it was a race but van der Stel’s view gave him an unfair advantage. By the time the rest of the farmers arrived at the beach, no doubt huffing, puffing and sweating from hustling their ox cars laden with goods, he would already be closing shop, counting the money he’d already made and looking forward to a breezy ride home.

I woke from my daydream and I was back in the moment, the vineyards all around. It was beautiful spending time among the vines and it was quiet – so very quiet. I felt only the rhythm of our gentle pace, the sun on my skin and the feeling of nature in my spirit. Off in the distance the mountains seemed like an impenetrable wall, rising steeply, and the hills in the distance seem to gradually plunge to kneel at the base of the valley.

I could see Waterkloof then, not too far away. The structure of the building was a contrast to the land – hard edges and materials, and it shone in the morning light. We were greeted by Christiaan, the farm manager, who helped us show our horses to their resting place for some fresh water and hay snacks.

We were shown to the tasting area and joined by Sonja – a bubbly and vibrant lady who guided us through the tasting menu with friendly enthusiasm and technical detail. The wines were in the European-style – not overly fruity. We made our way through the Sauvignon Blancs – trying to decide which one was our favourite – a toss-up between the ever so slightly oaked Circumstance, still tight with mineral tones, and the Waterkloof, crisp and flinty, normally only available in the restaurant. The cheese platter arrived and we sampled the wines over again – pairing this one with that one – still trying to pick a favourite while indulgence melted in our mouths. After the whites we tried the Circumstance Cape Coral Mourvedre, a dry rosé, playfully pink – a good choice for a Saturday’s lunch. New globe glasses were presented as we moved into the reds. My favorites were the Waterkloof Cabernet Sauvignon, a big wine – smooth, dark and juicy – and the Waterkloof Shiraz, a good balance of peppery spice and smooth berry notes –a special occasion wine, I think.

Christiaan was at the door, ready to take us back to our horses for the return leg of our journey. We climbed the hill and saddled up. Before turning to go I patted my mount, Monami for one of the last times, sighed at the beauty of the experience and picked up our conversation where I left off. “Yes,” I said, gazing at the landscape, “This is the good life. By golly, this is the good life indeed.”

The Details:

· Located outside Somerset West on the M9 Sir Lowry’s Pass Village Road

· The horse riding experience costs R420 per person, including wine and a meat and cheese platter; to book contact Orion Stables & Riding Academy at 021 8581938

· To reserve your table at Waterkloof Restaurant contact 021 858 1491 or email:

· For more information visit or call 021 858 1292

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Timeless Welcome at the Knorhoek Country Guesthouse

It’s a perfect summer’s Sunday – the air is fresh and the morning sunlight tickles the landscape making everything feel warm and golden. Jagged peaks punctuate the sky, rising dramatically above us. Tidy farms dot the rolling hills in the distance, the crops laid out to form shapes of varying colour on the land. Neat vines zip past my window, row after row. The leaves form a blur of happy warmth, waving ‘hello’ as we bounce past farther into the wine lands with a growing sense of wonder at this peaceful place.

Getting closer to our destination the road narrows and a white-washed fence appears on either side, ushering us on. Flowers decorate the view in bursts of red, orange, purple and white. A canopy of tall oaks offers shady comfort for our arrival and I feel completely at home. This is nature’s reception to the van Niekerk’s fifth generation family farm in Stellenbosch, now a boutique wine estate, where we’re looking forward to a weekend retreat.

I step out of the car to survey the scene, reflecting on the name of the place, “Knorhoek.” Roughly translated, it means the place where the wild cats growl. Things sure were different for the first members of the van Niekerk family who travelled here – unloading the ox cart after an exhausting journey and being greeted by the sounds of ferocious mountain lions would be a bit unnerving, to say the least. I’m shaken out of my daydream by a sound, too – not a lion but the family dog, a white bull terrier named Merlot who greets me panting, his tail wagging in happy excitement. Lucky for me he’s just a friendly little clown and we quickly become friends.

We go inside and meet Samantha who is expecting us and greets us warmly. We put our names down in the oversized guest book, next to those of previous guests from all over the world. The reception area is placed in an open plan space with the feeling of a family home and connects to the breakfast room and kitchen on either side. It also includes an informal dining room, a bookshelf of travel literature in various languages, plus a lounge, complete with overstuffed couches, a fireplace and a television. Samantha encourages us to enjoy the space, even after hours, and gives us our own key. She shows us the honour bar, too – fully stocked with estate wine, and chilled beer and water. I love the simplicity and openness here, like I’m staying with family friends.

We walk with Samantha to our room just next door – and see that it has its own private entrance and stoep. Inside the antique cupboard, desk and wood-panelled ceiling create a homey feeling. Freshly picked flowers decorate the room – at the foot of the bed on our neatly folded towels, on the bedside tables and in the immaculate bathroom – a nice touch. The bed is inviting, with its plush pillows and crisp white linen, but we resist the temptation to nap for a vineyard walk instead.

We meander along the grounds, past the manor house and gardens. A peacock calls in the distance, ducks fly overhead, and the estate’s small stream babbles quietly. After just a few minutes we’re following the line of the vines down a gently sloping path. Now I hear a familiar sound – it’s Merlot – as happy as before. He canters up ahead, pretending not to pay too much attention to us even though his left ear is perked in our direction the whole time. The path rounds a corner and there they are – the majestic Simonsberg Mountains dominating the view, a giant wall of purple rising up, the kind you see in magazines and that make you want to go places. We stand still in the quiet and watch for a while.

Feeling inspired, we continue back through the vineyard and to the tasting room where we sit outside on the patio enjoying the view from under our sun-shade umbrella. We chat with our hosts and another guest, a French Canadian visiting from Montreal who entertains us with stories of travel to the wine lands of France and Italy. We enjoy a cheese platter while taking our time, sampling the range of boutique wines – white, sparkling and special reds – which have been recognized with multiple awards from Veritas, the Michelangelo International Wine Awards, and many more not to mention glowing reviews from the John Platter Guide. It’s no surprise that I have difficulty choosing my favourite one – a toss-up between the Pinotage (juicy with hints of ripe banana), the Cabernet Sauvignon (smooth, berry red, a hint of spice and oak) and the flagship, the Pantere (spicy, complex – a big wine that would go well with a special dinner). Luckily for me I don’t have to choose – I purchase one of each as lovely souvenirs.

After the tasting we wander towards the estate restaurant, just across the way. Aptly named “Towerbosch,” it is set under the cover of the trees, bordering a large garden. Merlot is still with us, going off this way and that, investigating sounds in the bush, inspecting rock piles or digging holes in the ground. I hear an owl hoot in the distance – and then, there she is, swooping high to low then up again, landing on the height of a young tree. She is a Cape Eagle Owl and we feel her presence as she watches us. I creep closer for a better look, slowly, slowly – until she turns and faces me square. She won’t allow me any closer. I stand – ever so still. Then, from the corner of my eye I see another owl. And then another. Perhaps the rest of her family has arrived. The moment feels important and special and the sound of their calls envelopes us.

We return to our little stoep and open a bottle of the Knorhoek Cabernet Sauvignon – my favourite at the moment – and it’s a real treat to sit and enjoy it in the place where it was crafted. We sit back and relax, sipping slowly, listening to dusk’s lullaby – crickets with their night song, the trees still rustling overhead, the muffled noise of peacocks and in the distance, the hooting of the owls. After a while we retire to the comfort of the lounge where we make ourselves at home to enjoy the last bits of our cheese platter – a few tastes of the day’s pleasure left. Time passes into evening as we talk about everything and nothing in particular. After a while the comfort of the bed is calling again. This time we retire, sinking into its fluffy layers. It’s been a good day, I think – I feel content, inspired and free. Perhaps this is the feeling the first members of the van Niekerk family had when they came here for the first time, too – perhaps this is the reason they decided to found Knorhoek and the reason why each generation has made the same decision to stay here and call this “home.” Perhaps things weren’t so different in those days after all – except for maybe the lions.


  • 8 rooms, en-suite (bath or shower) including a family and honeymoon suite, and two luxury self-catering cottages with braai facilities
  • The rates range from R420 per person per night for a room to R2 000 per night at one of the luxury self-catering cottages for four people sharing. All guest house rates include breakfast. Cosy lounge with fireplace and a dining room to use at leisure
  • Lunches at Towerbosch Wed-Fri during summer and at weekends year-round (booking essential); Dinner Mon-Fri by prior arrangement
  • Activities on the estate: Wine tasting, vineyard walks; tennis, landscaped rock pool (children welcome); fly-fishing; bird watching; Near the estate: Golf (ten of the top the Western Cape’s top courses within 30-minutes of travel), horse riding, hiking trails
  • Located 10 minutes from Stellenbosch, 40 minutes from Cape Town International Airport, and 50 minutes from the V & A Waterfront
  • For reservations, phone: (+27)21 865 2114/5; email:; or visit:

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Closer to Home: Knorhoek’s Towerbosch Earth Kitchen

These days the wine lands represent ideas of the good life - sophistication, culture, class - and people travel to far flung destinations around the globe just for a taste. Yet here in South Africa we have the best of these things plus the pioneering foundation of our history to draw inspiration from. Under its romantic sheen the heart of our wine country is formed by the simplistic honesty of farming, good old fashioned values and the persevering strength of family.

A few generational farms still exist – special places like the Knorhoek Wine Estate in Stellenbosch – and today I’ve been invited to lunch. I’ve heard it feels like home – that it’s a place with the power to revive old memories, to make them feel new again, especially the mundane ones that multiply in importance as the years go by, like afternoons with family over a good home cooked meal, or when I was a girl playing in the garden for hours on end. I live far away from my family now and those times hold a special place in my heart, so I found the prospect of revisiting them intriguing.

From the outside the building looks like a fairy hut – inviting and warm, low to the ground – and it stretches along the length of the pool. Inside it feels light and airy with a vaulted ceiling and exposed wooden beams, from which a contemporary artwork is suspended for dramatic effect. Like a new age chandelier it’s a bird’s nest of tangled twigs and branches, foraged from the grounds of the estate before being white-washed and woven in place. Punctuating this organic bramble are glowing bouquets of glass bulbs and patches of antique cutlery – floating butter knives and hovering spoons, along with tea cups and saucers in odd bins of china, porcelain and ceramics – caught in mid-air. The dining area is flanked by a lounge filled with books, travelogues and at least a decade’s worth of neatly packed National Geographic magazines, like big blocks of wonder waiting to be unlocked. Yellow curtains dance on the breeze, serenaded by the contemporary Afrikaans music that wanders from the kitchen to the dining area.

Our host, Jean Pierre, invites us to settle in and shares the Asado menu with us, a traditional Sunday roast-up with all the trimmings. We order a bottle of the Knorhoek Cabernet Sauvignon – rated four-stars by the John Platter Guide and a great partner for the lamb to come. We toast and savour our first sips - juicy, berry rich, classically oaked. Dish by dish, lunch is introduced. We start with empanadas – a pocket stuffed with lamb encased in a light shell. Shortly afterwards we’re treated to fresh bread – the crust is crisp and the crumb is soft, still warm from the oven – accompanied by homemade apricot jam – I think the best I’ve ever had. The next course is a generous bowl of smorsnoek and curried onions – a lovely combination of sweet, sour and spicy.

Before the main course arrives we take some time to meander outside on the lawn and lounge in the shade of the gazebo. We chat with a large family nearby, enjoying the day at picnic tables under the oaks. Their children romp freely just out of earshot but still within sight – climbing over the jungle gym, holding court on the stage (available for formal functions) and rearranging the deck chairs between splashes in the pool. As I watch them I can’t help but feel the twinkle in my eyes.

Back at the table the curtain begins to rise on the main event. Like performers in a gastronomic ballet the wait staff deliver choreographed indulgence to the table – broccoli and cauliflower gratin, marmalade sweet potatoes, crispy roast potato wedges, a salad just picked from the garden and finally, our new centrepiece, a platter of perfectly pink sirloin and shoulder of lamb so tender it seems to throw itself onto my fork with the slightest bit of nudging – just like my dad’s. Dessert is a toffee apple pudding – sweetly dense and gooey, almost like my grandma’s famous upside-down-cake. With each bite I feel a small helping of comfort, and maybe – just maybe – a little closer to home.

  • TEL: 021 865 2958

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Seeking Chenin’s Serious Side

South Africa plants more Chenin Blanc than any other grape variety and production levels here are the highest in the world, yet she carries the stigma of unsophisticated bulk wine and many consumers overlook her true potential as an elegant gem. But Chenin Blanc’s struggle for recognition isn’t over yet and her unsung story is complete with champions like Ken Forrester set on changing the odds.

The humble Chenin Blanc grape is a curious character. Something like the quiet girl at the party, she has all the grace and sophistication one could want for – yet she fades into the background next to the glitz and glamour of her outspoken cousins Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. A walk into an average wine shop confirms her small pool of friends – bottle after bottle, other wines greet you at the door and only if you make it past their bells and whistles, seeming to catcall to you from the shelves as you walk by, will you find poor little Chenin tucked away in some small corner – sometimes overlooked and mostly underappreciated.

There is of course a reason for this ugly-duckling status – until a few decades ago Chenin was used to produce the bottom-of-the-barrel for the down-and-nearly-outs of society. Her history in South Africa started out innocently enough – Chenin was among the very first vine clippings planted by Jan van Riebeeck in 1655 – but the winemakers of the day had a fairly poor knowledge of viticulture, allowing the vines to grow like weeds and produce generous harvests of grapes that had little similarity to the complex quality and concentrated characteristics of Chenin when yields are low. Adding insult to injury, basic winemaking materials like oak barrels and fining were not readily available in the Cape, meaning that Chenin Blanc wine was what today we call plonk – it might have even made that sound upon landing in one’s glass – but let’s leave that topic for another time. It was so unpleasant that the officers of the Dutch East India Company wouldn’t dare touch it and only the working classes would.

But in 1806 a funny thing happened – the British occupied the Cape. I say this was funny not in the hilarious sense, but in the ironic sense. At war with France, the English Empire was desperately cut-off from the trade of French wine and to substitute they began exporting Cape wine to the world. The demand was so great that Cape wine production increased by ten-fold and the British were soon pumping millions of litres of plonk to their unsuspecting kinsmen everywhere. This surely must have hastened efforts to kiss and make up with France. When a treaty was finally signed in the 1860’s the bottom fell out. Alas, the party was over and like a discarded mistress the Cape wine industry was left holding the bag.

Then a pivotal question presented itself – just what to do with all that wine? Eventually a decision was taken to distil it into brandy - a process that yields one litre of brandy for every five litres of wine. In a way Chenin Blanc’s versatility rescued the industry from bankruptcy but this didn’t do much for her reputation since the quality of brandy, known as “witblitz” or “firewater”, was even worse than plonk wine. After this Chenin’s fate was pretty much sealed and until a few years ago no one would give her a second look let alone believe in her potential for elegance.

But did you know that a South African Chenin Blanc, properly made today, rivals the finest examples in the world, even those from Loire Valley, France where the grape originated? And just like any good underdog story Chenin Blanc has her champions – her knights in shining armour – who fight to change her reputation from one of ill repute to one of true stature. People like Ken Forrester discovered her potential before most in the industry, and even started the Chenin Blanc Association as a way to both elevate quality and change perceptions.

Discovering “diamonds in the rough” is something of a pastime for Mr. Forrester. When he decided to move from Johannesburg to Stellenbosch he found a new home for his young family – not just any home, he bought a derelict structure through public auction that had been standing vacant for years. There was no roof, no electricity, and evidence of vandalism was all over the place - sounds like a real charmer to me. But what do I know? As it turns out, his instincts were spot on – this historic Cape Dutch homestead was built in 1694, part of a farm originally granted in 1689 and today this manor home has been restored to its original glory. Besides his passion for Chenin Blanc, Mr. Forrester considers Pinotage to be another unsung story and is intent on revealing its true potential as a wine with structure, one that can even be confused with classic Burgundy, if it is kept in the barrel and aged in the cellar longer before its release. He makes a case for a change in industry standards to better inform the consumer about the care that goes into developing a wine, to encourage both craftsmanship on the part of the industry, and informed appreciation by consumers. With vision like this it’s not hard to imagine his passion for Chenin Blanc paying off – and in fact, it is already starting.

Ken Forrester wines have been recognized globally and served at gala events, including Nelson Mandela’s 85th birthday celebration. The democratic offering comes in three tiers – a value, estate, and premium range – so there is something for every occasion and every wallet. No matter which Chenin Blanc you choose, according to Wine Spectator the entire offering ranks upwards of 86-points– a nod that they are truly outstanding varietals. Best of all the 2009 Forrester Meinert Chenin (FMC) earned a 92-point rating – on par with some of the best that France can offer, albeit at a decidedly more welcoming price point.

With such a successful track record perhaps Ken Forrester has struck onto something significant – in a highly competitive global market why try to compete with the Sauvignon Blancs and Chardonnays of the world when they’re already surrounding us with their fame, calling to us from every aisle shouting “4-stars” this and “double-gold” that. At the end of the party, aren’t they just more of the same, like so many wilted flowers? When Chenin Blanc is so well suited to the South African climate and has the potential as a niche offering worldwide, why not set our own standard? Perhaps Chenin Blanc is our lady in waiting after all. Funny thing is, she’s been here all along. Funny not in the hilarious sense, but in the ironic sense. If only we would notice.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Port Elizabeth’s Unexpected Thai Treasures

Port Elizabeth is known for its sandy beaches, flip-flop vibe, and most widely for its place on the map as the Garden Route’s gateway – but it’s also the unlikely home to two Thai food gems that make a visit a veritable treasure hunt. Theresa Lozier uncovers some of its hidden bounty.

In Thailand, food is an intrinsic part of culture – so much so that the traditional Thai greeting is not “hello” or “how are you?” – it is, “Have you eaten yet?” The preparation and presentation of food, and even the way it is shared and enjoyed, is linked to social norms and fundamental beliefs that help form Thailand’s social fabric. Thai people believe that dishes are meant to be shared, that it’s bad luck to eat alone, that wasting food angers the God of Rice and can even result in famine, and that beautiful presentation pleases the traditional monarch, the King of Siam, to no end. Even the Royal Thai Embassy’s web site has an official listing of authentic Thai restaurants, endorsing them as “a way to experience Thailand while in South Africa”. Not surprisingly, the list of these establishments runs long in foodie capitals like Cape Town and Johannesburg, but includes only two in the whole Eastern Cape – both of them in Port Elizabeth.

When it comes to food, it’s hard to imagine humble Port Elizabeth competing with the likes of Cape Town and Johannesburg, each with hoards of resident celebrity chefs competing on an international level. Be that as it may, this laid-back beach town has something its big sister and brother strive to recreate – a no frills authenticity and an honest, soulful nature that can’t help but make everyone feel at home. So perhaps it is fitting then that Port Elizabeth should host two of South Africa’s most authentic Thai restaurants, both intent on making their guests feel welcome by sharing the community spirit of their culture in their own unique ways.

Natti’s Thai Kitchen – An evening with friends

It’s a balmy summer’s evening and a slight breeze in the air brings welcome relief to the day. We’re arriving at a restored Victorian house in Port Elizabeth’s historic quarter, now home to Natti’s Thai Kitchen, an institution among locals. We approach the door under the twinkling fairy lights – step by step our noses are tickled by the aromas of our dinner to come. Mark, the owner, greets us at the door barefoot, his hair wavy and his smile as warm as the kitchen. It’s our first time meeting but we chat like we’re friends already.

The walls of the restaurant are painted in hues of yellow and the fiery red drapes glow in the soft candlelight. As my eyes adjust Mark leads us past a giant chalkboard menu, a painting of Buddha, and an antique fireplace. We walk over the creaking wooden floors and out onto the patio where we have a view of the flowers and herbs in his private garden. The scene is complete with a fishpond and an inviting swinging lounger – I imagine myself relaxing there sometime after our meal.

While we are being seated we chat about the Thai flavours we love – spicy and savoury, coriander, seafood and green curry, creamy coconut. It feels like more of a conversation than an order and with that, Mark disappears into the kitchen promising to return with something we will enjoy. A short while later he presents us with a mixed platter of spicy satay, fresh spring rolls and calamari served with Thai dips like Nam Prik Kapi (chili) and Nam Jim Kai (sweet), everything homemade by Natti herself, Mark’s wife, a Thai national. For our main course we enjoy the fish curry, full of satisfying seafood and flavours that dance in my mouth. I savour and cheer with each bite. We finish with the tempura banana and ice cream – crunchy and creamy, warm and cold, sweet and salty – the perfect finish to a lovely evening. Time to find that swinging lounger.

  • TEL: 041 373 2763

Narai Siam Thai Kitchen – A celebration of colour

Entering the doors of Narai Siam Thai Kitchen, on a quiet out of the way street in an unassuming converted house, is like being simultaneously smacked by an array of bright colours and carried away to an Asian version of Carnival. Every table, wall and even the ceiling is adorned in authentic Thai tapestries in hot pink, yellow, green and blue. Shimmering mirrors reflect the light like little disco balls, making this tiny space feel larger than life. The feeling is festive yet casual, perfect for groups in a celebratory mood while window nook seating offers a semi-private space for smaller parties.

My friend and I are looking forward to a lunch out, a celebration of nothing and everything in particular. We make jovial small talk with our host who brings us our order-by-number menus. We start with a classic, an order of crispy spring rolls, and dipping sauce, and order a bottle of Noble Hill Sauvignon Blanc –perfect with just about any food with its lemony, crisp finish.

Our host returns promptly with the starter and wine and takes the rest of our order. I go for my favourite, #30 Penang Curry with Chicken, and my friend has #57, the Pad Thai. Just a few bites in and we are loving the food, the vibe and our funny host. The restaurant starts to fill with the voices of other patrons and all of them seem just a jovial as the surroundings – it feels like we’ve happened upon a mid-day’s party. When the coast is clear we take turns sneaking away to have a peek at the infamous men’s loo – where the décor is guaranteed to bring a laugh, if not a blush as red as the sweet chili sauce! We cool down over Thai iced teas – brewed to perfection, they are satisfyingly sweet, authentically Thai and beautiful to look at – like the entire restaurant experience distilled into one glass.

  • TEL: 041 363 8126

Monday, October 18, 2010

Glitzy, Girly Glamour at the House of J.C. Le Roux

I love champagne, cap classique, cava, prosecco, spumante, sekt and sparkling – we have different names for it in regions all over the world, but however you say it, I love bubbly. I love the ritual of opening the bottle – of peeling away the foil seal, like golden wrapping paper, of gently turning the wire safety, finally revealing the cork. I love that quiet moment of anticipation before turning the cork until it explodes into my hand, and the vapour that whispers out of the bottle before a delicate pour into an elegant champagne flute, and that special “cling”. I especially love the guilty pleasure of opening a bottle just for me – champagne-savers, those ingenious little bottle sealer contraptions that let you enjoy your bubbles on more days than one, are a wonderful invention.

Perhaps the champagne-saver is a symbol of the growing popularity of bubblies everywhere. No longer reserved for uber-special occasions like anniversaries or proposals, these days I find myself enjoying it with friends more often – perhaps because it’s Friday, or because we feel like a bit of girly exuberance. And why not? There are many wineries producing quality options at a price point that makes celebrating for no particular reason completely accessible. In a way, these producers are democratizing the idea of bubbly – bringing the attributes that we associate with this drink, like luxury, exclusivity and sophistication – to ladies of today at a price they can palette while lunching on sushi and looking at the world through rose-coloured designer sunglasses.

The House of J. C. le Roux, part of a historic farm established by French Huguenot Jean le Roux in the 18th century, is one of the wineries changing the marketplace in South Africa today. Exclusively dedicated to the production of bubbly, including the award-winning Pongracz label, J.C. le Roux offers a sparkling and Cap Classique range that is priced to suit just about any occasion. Placed on one of Devon Valley’s rolling hills, you’ll find it at the end of an ambling road that takes you through the countryside past dams, vines, and under the shade of sprawling trees. It feels a world away and is certainly worth a special trip. Most importantly, don’t forget your gaggle of girlfriends. While men certainly can (and should) enjoy the experience, this is a wine tasting that has been especially designed with ladies in mind.

As testament to this, as my friends and I were arriving for a recent tasting we were greeted by the sight of a group of giggling ladies, dressed in pink and floral dresses, who had stopped their car on the side of the road to pose for pictures with the J.C. le Roux entrance sign. As we approached the tasting room we noticed yet more ladies, lounging in the sun next to the water feature, beautifully packaged bottles of MCC decorating their feet. Upon entering we were swept away by streaming chandeliers, made to look like strings of bubbles floating up to the ceiling, a decadent looking pink and grey vintage-print lounger, and individual tables set for relaxed and semi-private tastings, complete with pink tablecloths and rows of gleaming champagne flutes. It was like we had arrived at the VIP section of a secret ladies’ society.

We had our choice of the MCC tasting or a mix of MCC and sparkling wines, plus the added pairing options of sorbet or the “Sweet Delights” selection. We unanimously chose a tasting of MCC range paired with sweet delights – decadent cubes of dark chocolate nougat, rosewater Turkish Delight, vanilla fudge, and more. It was utterly indulgent and worth every bite.

Halfway through we were invited outside to witness a sevrage bottle opening – a traditional technique that employs a sabre to swipe the lip of the bottle, making a clean break in the glass that separates the bottleneck from the lip, a sort of “beheading” that leaves the cork still intact in the bottle top that falls to the ground. History tells us that Napoleon’s cavalry used this method just after the French Revolution to kick-off the celebrations of many victories across Europe. I can’t think of any other tipple with an opening method as show stopping as this, yet another display of the absolute decadence bubbly brings to the table. It’s not just a drink, it’s a glass of joy. Perhaps this is why we love it so much – it takes us back to the days of pomp and circumstance, the feeling of royalty and the pleasure of very special celebrations. Did I mention I love bubbly?

  • Where: The House of J.C. Le Roux
  • Ambiance: Glitzy, girly glamour
  • Hours: Mon-Fri 08H30 – 16H30; Sat (Nov-April) 10H00 – 16H00, (May-Oct) 10H00 – 15H00l; Sun (Nov-April and Public Holidays) 10H00 – 15H00
  • Address: At the end of Devon Valley Road, Stellenbosch
  • Tel: 021 865 8200
  • Various tasting options priced from R30 per person

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Life in South Africa

A while ago I received an email from an American woman living in Asia, who is married to a South African and contemplating relocating to Cape Town. She asked for my thoughts on life here, in the long and the short term. She wondered about the things you hear in the news – the negative explanation points that seem to encompass a place, deservedly or not. Her email really got me thinking about my own experience here. I took my time to craft my reply to her and wanted to share it with you as well – I hope you’ll enjoy my candid response:

Dear friend-

Thanks very much for your mail. I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to come back to you. The truth is, your question kind of intrigued me and at first I wasn’t really sure what I would say. In a way I feel that it’s a privilege to share my perspective with you as you make this very important decision, and at the same time it is a huge responsibility to respond to you with honesty. Ultimately only you know whether moving to South Africa is a good decision for you. You might already know the answer you are seeking, somewhere deep inside.

My story in South Africa began a long time ago, in 1998, when I came here as a study-abroad student in university. At the time I didn’t know much about SA. I had heard about Nelson Mandela and apartheid and was fascinated with the idea of “Africa” – but otherwise I came with a mostly blank page, innocence, excitement and pure joy. I had always dreamt I would travel – and I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to finally board that plane and awake to sunrise over the Kalahari.

While I was here studying I fell in love. We met amidst the Southern Hemisphere’s largest sand dunes, in Alexandria. It’s a place not too far from Port Elizabeth where the dunes pile up like mountains. The view from the top makes friends at the bottom look like ants, far away, and then the blonde giants tumble down dramatically to the edges of the sea. I grew up in land-locked Pennsylvania and had never seen such harsh and abrupt beauty.

I went back to the States to finish my studies and six years went by. I had a new life but something was always missing for me. Eventually I had the chance to come to South Africa for a three-week holiday and then everything changed. I reunited with the friend I had fallen for before and we travelled together to the Transkeii on the East coast and had one of the most amazing times of my life. Those 21 days were full of turning points for me and memories that still make me smile – New Year’s Eve fireworks on a wild coast, feeling the humid tropical weather, driving through pouring rain and waving to locals who walked slowly, the same as they would on any other day, camping on a hillside next to a village where people live in huts, don’t have electricity and cows roam the beach. It was a world away, even now, and it helped me make my decision to move here, to be with this wonderful person and to carry that feeling of absolute freedom every day.

A year and three months later I moved here. It was difficult to leave my “old home” for my new one. I sold off most of my things, packed what I could, and arrived full of anticipation. I never looked back, even though this hasn’t been an easy journey. It took me a long while to make new friends and really feel like this is my home. My professional life was also full of adjustment and at first, cultural misunderstandings that proved frustrating. Soon after I arrived I personally experienced crime – something which served as the biggest stumbling block for me in adjusting here since it destroyed my sense of confidence and for a while, my free spirit. But time heals all things and now I can say I am living the life I dreamt I would live.

In the long run South Africa will present you with financial challenges – the rand does not go very far which makes international travel and every day shopping a budgeting exercise. There is talk of a national policy to weaken the rand further, making exported goods cheaper and more competitive but meaning that imports are that much more expensive. Crime is a reality that affects many people. The nation is awash in “transformation” and Black Economic Empowerment and while this is good for many it creates special challenges for white South Africans. The price of electricity is rising at a rate of 30+% each year. Quality education comes at a high price and with a good dose of competition for the limited classroom seats. The public healthcare system is troubled – there are stories in the news of hospitals having to close due to copper wire theft, babies dying due to unsanitary conditions. The president is a polygamist with five wives but still there are stories of his fathering children with other women out of wedlock – making his position as a role model in a nation awash in rising HIV / AIDS rates difficult to believe. Life in South Africa can be first world in some places, in some experiences, in some lifestyles – yet there are stripes of third world realities, struggles and corruption and the two sides cannot help but intersect at some points.

In the short term South Africa will offer you a beautiful life with wild and wondrous scenery, awe inspiring weather, joyous discoveries and memories for a life time. We’ve been to Mozambique where I slept next to the beach, snorkelled in clear warm water, ate prawns and discovered that at night there are hundreds, maybe thousands of crabs that come out and scamper along the sand. I’ve seen the greatest sand dunes of Namibia, in Sossusvlei, where the grains at the peak form a snake-like dragon highlighted by the first light of dawn. We camped in Etosha National Park and clung to our pillows while Honey Badgers snorted outside, in search of food and by day watched elephants and zebra drink at the watering hole. We walked in the zone of leopards and heard hyena at night in the distance. I’ve climbed to the peak of Monk’s Cowl in the mighty Drakensberg Mountains, 18 hours of steady walking, exhausted and exalted at the end. I’ve spent time learning to surf in the frigid Atlantic and the warm Indian Oceans. I’ve been surprised by a giant purple-domed jellyfish and later laughed at my own freak out. I am learning bits of Afrikaans and surprise locals by throwing in a word or two while talking. People are generally quite curious about me as an American and are inquisitive about life in the States and how I came to be here. I now live in Cape Town, one of the world’s most beautiful cities. We laugh that on weekends spent at home we still feel like we’re on holiday with all of the amazing things to discover. I’ve grown into a better person and learn new things every day. I miss my friends and family – and reunions are that much sweeter. I think about the things that are important to me and thank the universe for allowing me to be so lucky.

What happens to one person will never happen exactly to another we each have our own path and for that reason I think we must each make our own decisions. I hope you will make your decision carefully but believe that a dose of light heartedness goes a long way, and that sometimes the decisions made with our hearts are the most powerful ones of all. Thank you for the opportunity to share my story with you.

Wishing you all the best from the fairest cape in the whole circumference of the globe,


Sunday, September 5, 2010

Hermanus. Holidaymaking with Gentle Giants

It’s a sunny Spring day and the sky is full of tall, puffy clouds – the kinds that are full of contours, move slowly and cast shadows as big as the mountains beneath them. I’m sitting on the rocks next to the sea taking in the view. The calm waves are gently lapping below and seagulls are gliding above on the gentle breeze. I’m daydreaming, wandering off towards No-Place-In-Particular, somewhere in my own private bubble. Then a startling noise shakes me out of my head and back to the shoreline – a loud blowing of sorts, just a few meters away. My gaze lands on a place in the water where a puff of smoke still wafts through the air – “No, not smoke,” I think – “it’s the breath of a whale!” And now as if on cue, the view before me comes alive with sounds and a flurry of activity. The wind picks up, my heart rate, too. The birds are diving and calling their seagull screeches, tickling the inside of my ear drums. Somehow the swell of the water seems more intense and as I excitedly walk closer towards the edge of the rocks to see better my steps feel quick and unbalanced. Off in the distance a pod of more than ten dolphins sets course in a storm of splashes and acrobatic breaches and right in front of me, seemingly appearing out of the proverbial woodwork, are at least five more slowly moving whales, waving their tails and sending puffs of damp, warm air through their blowholes. I feel like the scene has been here the whole time, yet it’s only just come into focus – like through sitting still long enough and staring into the distance my eyes have just clicked onto the secret code.

I’m in Hermanus – one of the best places in the world for land-based whale watching. The Southern Right Whale is an annual visitor between June and November, when they come from the chillier waters of the Antarctic to mate, calf and rest – a “whale holiday” I guess you could say. Seeing them in person makes it easy to understand why they are known as Gentle Giants – on average they weigh 40 tons (that’s more than 30 mid-sized cars) and measure up to 15 meters (50 feet – about four classic Cadillac Thunderbirds, lined up edge-to-edge) long! Of course when seeing them from the shore you know you’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg.

A perfect whale watching spot at Hermanus’ Old Harbour is Bientang’s Cave, an unusual restaurant at the base of a rocky cliff on the water’s edge, set into an enormous cave – apparently named after the last Koi Strandloper known to have lived in there at the turn of the 19th century. This little bit of historical intrigue is in itself enough to make me want to give this spot a try. Admittedly, the food isn’t “to die for” (we stuck to the simpler fare and found our burgers to be over-salted and the chips to be stale), but the unique setting at the entrance to a cave where diners can greet whales from their tables over lunch, truly is. Plus, with a man-sized fireplace blazing and fuzzy throws to keep you warm on chilly days, the management has done well to create an unforgettable experience.

Bientang’s Cave

  • Located below Marine Drive, 100m from Old Harbour
  • Tel: 028 312 3454
  • Email:
  • Serving Breakfast and Lunch between 09:00 16:00, weather permitting
  • Dinner by prior arrangement

Monday, August 23, 2010

Baking Cake like the Domestic Goddess

It’s been almost an hour now. I’ve distracted myself from my anticipation for as long as I can and am ready and waiting when the first aromas tickle my nose. Fresh lemon, buttery almond, warm sweetness – these are the first wafts of a successful cake, I think, bidding “hello” from its cozy place inside my oven. I peek inside and there it is, a perfect golden round, lightly crusted, ready to be cooled and christened with a light dusting of icing sugar, then introduced to its companions Cream, Plate and Fork.

This was a practice run, my first try at making Nigella Lawson’s Damp Lemon & Almond Cake, from How to be a Domestic Goddess. The book is one of the best cookery books I’ve ever bought. Page after page it oozes with decadent temptations that I never thought I could make myself, each one as surprisingly easy to make as it is delicious. These are the things of homemade Grandmother-lore – the perfectly shaped bread loaves, flaky crust pastries, ridiculously rich chocolate puddings, the best scones, sweet and savoury muffins, and of course the cakes – plain, frosted, loafed, cupped or rounded. Don’t even think about attempting one of these recipes unless you’ve stocked up on butter and sugars of all sorts. Oh, and leave the diet in the other room, too. Diet, along with his cohorts Reduced, Less and Skinny, are never invited to a Nigella party.

If you’ve ever watched one of Nigella’s television shows you’ll know that her enthusiasm for food is authentic and contagious. The same can be said for the writing in the book – it’s so full of Nigella’s personality it makes me feel as if I might be right there in the kitchen with the Domestic Goddess herself, having a chat and learning the tricks of the trade. One of the most valuable aspects of the book is that it’s full of tips, short-cuts and how to’s that make reading it both entertaining and enlightening, and making learning new things a little easier.

Which brings me back to the Damp Lemon & Almond Cake, a sweet and zingy success of crumbly yum. Apparently it gets better with time – after a few days blanketed in tin foil, the flavours only intensify. Or so they say – seems I’ll have to try it next time when I’m feeling more patient – one hour was enough greedy anticipation for me.

The recipe: 225g soft unsalted butter, 225g caster sugar, 4 large eggs, 50g plain flour, 225g ground almonds, ½ teaspoon almond essence, grated zest and juice of 2 lemons, 21-23cm Springform cake tin, lined on the bottom. Cream the butter and sugar, add the eggs one at a time, adding flour after each one. Gently stir in the almonds, almond essence, zest and the juice. Pour into the cake tin and bake for about an hour at 180-degrees Celsius, until a tester comes out almost clean, damp but not gooey.

The book: "How to be a Domestic Goddess - Baking and the Art of Comfort Cooking" by Nigella Lawson (Paperback, Aug. 24 2005) Available at all major bookstores and retails at for $13.59.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Cape Town. Indulgence, Intrigue and Inspiration

Even if you have limited time, the Mother City offers cosmopolitan culture, historical interest, and a breathtaking landscape.

I am standing on a windswept beach, kilometres of pristine white sand spread out before me and the road along one of the most beautiful mountain drives I had ever experienced up above me. The waves are rolling in, forming aquamarine lines, and with the sun shining I’m revelling in the view and thinking what an amazing place this is, one of the most beautiful places on earth, and how lucky the people who live here are to be able to soak up this majesty every day. That was more than ten years ago – I was a university exchange student from the United States and was privileged to visit South Africa for the very first time. I spent six months in in the country and during that time only a week in Cape Town, but the impression it made on me was timeless.

It turns out I wasn’t the first to be mesmerized by Cape Town’s beauty. Beguiling seas, neatly laid vines and the unmistakable view of Table Mountain – Cape Town is positioned in what Sir Francis Drake declared in 1579 to be the “fairest cape in the whole circumference of the earth.” So renowned as one of the world’s most beautiful places, visitors from faraway lands have been arriving in Cape Town for centuries to experience the contrasts of a bustling, modern city that is framed by a natural amphitheatre, characterized by a distinctly African-European vibe, and within driving distance of world-class beaches and vineyards.

With all this splendour, it’s hard to believe that in the 16th century this corner of the world was of little interest to anyone except for its functional purpose as a refuelling station for sea-weary ships travelling the trade routes between Europe, India and the Far East. It wasn’t until 1652 that the Dutch East India Company (VOC) established the first permanent European settlement in South Africa. Thanks to the VOC’s free burgher policy, whereby married men were released from their contracts and given farms of their own to cultivate, more and more people made the Cape their permanent home and it quickly outgrew its original purpose as a simple outpost. The move towards permanent settlement by these early settlers had an indelible effect on many aspects of the Cape culture, the extent to which was probably unimaginable at the time and with all the cues from the past, it’s hard for me to wander the streets today and not imagine what it must have been like back then.

Evidence of Cape Town’s early beginnings are scattered throughout the city centre. The most obvious beacon of the past is the Castle of Good Hope, a pentagonal fort with thick stone walls surrounded by a moat, smack in the middle of town, opposite the busy transit centre. Private functions are sometimes hosted at the long banquet table, the same one the highest ranking officials once dined at and whispers of their conversations colour the mood of the room. Pretty Victorian buildings line Long Street, which buzzes with energy day and night. The cobblestone of historic Greenmarket Square has seen its share of change, once a marketplace for slaves, fruit and vegetables, it’s now home to a thriving crafts market lined with trendy eateries. On nearby Adderley Street a statue of Jan van Riebeeck, the founder of Cape Town, stands firm watching over his legacy in the midst of the traffic. Around the corner part of the original Company’s Garden, planted in the 1650’s to supply fresh produce to passing ships, welcomes visitors with tree-lined paths, more than 8000 species of plants and South Africa’s oldest museum – home to a 117,000-year old fossilized human footprint and rare stone artworks of the San people. Visiting the iconic Mount Nelson, a luxury hotel founded in 1899, I felt what I imagined to be a sort of colonial déjà vu while enjoying a decadent Afternoon Tea, lounging in wicker chairs with friends under lazy ceiling fans and taking in the sounds of the Grand Piano serenading the room. Cape Town City Hall, the site for Nelson Mandela’s first public speech after his release from prison in 1990, was built in 1905, designed in the style of the Classical Revival, and built almost entirely from materials imported from Europe.

The overseas influence in Cape Town is made clear by its impressive buildings which range in style from traditional Cape Dutch and Victorian, to trendy Art-Deco and Post-Modern, interrupted in places by the local and now iconic shanty towns of multi-coloured corrugated iron. The diversity of the city’s architectural landscape is just one example of its cosmopolitan heritage. The ancestry of Cape Town’s people demonstrates its diversity even more dramatically, starting with the city’s establishment by the Dutch VOC whose employees hailed from Holland as well as Scandinavia, Russia, the UK, France, Switzerland, Germany, India, Java and China. The British also had a strong cultural influence when they took over the colony in 1795. The slave population, having wide-spread origins in Madagascar, Mauritius, Ceylon, India, Malaysia, Indonesia and southern Africa also contributed to the diversity with the result that today, Cape Town “locals” are not a homogenous group and bring an eclectic mixture of culture, customs, religions, language and food to the multicultural texture one can experience in the city.

Cape Town visitors can have a first-class experience on par with competing destinations all around the world. Spend an afternoon wandering around the Cape Town Harbour, now the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, exploring some of its 450 shops and more than 80 restaurants, set against a dramatic view of Table Mountain. Since 1860 this has been a centre of colourful activity – a trading place, a fish market and an everyday bazaar. If I spend an afternoon wandering the waterfront I can imagine the sounds of the ships back then, the sight of activity set against the backdrop of Table Mountain and the sounds of people who must have spoke, sang and shouted in a multitude of languages. To me it feels as if the thought of these things might be carried on the breeze from some other era. Yet the breeze is not one from yesteryear. The legacy of the harbour’s history lives on today – with throngs of locals and visitors, hundreds of shops selling the best the world has to offer, local craftsmen selling the unique products of Africa, and restaurants serving the cuisine of the world.

For a beautiful view just outside the city bowl you can take in the sunset in trendy Camp’s Bay – the Grand Cafe has an upstairs bar overlooking the beach and offers seductive-shabby-chic decor and live jazz music to carry you away to some other place. Enjoy dinner at The Roundhouse, a historic manor established in 1786 set high up in the hills with a commanding view, sophisticated French fare and one of the best wine pairing menus in town. If you have a really special occasion to celebrate, take a short drive to the beautiful Constantia Valley to enjoy dinner at one of the world’s best restaurants, La Colombe at the Constantia Uitsig Wine Estate, ranked 12th place in the San Pellegrino 50 Best Restaurants of the World Awards 2010.

If you need a pinch of reality after feeling too much like a celebrity, not to worry – one of the best aspects of Cape Town is the truly authentic and vibrant encounter visitors can have with the local “salt of the earth” way of life. Kalk Bay, just south of the city, is an artsy village full of antique, book and bric-a-brac shops as well as small cafes and restaurants. Visit the fully functioning harbour where you can see real-deal fishermen return from a day’s work dressed in colourful rubber overalls, cigarettes in hand, their boats laden with the catch of the day. The scene is a lively one as on-lookers crowd the water’s edge and fish to be sold are tossed from the boat, one by one, onto the pavement. Nearby Kalky’s is a local fish and chips institution serving up casual deep fried fare – oily, salty and definitely worth the indulgence. While you wait in the queue you might catch a glimpse of talented Zimbabwean musicians who energize the crowd with the rhythms of West Africa – a mix of jazzy, funky, Afro-beat – singing and dancing to the tunes of handmade xylophones, cow bells and drums. Toes tapping, you can’t help but smile at the music, the unique experience and the beautiful scene overlooking False Bay, buttressed by sharply rising sandstone mountains.

The Table Mountain Range defines the Capetonian landscape, starting with the iconic Table Mountain plateau and the natural amphitheatre it forms around the city bowl. Take the Cable Car to the top for an unforgettable view of the city below. Extending 70-kilometers south of the city, the range is punctuated by the green of the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens, a national treasure and UNESCO World Heritage Site, and blanketed by the neat vineyards of Constantia, where world-class wine has been made for the likes of Napoleon for more than 300 years. The Twelve Apostles section frames Camp’s Bay on the Atlantic side and a hike up to the top of Lion’s Head provides a stunning vantage point with 360-degree views of the city and coastline. No trip to Cape Town would be complete without a drive over Chapman’s Peak, a spectacular 9-kilometer winding road set on the edge of dramatic cliffs between Hout Bay and Noordhoek. Dressed by the ribbons of pink and orange clouds at sunrise and glowing in hues of warm red tones at sunset, the drive offers some of the most impressive views anywhere in the world. After experiencing it the first time it made me dream of what it would be like to live here, if only it was possible.

After traversing Chapman’s you can follow the range to the southern-most point in the Cape Point National Park and brave the whipping wind for a view of the original lighthouse. This is the very last point of the Cape of Good Hope, extending out into the pounding waves – the same place where so many sailors of years past made that last, anxious turn north on treacherous journeys towards safety and home. Here the mountain range looks battered but resolute, as if it’s impermeable to the weather’s worst tantrums. As I stand at the edge of the peninsula, now a Cape Town “local” myself, I can imagine that the last gnarled knuckles of the mountain range stand tribute the tenacity of the people who settled here so many years ago, who imparted a legacy that I’m now a part of and that is still unfolding today. It’s this legacy that inspires the feeling one has here – that during the time you spend here it can take you someplace “then,” someplace “there,” and right here – in Cape Town – now.

For more information:
· Castle of Good Hope,
· The Company’s Garden,
· South African Museum,
· Victoria & Alfred Waterfront,
· Table Mountain Aerial Cable Car,
· Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens,
· Chapman’s Peak,
· Cape Point National Park,
· Mount Nelson Hotel,
· Grand Cafe,
· The Roundhouse,
· La Colombe,