Prohibition and Pandemic at the Cape of Good Hope

Prohibition and Pandemic at the Cape of Good Hope
We’ve had unprecedented access to South Africa’s top chefs. This was the night Benny Masekwameng demonstrated salmon trout with Hollandaise sauce via the Live-Cook channel. (Photo: Bianca Coleman)

‘The Roaring Twenties are back!’ we cried in unison on this day in 2019, gleefully ignoring that 1920 was the year the US introduced Prohibition. That lasted until 1933. Where are we now?

The 1920s was a period in America which saw the sale and consumption of liquor rise instead of ceasing, and put organised crime firmly on the map. Destined to repeat the mistakes of the past until lessons are learned, the same thing happened in South Africa during national lockdown which began on 27 March 2020. While some bemoaned not being able to buy alcohol, there was a thriving black market for those in the know.

Recalling that now, it’s almost cute how naïve we were. Three weeks? Ag, that’s nothing. We can do it.

It feels like life barely existed before March, but it did. Memory does not serve, but thanks to modern technology and saved documents, I can recap those glorious three months from another lifetime.

In January, Luke Dale Roberts hosted a luncheon at The Test Kitchen, with his mentors Kevin Hopgood and Graham Garrett, who flew in from New Zealand and the UK respectively. In February, I interviewed Prue Leith, who was in South Africa for her 80th birthday, and lunched at Epice in Franschhoek – one of Scot Kirton’s restaurants. Events later in 2020 have brought about a change in location, and the promise of another meal there for me early in 2021, so there’s that to look forward to if we live that long.

The Fat Butcher in Stellenbosch has a beautiful courtyard, fairy-lit at night, and excellent lamb ribs. (Photo: Bianca Coleman)

In March, I attended my last media event for many long months, although I did not know it then. No one did. It was a wine and liquorice pairing at Ken Forrester in Stellenbosch. This has been revived and available in the tasting room. The recordings are still on my phone, and the photographs in my Google Drive, providing a twinge of nostalgia more suited to years ago rather than nine months. We were all so much younger then, so carefree.

Before lockdown, restaurants had already begun implementing increased hygiene and safety measures, and spacing their tables further apart. The public had become skittish and many were staying home voluntarily, so the number of diners was dwindling. On top of that, trading hours and those for selling alcohol had been cut. There was worse to come.

“In addition, in compliance with the nationwide lockdown, ALL food delivery services will also need to be suspended for 21 days with effect from midnight, Thursday 26 March 2020 until midnight Thursday 16 April 2020,” said the statement by Minister of Tourism Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane. And that was just the beginning.

Lockdown was extended until the end of April, and levels were introduced, all with different applications – for us as well as the hospitality industry. We could not buy alcohol anywhere, nor cigarettes; then restaurants with on-site consumption liquor licences were permitted to sell “off-con” – for collection or delivery, during certain hours of certain days of the week. Some takeaways and food deliveries were allowed, and everyone was very confused. During this phase, when restaurants were closed for sit-down dining and wineries shut their tasting room doors, thousands of staff found themselves without jobs, and everywhere you looked, restaurants were closing (some permanently). Skeleton staff were able to take care of the delivery meals, and many kitchens turned to cooking huge pots of soup daily to feed the starving and unemployed. 

Staying at home resulted in the great banana bread and sourdough affair and comfort eating was A Thing. It turned out that daily walks and workout sessions on Showmax would not be enough to balance out all the cupcakes. But it was winter, and there were leggings so who cared?

While we were housebound and ordering online deliveries like they had just been invented, tour operator Pamela McOnie launched the Facebook group Cape Town Eats, later followed by a website where anyone can list their food business for free.

“Both the website and the Cape Town eats group on Facebook were created to provide support to the foodie artisans in Cape Town while the restaurants and hotels were shut down,” said McOnie. “I could see that many had reinvented themselves and started new small businesses. I could see that they did not know how to get the info out there. 

“Both these initiatives have grown and continue to offer an additional resource to support our Cape culinary artisans and small foodie businesses.”

Today, the group has nearly 9,000 members and is a valuable resource for producers, artisans, and restaurants big and small, as well as customers on the hunt for everything from cupcakes to the best Covid-19-compliant venue to host a safe event.

Also on Facebook, the SaveSAwine group – 57,000 members – encouraged everyone over the seas to buy South African wine in their countries to support our local farms who could not sell the fruits of their labour on home soil. The photos posted of trolleys full of Western Cape wines were a pleasure to see.

Early lockdown was a time of comfort eating. Half-Baked cupcakes were consumed frequently. (Photo: Bianca Coleman)

For about five minutes in June 2020, restaurants were allowed to open for sit-down, but President Cyril Ramaphosa threw the country into turmoil when he issued an immediate ban on alcohol sales – all of them – on 12 July 2020. Together with the curfew, the struggle to remain open became too much for many; the casualties of Covid-19 were multiple – lives and businesses.

Liam Tomlin, chef and restaurateur, coined the hashtag #JobsSaveLives which swept through social media, tugging the strings of anyone who had a heart; simple black and white photographs of staff holding signs with the number of jobs lost at their establishment drove home the message. Waiters, bar staff, chefs and runners took to the streets of Cape Town for a peaceful but desperate protest to urge the government to let them go back to work. A second protest two days later outside Parliament, on 24 July 2020 to draw awareness of the industry’s plight saw SAPS employing stun grenades and water cannons to disperse the non-violent crowd, drawing general outrage.

The 1 Million Seats On The Streets protest on 22 July 2020 saw restaurant workers around South Africa peacefully protest their industry being brought to its knees during the Covid-19 lockdown. (Photo: Bianca Coleman)

In August 2020, the next level was unlocked and restaurants finally began to reopen for sit-down dining – with wine! I went to FYN, which had been the first fine-dining establishment to do a home delivery, which I’d experienced in May, and made me all sentimental. Other delicious meals brought to my home up to this point came from Tryn and Bistro Sixteen82 at Steenberg, afternoon tea from Mount Nelson, and sushi from Nobu at One&Only Cape Town. 

Home deliveries from Tryn and Bistro Sixteen82 at Steenberg always arrived with a posy of flowers and a personal handwritten thank you note. (Photo: Bianca Coleman)

In between were online cooking demonstrations with top chefs like Benny Masekmaweng and Karen Dudley, meal kit boxes, and personalised recipes from the likes of Franck Dangereux in the era of 16 ways with sweet potatoes and whatever was in the fridge. We had unprecedented access to great culinary talents, so things weren’t all bad. I gave into peer pressure and installed Zoom – but only for virtual wine tastings.

There are two sides to this story: on the one, restaurants which are still hanging on by their fingernails (some are losing their grip, even now, and tragedy is never far off) and a surprising number of new ones opening; on the other, diners who all have their own comfort boundaries which dictate which eateries they will support; 1,5 metres between tables seems a rather fluid measurement, and wearing a mask is apparently a yes for staff but illogically optional for the guests they are serving, except when said guests are walking to the loo and back.

Open air and well-ventilated venues have a distinct advantage during the pandemic. This is La Pentola in Hermanus, with the added advantage of a sea view. (Photo: Bianca Coleman)

Slowly I began to venture out, favouring outdoor, well-ventilated venues in a world of QR codes and temperature taking. That’s my choice and life must go on, right? Right. But please – keep your distance and wear that damn mask. Over your nose. The second wave is upon us. DM/TGIFood


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