TGIFOOD

QUEEN OF HERBS

Stirrings at Stirlings: New ways in Nieu-Bethesda

Grilled ostrich fillet with kapokbos (wild rosemary), port and cranberry (on top), wheat salad and grilled prickly pear (underneath), served on a piece of 20-million-year-old riverbed. (Photo: Bianca Coleman)

Tony Jackman returns to one of the most remarkable and smallest of South African restaurants, in Nieu-Bethesda, while Bianca Coleman discovers herb queen Barbara Weitz’s original cuisine for the first time.

 

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Nieu-Bethesda (writes Bianca Coleman) is not somewhere you end up by accident. With one dusty dirt road off the tar leading in and out in a wide circle around a whole lot of empty space, it’s a place you go to on purpose. For all its small town charm there is a surprising number of guest houses and restaurants (seven, nine in high season), and there are stop streets which are merely formalities. Certainly for the guys galloping their horses bareback down the main road. Yes, that happened.

The most famous attraction is the Owl House, home of the late and troubled artist Helen Martins. It’s all a bit odd; I thought it would sparkle more for some reason, but the multitude of concrete sculptures in the garden stand frozen in a march towards the east, their unseeing glass eyes dulled by time, while mermaids beckon silently, perched on the edge of empty ponds. Some people find the place a bit creepy; I can’t imagine why.

This is truly a place one would choose to get away from it all, and for some that is the preferred way of life. Barbara Weitz, for example.

Born in Namibia, schooled in Pretoria, Weitz spent 14 years in Tanzania putting her nature conservation and game lodge management studies to good use. It was there she met her husband Johan. Add a year of cordon bleu training at Silwood Kitchen to the existing love of medicinal plants and herbs and the picture of Stirlings restaurant at the Ibis guest house begins to emerge.

When the time came to move back to South Africa, it was to Nieu-Bethesda, because of Johan’s history: his great-grandparents lived here, as did his grandparents, and his mother grew up here.

“His grandad had the general trading store, Ouma was the nurse… Johan would come back for holidays, so it was almost a natural progression to return,” said Weitz. “I’m not a big city girl. I love the veld, I love being in a solitary area.”

Johan and Barbara Weitz outside their guest house and restaurant in Nieu-Bethesda. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

In Nieu-Bethesda, Weitz began exploring her interest in plants further, reading, learning, tasting. She enlisted the help of Neville Swiers, whose heritage is rooted in the wild plants of the veld (and who also makes Helen Martins-style sculptures in a tent behind the Owl House, with shinier eyes), who showed Weitz what she could eat that wouldn’t kill her. Which is rather useful knowledge, we can all agree.

The herbs began to find their way into the food at the guest house, little bit here, little bit there. The restaurant was built on and named for Johan’s granddad, but it was lockdown 2020 that pushed Weitz into creating a menu revolving around the use of veld plants. There is a veggie garden next door, and between that and foraging, ingredients are added to dishes – not only for flavour, but for health and wellbeing. Besides this, Weitz is creating new and unusual dishes you’re unlikely to find anywhere else.

At my table made from a repurposed road sign, in the courtyard with its stone wall made in the old-fashioned way of layering and minimal cement, I tasted pickled agave flowers (which come from a friend who uses the plant to make tequila), sorrel mousse (good for respiratory problems, among other things), labneh (yoghurt cheese), and bread made with flour ground by Weitz herself, at a mill which is more than 100 years old, twice a week when the lei water comes down. At the water feature in the centre, a mermaid gestures; the message is “come back”.

A sample selection from the starters menu – bread made with flour Barbara hand-mills herself twice a week, labneh, sorrel mousse, and pickled agave flowers from a friend who uses the plant to make tequila. (Photo: Bianca Coleman)

For my main course, I chose the ostrich fillet with kapokbos (wild rosemary, good for the heart), port and cranberries, on a bed of grilled prickly pear and wheat salad on the side. It’s served on a “plate” of 20-million-year-old riverbed stone. Give or take a day or two. If you care to challenge the age, Nieu-Bethesda is also home to fossil experts, and a museum, so you can take it up with them.

Neville Swiers inherited his knowledge of medicinal plants from his grandfather, and drinks health tea daily. (Photo: Bianca Coleman)

After lunch, I was handed over to the aforementioned Swiers, a herb conjurer who takes visitors foraging for medicinal plants, for a small fee. He is spritely and enthusiastic, full of constant reassurances that he tells no lies; a battered textbook with pictures is presented for reference, comparison and proof of this. Swiers hops and skips along with scant regard for the terrain, so don’t wear your smart takkies. Weitz also guides foragers on hunts for herbs and plants for food purposes. There is some overlapping, as Weitz explores how those normally used for teas and tinctures can complement food. Wild mint (or balderjan), for example, has a smokey chocolatey flavour so she uses it in red wine or tomato sauces, especially with lamb.

The herb infusion, slightly sweetened with honey, was a refreshing finish. (Photo: Bianca Coleman)

The Stirlings experience concludes with a tea ceremony, in which Weitz prepares a tea infused with herbs selected for an immune boosting tonic. Earlier, at lunch, instead of a sorbet between courses, I’d been presented with a delicate thimbleful of tea to aid digestion which had included some of the same herbs – veld tee, wild mint, lemon verbena, kapokbos (also known as hartbossie), wilde als (African wormwood), kankerbos (cancer bush), and olive leaf. Sweetened with a bit of honey, the golden liquid was much pleasanter than I expected for a brew of twigs and leaves.

Barbara Weitz calls this tea ‘veld troos’ which translates to ‘field comfort’. (Photo: Bianca Coleman)

“I love that you can create a unique flavour people haven’t tasted before. They’ve had rosemary and thyme, but to bring wilde als and kapokbos and veld tee to the forefront of the palate is something else,” said Weitz. “The bitterness is amazing; it has health benefits in keeping the body alkaline and in harmony. We all cook with love here. We love being part of this and living here, the vibe and the energy. 

“A lot of the locals will come to eat with us on special occasions like birthdays and anniversaries, which is a huge compliment to us. Whether it’s one person or a table of nine, you want them to walk away and say ‘oh my goodness! I’ve never eaten garlic ice cream before! Wow! Sorrel mousse, Who would have thought?’. It makes people think.”

Yeah, that garlic ice cream is a bit of a sore point. I knew about it. I wanted it. I forgot to have it. Maybe that mermaid is talking to me.

In the baking Karoo heat, Stirlings’ courtyard is a tranquil oasis. (Photo: Bianca Coleman)

Fortunately (writes Tony Jackman, from this point on), I did remember to have the garlic ice cream, on both of my visits to Barbara’s restaurant (the second having been a couple of weeks before Bianca got there, on her way to visit us in Cradock), and I can assure her (as I have done, and will again, quite often) that she sorely missed out. It’s not only that it is intensely garlicky, and lusciously sweet, but it has a creaminess so rich that you can’t imagine any better ice cream, anywhere. It’s insanely good, and enough reason just on its own to warrant a visit to Stirlings.

I do hope that scraping I hear isn’t the sound of Bianca Coleman trying to slit her wrists with an ice cream scoop.

Which is not to say that the other food at Stirlings isn’t worth the trek. The Weitzes have made this, in just a short time, into one of South Africa’s best destination restaurants, but let me put that in a clear context.

A destination restaurant is a particular thing. It does not have to have everything that the “world’s best restaurants” (whatever they are) have. It doesn’t require silver service, even tablecloths, nor sommeliers attending your every Big City whim, expensive ingredients “flown in by private jet” from the Dordognes or for that matter Vladivostok, or everything to be nestled, drizzled, napped, stacked and draped. God help us all if those were the only restaurants available to a gourmand.

The starters of kapokbos-infused beetroot terrine with little squares of dark green sorrel mousse and her own yoghurt cheese with za’atar spice. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Give me a destination restaurant any day, which is famed for a chef’s unusual and arresting cuisine. That’s all. It can be served off a tin plate for all I care, but if it is something I have never eaten before, if nobody else on the planet is cooking anything in quite that way, if this chef has got something that most chefs in most of the world’s finest kitchens don’t know about, then I have come to a destination restaurant.

Stirlings restaurant is as modest as its lovely owners; and they are such a fine pair; modest and sweet and kind and generous and so, so funny. 

But it’s Barbara’s food that is the thing. When we first visited in early 2020, with no clue as to the lockdown that was to come, there were some touches of her fledgling Karoobossie way with food. Lockdown enforced a long hiatus before the second visit, when it quickly became clear that during her own confinement to barracks Barbara had been experimenting with using various of the local herbs in sauces, ice creams, mousses, panna cotta and anything else that might be enhanced by a herb.

Her herb and vegetable garden has grown up and now boasts many of the things that even her local herb conjurer, as I call Neville Swiers, would shake his head at and say, no, I don’t think you’ll be able to grow that. But she did.

My ostrich fillet. The green slivers are cactus pads. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

So, for dinner, she served us a kapokbos-infused beetroot terrine with little squares of dark green sorrel mousse and her own yoghurt cheese with za’atar spice; followed by “Karoo vlaktes”, which was lamb belly rolled with lambs’ quarters (it’s a wild salad leaf), a sauce of wild mint, a rice cake wrapped in vine leaf (which she had blanched before wrapping, a new trick she taught me), and little strips of pleasantly acidic green things that turned out to be prickly pear pads; that is, the green “leaves” as it were of the cactus. Who knew?

“Between a rock & a bird” was a slice of ostrich fillet grilled with kapokbos-infused port and cranberry sauce and the same prickly pear pads, served, as Bianca has said, on that ancient slab of rock from the nearby riverbed. You don’t get that at the Wimpy.

Finally she served us the treat that certain people might have missed: “The Green Peary”, her typically whimsical name for pear poached with wilde-als (wild wormwood, which I am now also experimenting with), walnut shortbread and her blue cheese and roasted garlic ice cream. Yep, Bianca, and blue cheese, and roasted. And just ridiculously good. Next time. DM/TGIFood

The Ibis Lounge or call 072 110 6254

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