Karoo people. What to make of us? We dress funny. We eat weird food. We speak a different language. Soon after we arrive in town from the city, all our former dress sense has disappeared and we’re wearing a cowboy hat and scuffed shoes. We soon come to laugh at our former city selves, now that we’ve understood the value of the charms of the veld, the sense of a simpler life, and appreciated the astonishing fact that we have much more of a social life than we did back in Cape Town or Joburg. When we visit our family in the city, we marvel at the 90 minutes in traffic twice a day, unable to remember how we ever did that and stayed sane.
Some of us speak Graaffrikaans. It’s not a language you need to learn. It just sort of happens. You pitch up in Graaff-Reinet or Cradock and, if you’re English-speaking, before long you’re throwing the odd Afrikaans word into your conversation. If you’re Afrikaans, you throw in the first English word that comes to mind. In my omgewing I regularly say things like, “Ag I dunno, it’s somewhere on the werf”, “or, “Ludi, where do I find plaasbotter in this dorp?”
We trundled over to Graaff-Reinet last weekend, to meet friends for dinner. Over the lovely Wapadsberg Pass along which, every time I drive it, I remind myself to write a story about it or a poem or a song. The Ballad of Wagon Trail Mountain. Just a name, but an entire story waiting to be made up. Of outlandish pyramid-koppies and circling birds of prey, of vistas so endless and mysterious you imagine Mordor to lie beyond.
And here we are driving into Graaff-Reinet. Karoo Stellenbosch. A magnificently tended town of tree-lined avenues of elegant Georgian houses painted in the requisite green and white. Everywhere, a stoep. Once a year, there’s a fabulous wine event on many of these stoeps, and Thank God It’s Food is to play a part in it in May 2020. We’re here to chat about that to its organisers. This will take place over what we in the Karoo call “a meeting”. This is not the same as what you in the city call “a meeting”. No dull boardrooms for us. We do it over dinner and wine, which makes much more sense than a bunch of people boring each other to tears at a big, lonely table laden with, ooh look, bottles of mineral water. It would happen that evening, at a table for four in the De Camdeboo restaurant at the venerable old Drostdy Hotel, but first, we need brunch.
We pull into the Coldstream, on the northern wing of the old Graaff-Reinet Club, right across from the magnificent Moeder Kerk. The club and restaurant have just had a magnificent makeover. The restaurant looks very fine indeed with its arresting mural of a vintage street scene, classic wooden furnishing and wrought-iron chandeliers. Next door is the baronial lounge with its massive fireplaces at each end. This is a high-end space, full of gorgeous armchairs and antique tables, offset by ornate mirrors and framed photographs. Beyond it, the members’ club where you have to be signed in. Very old school, old boy, like stepping back in time.
Back in the Coldstream for brunch, we’re wanting breakfast, but it’s lunch time. They hear my wife’s desperate plea to have their savoury pancake, and kindly make an exception. The pancake is light, the filling of bacon, mushrooms, tomato and Cheddar good. (But R90 for Eggs Benedict. Ouch.) The trio of starters did not tempt (chicken salad, crumbed mushrooms, “mixed meat foccacia”), four grills (500g T-bone, osso buco, stuffed capsicum and Prosciutto-wrapped chicken breast). I chose the non-traditional osso buco – not veal shin, but lamb’s neck. Since it bore no trace of gremolata – the parsley, garlic and lemon zest that finishes off this Italian classic – it needs a name that fits. Having said that, it was delicious and did have a flavour of osso buco about it.
There are several pasta dishes (millennials: that word means “multiple”), a whack of pizza choices, a kids’ menu and desserts – tiramisu, beignets filled with chocolate, served with caramelised banana and lavender cream, three scoops of gelato (there’s a gelato freezer on the stoep) and assorted daily cheesecake “served with Meadowland and coulis”. (Place puzzled emoji here. I think they mean cream.)
The Coldstream is no slouch in the liquor department. They have Darling Brew Bone Crusher, Blood Serpent, Thunder Bird and Slow Beer, funky cocktails (Risky Rose, Bitter Orange Tea, based on gin). Intriguingly, the Coldstream is a subsidiary and operational training partner of the SA College for Tourism, so go easy on the nervous staff. The venue “participates annually in the training and development of young, marginalised women from poor rural families across southern Africa in hospitality service skills”. That’s a sweet offset for all the colonial stuff. A good reason to pop in.
And so, we step out of the genteel colonial Karoo of wagons and barrows, and men in cravats raising glasses to the queen, and back into the somewhat grittier reality of modern-day Graaff-Reinet where the antique splendour of much of the architecture is the backdrop to a modern street life the Victorians would not have understood.
Sturdy on its street corner is the Drostdy Hotel, once the magistrate’s residence (originally the Old Drostdy) but for many decades a hotel in various guises. Dating to the very early 19th century, the magnificent structure was designed by Thibault and has been a hotel almost continuously since 1876; first as Kromm’s Drostdy Hotel (after its then owner) and later as the Drostdy Family & Commercial Hotel. Along the way, its facade was Victorianised, but good sense and taste were restored in the 1970s when the Oude Meester Group took it over.
By the time I first visited in the early Nineties, David Rawdon’s decorating stamp was well evident. Rawdon was a hotelier weaned in the old Natal Midlands who went on to lord it over Lanzerac in Stellenbosch, where he drove a magnificent vintage Rolls Royce (it’s in the Transport Museum at Matjiesfontein today) and then on to the Marine in Hermanus and Matjiesfontein Village.
In 2014 the Drostdy emerged from another extensive makeover, pushing it to the top echelon of South African hotels. When reopened after its refurbishment in 2014, everything looked good, but the staff/service level was nowhere near that required in a leading hotel. It couldn’t be more different now. Our service experience was five-star, from check-in to table service in their De Camdeboo restaurant.
Which is where we met fellow Karoosters Gordon (to use a word he likes) and Rose Wright, the kingpins behind the annual Stoep-Tasting Wine Weekend held in Graaff-Reinet in May (2020 event: May 28-31) which celebrates wine and street food and draws punters from throughout the country. In 2020, Daily Maverick’s Thank God It’s Food will be playing a role, but more about that as the event approaches. For now, things needed to be batted about, so a proper Karoo “meeting” was arranged and here we were. A meeting of minds, friends and palates.
The De Camdeboo space is enormous, yet the vast area is clearly punctuated by elegant folding wood-and-glass dividers to create three areas with their own character. It’s elegant and plush, with a fireplace along one wall, a buffet service area (for breakfast) along another, upholstered booth seating and an imposing lighted wine cabinet on a third, while the fourth “wall” is all glass windows and doors onto the verandah, where a French mood comes into play via green-and-white rattan bistro chairs.
Our table was inside along this wall of windows, and even though we were far from the fireplace we were warm. Now, most of the country’s best restaurants are in Cape Town, obviously, with Joburg and Durban getting a look-in. We all know this because we follow the Eat Out restaurant awards every November. If Jozi and Surf City can barely make the list, what chance for a restaurant in Port Elizabeth (don’t be silly), Bloemfontein (oh come on) or, say, Graaff-Reinet. Well, I’ll tell you: zero. Because anywhere beyond Stellenbosch and Franschhoek is well beyond the noses and palates of a magazine which, despite years, even decades now, of criticism for its Cape-centricity, steadfastly defies calls for it to become truly representative of the entire country.
Anyway, the menu at De Camdeboo is way too unpretentious, way too real for it to contend with the slavish devotion to the foam, the blob and the smear for it to be taken seriously. Not to mention that Graaff-Reinet is nowhere near Stellenbosch or Franschhoek, even though the lovely Karoo town has roots that make it only the fourth oldest town in the country, after Cape Town, Stellenbosch and Swellendam.
I know my way around a foam, a blob of jelly and a smear of jus – and for that matter a pile of “soil”. I’ve eaten food by Koffmann, Blumenthal, MPW and their ilk, and it astonishes me that some of our top chefs are still stuck in that foamy, blobby palate warp. Get over it and get real, guys. Just make honest food, that’s what the punters want.
Here’s some honest food for you. And high-end wines, which Gordon was not slow to pounce upon. (When dining on the house, which we were despite our protestations, I look to the lower end of the wine price range; let’s just say Gordon doesn’t.) While Gordon faffed around ordering very posh wines (eye roll emoji please), we perused starters: Ouma’s Bacon and Bean Broth (see Gordon’s lovely story about that separately); shredded duck and caramelised red onion parcels; twice-baked cheese soufflé with chakalaka and mielie pap tuille; Karoo biltong and cheese spring rolls; Venison Sushi (great idea); Pickled Fish with Toasted Mosbolletjies… all good, but that soup. So wonderful, but way too much; if you finish it you’ll scarcely have space for anything else. I’d recommend they offer an option of ordering this pukkah Karoo starter with small bowls and serve it at table in a modest tureen, to share. There’d be some theatre about it too. Much as I loved it, I left most of mine.
This is game country (there’s a strong game/pelt theme in the hotel décor) and in winter there will always be venison on the menu. First up on the mains list is Venison Stroganoff, followed by the inevitable Lamb Shank (they offer it with “crispy rosemary polenta” and “Zulu cabbage” – the African theme continues throughout.
I was torn between two lamb dishes – trio of, and slow-cooked lamb belly. The latter won. The lamb belly had been cooked until wonderfully soft, rolled, with the hot pan giving it a crisp edge. Lamb belly is rarely seen on a menu; let’s have more of it. The fondant potatoes were fair enough, the pea puree hardly noticed in my infatuation with the belly, the mint sauce a good offset.
Gordon went mad and ordered a grilled rib-eye steak, which raised Rose’s eyebrow. Good, as it happened. They serve their rib-eye with chimichurri sauce, my new favourite. They were out of their honey-glazed confit duck, which was a pity, but earned good marks for countering by offering to cook Rose a perfect duck breast.
All along the way Gordon was not letting up with the fine wine, and when I stood up to greet Executive Sous Chef Jason Fortuin and sous chef Carel Enslin, various items of cutlery fell to the floor. Damn you, Wright. When the dessert menu came around we chose four to share: Amarula tartlet with Koeksister Crumb, Milk Tart Semifreddo, the Herzoggie and the sinfully wonderful Baked Chocolate Terrine with Gluhwein reduction and an orange tuille. In order: delicious but not quite set; divine but not milktarty enough; excellent, and OMG.
Gordon then carted us off to the cigar lounge for single malts, because it’s that sort of a meal, and that sort of a place, right there in the middle of the Eastern Cape Karoo. Which as we know is not in Cape Town, so … close, but no cigar. Still, awards or not, do pop in. DM
There are more tales of the Karoo in Tony Jackman’s foodSTUFF (Human & Rousseau), a cookbook-cum-memoir with essays about life and food, illustrated by 60 recipes, which was nominated for the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards (2018) in the category for best food writing. Book enquiries: [email protected]
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