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6 February 2024

A Grand Tour of South Africa’s Western Cape: Food and Wine

As a culinary destination Southern Africa is not only stimulating but offers some of the finest hotels, food and wine experiences going, in some of the most beautiful surroundings.  The lovely Cape Dutch architecture, some dating back to the 1600s with their period charm set in what are essentially English inspired gardens have every desirable luxury.  On offer are also tempting spas, friendly and attentive service, and every activity you could possibly wish for from great diving, whales and dolphins, boat trips, horse riding including Polo, together with excellently organised Safaris.
We had experienced some excellent food and wines on the south eastern part of our tour but we wanted to explore the culinary aspects more thoroughly around the Western Cape.  We chose to concentrate largely on the Franschhoek and Stellenbosch/Constantia areas; all conveniently within about an hour or so from Cape Town as well as exploring the city itself.    
South Africa has many lauded restaurants which is hardly surprising as we found that food and wine appears almost a religion.  However, what is peculiar is that many South African gourmets, chefs and restaurateurs know effectively nothing of many of our European and American eminent chefs/ restaurants.  Nevertheless, they are particularly aware of two of their own illustrious chefs who have earned the accolades of ‘Grand Chef’ from their respective Relais & Chateaux hotels.  
‘Le Quartier Francais’ is the delightful small hotel in Franschhoek set in heart stoppingly ethereal gardens in the heartland of the Wine lands.  This is one of the most lauded restaurants where Margot Janse, who has won every award going, shows ingenuity and passion in her exciting African inspired menus.  
These South African chefs may have not come through the same ‘school’ as those in Europe but they are still greatly influenced by their western counterparts.  They may be using ingredients such as delicious kudu antelope and ostrich, but their menus are following similar paths with a modern lightness of touch.  
Whilst around Franschhoek, the small town has a large village atmosphere where you can browse the art galleries and visit good quality craft shops, it has the feel of the Aspen, the celebrity resort in Colorado.   
Around the town there are endless well-presented wineries, several with excellent galleries and restaurants.  
Anyone with even a passing interest in cars should visit the Franschhoek Car Museum after driving over the fabulous and rewarding, winding road over the mountain behind the town.  They will be surprised at the extraordinary quality and range of exhibits in the museum, only a small part of the vast collection can be displayed but the exhibits are regularly rotated.  They are beautifully displayed in a purpose built series of halls laid out in a fabulous setting.  
The other Grand Chef, Peter Templehoff, may be found producing refined and exhilarating food at the Cellars-Hohenort near Constantia, where the first vineyards were planted.  This hotel is very, very beautiful and our suite, on one side facing the Cape style main building dating back to 1693, was set in a white rose garden crossed by a ‘canal of reflection’ complete with white ducks.  Their dawn chorus was an absolute delight and quite, quite magical.  The other side opened out onto an equally appealing topiary garden.
Gardens appear to be especially important at all of the hotels we stayed in along the Cape and Garden Route.   The most beautiful and visually attractive were the English inspired gardens with a profusion of old English roses.  
Most of the wineries were real show pieces of design and style both modern and traditional, not just for the wine making side but for their gardens art and crafts collections as well.  Many also offer good, very individual accommodation and that is not to over-shadow extraordinarily ‘high dining’ experiences.  The modern Grande Provence heritage wine estate in Franschhoek with its art gallery, sculptures and beautifully conceived and presented dining room was a particular treat.   Another very talented chef putting this part of South Africa on the map is Darrent Badenhorst, who produced an innovative modern menu with inspired ‘fusion’ dishes to match any of the very best European gastronomies.  Certainly one of the best, if not the most exceptional, dining experiences we encountered throughout our stay.
We explored further wineries in the Stellenbosch area; the small town again has a New England style and atmosphere, including Rustenburg where their reds were particularly notable.  However, the English style gardens and Dutch Cape manor house provided one of the most stunning settings we have ever seen; we were totally transfixed by its beauty despite enduring the only downpour of the trip.
Another stunning setting was at the Delaire winery where we had an excellent lunch.  Their ‘Ambassador of Wine’ made a comment that applied across all the wineries we visited.  They had sold out of off-licence stocks of 2009 Sauvignon Blancs but it was still available in the restaurant.  He said guests were paying the restaurant prices to secure bottles.  The point is that all the wineries were offering immature wines that were still laden with sulphites and to us, did not provide a pleasant taste; notably none of the restaurants offered the latest vintages.       
If you are in the mood for ultimately indulgent spoiling, then look no further than Ellerman House nestled into the coastline commanding impressive views of the sea.  This large Edwardian house was built by a shipping magnate who wished to keep an eye open for his ships arriving into Cape Town.  It is now a boutique hotel (for residents only) for the most discerning who value privacy in the rooms and suites,  plus the adjoining two separate villas which are very stylish and are available for sole occupancy.  The first villa has won the “World Travel Awards”  Africa’s Leading Luxury Villa for four years running.
At Ellerman House you are treated as a house guest where there are more staff than guests and few things are extras, there is a good selection of drinks, including spirits in the suites plus a self-service larder to indulge in guilty secrets all included.   If you have done the sights of Cape Town then you really have no need to venture out of the all encompassing cocoon of this haven.  
A love of art by the current owner has something for everyone on the walls, from ‘old’ African Masters to the most modern with a total of some 400 works of art.  The new wine cellar; visible through a glass wall in the dining room is a work of art in its own right, never has such a daring and stunning design been conceived.   However, the wine cannot be omitted here, Manuel Cabello, the Chilean sommelier has been given an effectively unlimited budget in stocking his new, expanded 8,500 bottles’ cellar which includes an unrivalled range of Dom Perignon.  Manuel’s claim to be able to match any old world wines with South African variants stood up well with our tastings.   
The Marine Hotel, a 90 minutes drive along the Western Cape, at first appearances it is a typical 5* seaside resort hotel but it quickly shed that traditional image as it had a light and airy atmosphere which was infectious as the staff were so involved from the porter through the gardener to the manager.  The gardener was of particular note as she has created something very special particularly with some rare and very flamboyant hibiscus, notwithstanding the general lack of fresh water as she recycles everything possible.
The hotel is situated on an elevated position; we could quite literally see from our bed some of the best whale watching seas in the world.  Every year these magnificent creatures arrive in June to feed and a have their calves before returning to the freezing waters of Antarctica.  To cap it all, you can enjoy terrific fresh sea food cooked by another great chef, Delia Harbottle and the delights of an indulgent spa.  Hermanus itself is quite a buzzy little place with lots of small art galleries and boutiques to poke around in, together with more active pastimes such as surfing and hiking, rather reminiscent of Newport, Rhode Island.  (Marine Hotel, Hermanus) (Le Quartier Francais) (Franshhoek Motor Museum) (Cellars-Hohenhort Hotel, Constantia)