From biltong to bokkoms, Bertus Basson connects with the earth
Biltong, bokkoms, duck eggs and pap chips are just some of the down to earth flavours at Bertus Basson’s latest restaurant. And this is only the start of his food plans for Vergenoegd.
Ducks. That’s all I knew about Vergenoegd Löw Wine Estate. Until recently their runner duck parade was the farm’s main claim to fame. Fast forward to September 2021 and excitement about a new food offering is spreading over the foodie grapevine – Bertus Basson opened Geuwels at the beginning of the month with a breakfast and lunch offering that puts the ducks firmly back in their place, no longer the star attraction, but usefully patrolling the vineyards on pest control duty, laying luscious eggs, or featuring decoratively on the estate’s wine labels.
A blustery south-easter was blowing when we arrived, so the sun umbrellas on the wide oak-shaded terrace were tightly furled. The outdoor fire cooking had already been done that morning, the behemoth grills and smokers at rest.
Indoors, Geuwels is a quirky assembly of separate rooms carved out of the old farm buildings, connected by an outdoor covered walkway – the open kitchen has two chefs’ tables, a private dining room another four, the main bar area two more. We found our table in the Duck Bar, a cosy inward-looking refuge – complete with wood-burning stove, green velvet sofa and OTT wallpaper, it feels like walking into an old Dutch still life painting.
Geuwels means gables, a nod to the heritage of this historic farm which dates back to 1696. It feels like a land that time forgot, a peaceful island between the rushing traffic of the N2 and R102, wetlands to one side, mountains as a backdrop. Somehow progress has passed it by and the farm has held fast to its roots – around the traditional werf are a well-preserved Cape Dutch manor house, slave bell, historic barns and the original farm buildings that now house the restaurant. Owned by the Faure family for almost 100 years, in 2015 the farm was bought by a conservation-minded German investor, Prof Dr Peter Löw, who is restoring it to its former glory. This is when Bertus came onto the scene.
“I first got to know the farm about 10 years ago,” he tells us. “I came here to judge a potjiekos competition, of all things, for a corporate. I remember coming to the property and thinking I can’t believe how run down it is, what a chunk of history and it’s just….” He leaves the sentence hanging.
Three years ago, as part of the new owner’s restoration project, he was invited to design a restaurant kitchen for a magnificent old barn behind the manor house. There are only two remaining examples of this style of barn in the country, so conservation and negotiation with the various heritage committees were key, all of which took time.
“So we designed a beautiful kitchen and I moved on. Earlier this year they phoned me up and said we’ve built it, what now? I came to look at it and it’s beautiful, an amazing restaurant. I said I’ll rent it from you, we want it.” Geuwels isn’t that barn. This is our first hint that there is something bigger afoot than this charming and informal eatery, previously the farm deli, where we are now lavishly spreading fluffy roosterkoek with whipped butter, powdered with biltong, and laced with Bovril, earthy, unapologetic South African flavours. This space is just the first step on a grander plan for the estate. “We wanted to change the profile of the food on the farm, so Geuwels is about very South African breakfasts and sharing plates.”
Our first plate is impala bobotie tartare, pickled onion, slivers of radish, crispy fried curry leaf, fresh oxalis leaves and delicious meat with a hint of bobotie warmth. It comes with a bowl of crisp homemade chips, “Like Lay’s but even nicer,” says the young chef who serves us. Beautiful, impeccably sourced ingredients, simply presented. No fuss, just flavour.
Bertus is in partnership here with Drikus Brink, previously his head chef at Overture, who will also be head chef at The Barn when it opens. They don’t yet have a date for this, but most likely early 2022 when the renovations around the barn are complete. “The keyword in our planning for The Barn is plaaskombuis, farm kitchen,” says Bertus. “It will be a refined experience, focused on ingredients and connecting with our environment. The menu is looking really good and we’re quite excited about it.”
South Africa and South African ingredients have always been what excites Bertus, and each of his restaurants – Overture, The Deck, Eike, Spek&Bone, De Vrije Burger, and now Geuwels – are founded on that passion, but somehow his well of inspiration never runs dry. He finds a fresh interpretation and feel for each new space. “You walk down the street and you’re inspired, we’ve got the most amazing people,” he says. “People point out differences as a point of division, when it can become a point of unity. I’m a white, South African, Afrikaans-speaking dude and I cook in a certain way and eat in a certain way, but my neighbour can be from the Eastern Cape, a very different cultural background. So I consider my heritage, my neighbour’s heritage. If you do that we’ve got so much. So many cultures to celebrate, to eat from, to explore, it’s never-ending.”
So, back to Geuwels, where we’re currently savouring a beautiful bowl of fresh asparagus, topped with a poached duck egg – the Vergenoegd ducks are still on the job even if their parade duties are now off the schedule – garnished with fine crispy fried onion and chive flowers. Another simply delicious snack arrives – piping hot pap chips to be dunked in aïoli. The organic yellow maize comes from Lowerland Farm in Prieska, Northern Cape, where Bertie Coetzee has against the odds brought organic and biodynamic farming methods and heirloom varieties to his family’s farm, adding a new level of flavour to the basic ingredient. “This maize when you cook it smells cakey and sweet, very different to other commercial maize,” Bertus says.
Bertus is full of enthusiasm, optimism and plans for the future. The burning question I want to ask him now is how, in the face of the pandemic, when so many restaurants have gone under, has he managed to keep all of his five restaurants going? And still have the energy and resources to open not one but two new ones.
Flexibility and versatility have been the key to his survival. “Our end goal was to keep as many people employed as we could. You can’t just say it’s business as usual, I refuse to change what I do.” From their home dining deliveries, where Bertus and his chefs rocked up on your doorstep with your dinner prepped and ready to heat, to his video cooking tutorials, his very popular Spekkies fried chicken, “Kos”, his frozen meal range, to turning Spek&Bone into a retail wine outlet at one stage, the last year and a half has been a rollercoaster ride of pivot and repivot.
“When we were all locked in our homes those first five weeks, we realised there are things that all of us craved, and that was pizza, sushi and burgers. Nobody was going, ‘Oh I’ve got to go to Overture for a five-course meal’, it was I just want a pizza. For us it proved that there’s a market for simple casual dining. Mareli (his wife) and I sat down and wrote our business plans and we implemented a lot of those ideas as we went along.” De Vrije Burger is doing very well, he says, but so are Eike and Overture. “Coming out of lockdown we’ve had such good support from people, even without booze people came.” He puts that down to having such a good local community in Stellenbosch, but it’s also about how he has interacted with his regulars.
“Years ago I spoke to Margot Janse at Le Quartier (Francais) and she said that whenever it was a quiet evening in the village and she had an open table she’d phone locals and offer them a meal at half price. We instituted that idea at Eike and Overture. We started as a way of saying thank you to our locals who have supported us so well, and we’ve got to know our community better, it’s been very positive.”
And survival has also been about finding a more sustainable way of working, with smaller, very versatile teams. “With Covid we realised that the secret sauce is to multiskill teams – all our restaurant chefs spend time on the floor with guests, they can all use the point of sale, make coffee, serve wine. I think it’s the future of hospitality.”
We’re now deep in contemplation of one of the best jaffles I’ve ever tasted – it’s nostalgia in a bite, crispy beef, fat-buttered outside, sandwiching a succulent beef tamatiebredie with a touch of sweet chutney warmth, and sprinkled with grated Dalewood Huguenot cheese.
Talking about the Geuwels menu, Bertus says, ”It’s simple stuff, but stuff that inspires us. You can’t beat the flavour and texture of a roosterkoek, bread and fire, simple but delicious. I love the Bovril biltong combination. I suppose it is in its own way slightly complex, but it’s showing people who we are, not trying to be something different. Food after the pandemic, I believe, needs to become more authentic. For a long time our industry has been about the fluff – caviar, foie gras – but we don’t have enough jaffles!“
We chat on about his wife Mareli, business and life partner without whom none of this could have happened. “She’s incredible, a force of nature.”; his kids (their daughter will soon turn one), another lockdown achievement, the joys of riding a Harley, their vegetable garden, where Spek the pig in his morning pre-breakfast grumpiness is a constant threat to newly planted fruit trees, but their cherries are fruiting this year for the first time, and the broadbeans are nearly ready to harvest.
As Bertus dashes off to a meeting, Drikus sends through another raft of dishes for us to taste. These would be a complete lunch in themselves. A deep bowl of mussels in a fragrant citrusy coconut curry. A glorious plate of Chalmar beef and smoked tongue with mushrooms and peppercorn sauce. A little bowl of crispy thick-sliced potatoes with rich brown onion ketchup for dunking. Broad beans cooked in their pods with citrus and brown butter. Hands-on food that really gets you licking your fingers, not to lose an iota of flavour. We kick ourselves for sending away the remnants of our roosterkoek, which would have been ideal for sopping up all the juices and sauces here. We’d been trying to avoid the temptation of overstuffing ourselves. Too late. However, often a chef tells us not to feel obliged to finish everything, he just wants us to taste a dish; greed always triumphs. We were too full for dessert, although those also sounded delicious. You can’t get more nostalgically South African than peppermint crisp tart.
Chatting to Drikus at the pass of the open kitchen he tells us more about his food vision for Geuwels. “We do a lot of open fire cooking, it’s approachable, not serious, it’s historic. We use indigenous ingredients, like suurvygie, dune spinach, spekboom. I’ve just made my first batch of biltong, that’s going on the menu soon, it’s about being proud of South African food and what we do.”
A row of bokkoms hangs in the kitchen behind him. “We’re drying them out, I want to grate them over a raw fish dish, to add another layer of flavour and saltiness, it’s really good in sauces to give it some backbone. Bertus has got a thing for bokkoms.” I remember a pre-Covid visit to Eike and Bertus waxing lyrical about bokkoms as South Africa’s very own umami ingredient, and he’s certainly found some fantastic ways to integrate them without overwhelming a dish.
Drikus is also excited about the private event venue over at the Manor House, where the beautiful old rooms now house a wine tasting venue. The original farm kitchen there has a huge open hearth ideal for open fire cooking. “We’re thinking potjies, potbrood, whole yellowtails on the fire with crispy skin and apricot butter….” The venue seats 40 and can be booked for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Drikus is clearly in his element with this new venture, “I loved Overture, but this feels more homey to me. I grew up on a farm, I’ve always wanted to cook this style of food, real South African food.”
There’s an infectious sense of optimism emanating from both him and Bertus. Vergenoegd is definitely a case of watch this space. Somewhere you’ll want to keep coming back to, so you don’t miss out on the next flavour adventure. “We want to be known for good food, good wine; remember, we’re a wine farm, not a duck farm, the wine is the reason the ducks are here!” Drikus says. “This is just the beginning.” DM/TGIFood
Book for breakfast or lunch at Geuwels here.
The author supports Feeding in Action, which feeds 5,000 people in the Stellenbosch area each week.