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Quality & Perception: When wines of Keimoes and Kanoneiland came to dinner in the deep Karoo

Frontier: Barbara Weitz’s lamb belly stuffed with lamb’s quarters, wild mint sauce and a purée of carrot smoked in French oak. With my ‘Distinctive Nose’ menu. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

You don’t expect to find great wines in the sweltering climes of the Orange River where the veld fries by day and freezes by night. You don’t expect to find Absinthe and dope in your mushroom and rabbit ravioli in faraway Nieu-Bethesda. But that’s the thing about creative people who try to please your palate and play with your senses. They may surprise you.

Keimoes, Kakamas, Upington and Kanoneiland. Grootdrink and Groblershoop. The Green Kalahari where gemsbok roam and quiver trees stand to attention as signposts to your destination. The terrain draws the mind to that magnificently named Sauvignon Blanc from the Breede River, far from here: Life From Stone. Like the flower that blooms in the desert, it is to be admired more than the vines pampered by rich soil and abundant rain in the verdant places where vineyards are expected to grow. But here?

Three years ago we went on a long road trip via Graaff-Reinet, Murraysburg and Calvinia through Namaqualand and on to my old diamond town of Oranjemund. Plotting our return, we determined to route back another way, from Springbok via Pofadder (it exists, as do Putsonderwater and Tweebuffelsmeteenskootmorsdoodgeskietfontein) and revisit the winelands region where Orange River Cellars reign vinously supreme. Yes, winelands. We’d stopped there 23 years earlier. Where there was mostly veld, veld and more veld then, there are endless vineyards now. It’s amazing how much can change in 23 years.

But perceptions? That’s the hardest rock to chip away at.

These wine people from the furthest, driest swathes of the Northern Cape tend to be regarded with a raised eyebrow and an insider’s wink by the wine cognoscenti. Oh, them. Right, well… they’re all right if you like soeters. Which is why they like to enter their dry wines (and they do make them) in blind tastings. Sometimes they come out gold, and with many bright stars. They suspect that if tasters had seen the labels, the results might have been different. So there may be a new label you might want to look out for. With a hedgehog on it. (There are lots of hedgehogs up their way.) It’s an attitude thing and they know it. And they’re fighting it. They’re getting out there and taking their wares far and wide so that people can taste the difference. Even to Nieu-Bethesda.

Innovation: Red grape skin flour and dark chocolate brownies, with Ferdi Laubscher in the background and the Orange River Cellars red muscadel. The strange flour gives the brownies a mysterious but beguiling flavour. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

It was tasting their The Hedgehog Colombard the other day at a dinner there that got me asking Orange River Cellars winemaker Ferdinand Laubscher (Ferdi, technically the winemaker but who answers to the title of Laboratory & Research Manager) how they deal with misplaced popular perceptions. And it’s easy to fall prey to that. The Swartland long had the same public relations problem. As Ferdi said at dinner, if you think of Sauvignon Blanc you imagine cool breezes off the sea caressing vineyards on mountain slopes, not the hot winds of the desert burning your vines into honeyed sweetness, if not shrivelling your grapes into sultanas even on the vine. But he has his cool places and the scientist in him has found ways to maximise the chill that he can harness, with some very cool results. There are spots along that great river, which is also called the Gariep, where the icy hand of the water works its magic on the Sauvignon Blanc and Colombard to the extent that, entered in a blind tasting alongside starred wines of the Western Cape, it came out tops.

No surprise then that heads turned in shock at the 2018 Veritas Awards when they won Double Gold for their Sauvignon Blanc, Colombard and straw wine. Like Colombard, the cellar feels a bit like it’s the stepchild of the wine industry, says Ferdi, a Somerset West boy who seems very much at home in the now sweltering, now freezing bipolar climate of the Northern Cape. No one ever expects much of a Colombard, but boy does that climate work wonders on this grape. The Colombard that came out for the dinner at Nieu-Bethesda’s Stirlings restaurant had everyone calling for more. The rather too obvious glancing sideways by most of us at soon-empty polite tasting portions were noticed by the Orange River Cellars crew, who went off and came back with several more bottles. I didn’t exactly balance my empty wine glass on my head although I have been known to do that. Or as The Foodie’s Wife is more likely to put it, “This bottle has sprung a leak.” It’s a family thing. Later, once the six-course dinner was over and we were all trying to balance at the bar, it was the Colombard that everyone wanted.

Which is not to say that the fortified wines produced in those hot climes are to be avoided. Far from it; if you want a great Hanepoot, white and red Jerepigo, white and red Muscadel, and Old Brown (we’re no longer “allowed” to call it sherry, Ferdi reminded us), the vineyards of the Orange River are what you want. Ferdi alluded, by way of comparison to other Geographical Indications such as that for Portugal’s Port and France’s Champagne, to the campaign to have Karoo lamb made a GI, to which I may have been heard to mutter dark and not necessarily printable words.

Barbara and Johan Weitz of Stirlings at the Ibis have forged a warm relationship with the Orange River boys so invited them to pair up for a dinner to show off their wines and the Weitzs’ food. In the past two years, the shy Barbara has blossomed, the big personality that was always lurking inside bursting forth like a Queen of the Night cactus flower blooming unexpectedly. They both share a wicked sense of humour matched with Barbara’s richly imaginative way with food and ingredients. Where other innovative chefs are often pretentious and show-offy, they’re just having fun, and it shows on the plate.

Terroir: Mosbolletjie brioche, yoghurt cheese made with wild garlic and sage; preserved grapes from their own vines; spekboom mousse and pickled leekscapes. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

The first course: Terroir. A mosbolletjie brioche, little squares of yoghurt cheese made with wild garlic and sage; preserved grapes from their own vines; spekboom mousse and pickled leekscapes, the skinny stems and unopened buds of alliums. With it (or was it with the following dish?), that Colombard, “the stepchild of South African wines”, says Ferdi, apologising for his English. “I’m from the Northern Cape, we only speak English in self-defence.”

The Prick: Deep-fried prickly pear pad, rose petals and poppy leaf greens with a syrupy turksvy dressing and honeycomb. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Then… The Prick. Deep-fried prickly pear pad (this is often used by Barbara as a vegetable), rose petals and poppy leaf greens with a sweet, syrupy dressing of honeycomb and turksvy stroop. We’ve kept our Colombard for this but red is being poured too.

White Rabbit: Cannabis ravioli filled with Absinthe and wildeals-soaked mushrooms. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Barbara calls her third dish White Rabbit: Cannabis ravioli filled with Absinthe and wildeals-soaked mushrooms, creamy rabbit and Orange River Cellars Pinotage sauce. Ferdi raises a chuckle for this: “Pinotage is like sausage, people make too much of it.”

The Shiraz, or the Pinotage or both, was enjoyed with the most delicious morsel of the night, Barbara’s lamb belly stuffed with lamb’s quarters (this is not attained by drawing and quartering an entire lamb and using a part of it; it’s an edible weed also called White Goosefoot), wild mint sauce (Barbara is all about using the local plants she forages) and a purée of carrot smoked in French oak. The dish is called Frontier and also has a vine leaf and rice parcel and a lucerne and wild mint salsa verde. Who else is cooking with lucerne? Yet another reason to visit the Karoo.

Suspended: Lemon verbena jelly with suspended Queen of the Night. With The Foodie’s Wife’s menu, ‘On the light and forward side’. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Suspended. That’s the intriguing title of the fifth dish. It’s a little clear-glass jar with clear lemon verbena jelly in it, but they’ve set it with the jars tilted to one side in the fridge so that a sprig of Queen of the Night could be suspended in it at a jaunty angle. We may have had a red Jerepigo with this but my notes are a bit smudged.

My menu, ‘Distinctive Nose’. Every guest had their own Gerald Scarfe witty wine sketch. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

The second best dish was the final one: Innovation. Delectable dark chocolate brownies made with red grape skin flour. The innovation is that Ferdinand and his colleagues have had their own flour milled from grape skins and Barbara and I are in the process of acquiring some, she for her cooking and I for my recipe investigations for TGIFood. I’ll keep you posted about that. There was also red Muscadel cream and “boozy fruit” with it, apparently, but I couldn’t swear to it. Comes a certain point on a night like this and everything is rolling along swimmingly and just having fun replaces all earlier intentions. I remembered to take photographs.

The happy encounter of the boys from Orange River Cellars has us determined to trek back north to their region again en route to Oranjemund, to relive boyhood lost and stand at my big brother’s little grave and tell him more about the things he’s missed, the family and the friendships, the long roads and the tall mountains, the wines and the whiskys, the laughter and the tears. 

We’ll drive once more along the old river as it rolls along from Upington and Augrabies Falls, past the mysterious Port Nolloth and up to the wide river mouth where Oranjemund lies to one side and Alexander Bay to the north, where flamingoes preen in the water, then fly off in a great flurry of camp pinkness, like drag queens on a seaside holiday. We’ll sit on the grass at the Pink Pan and drink The Hedgehog Colombard at sunset. That’s what they’re calling it now. Got to get past those perceptions one way or another. DM/TGIFood

Tony Jackman is Galliova Food Champion of the Year 2021. His book, foodSTUFF, is now available in the DM Shop. Buy it here.

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  • Jesus H – book Hopefield, get back to Nieu Bethesda for the 124th time … Love the doff to Jefferson Airplane. When asked by a tedious journalist what her hobby was, Grace Slick replied: “South African tunnel running” 🙂

  • The cartoon sketch is by Ronald Searle who did wonderful wine drawings from 1972 to 1986. They are copyrighted to his name, so the Gerard Skarf reference needs correcting.
    Otherwise, awesome article! Can’t wait to visit!