Wolf lair’s ancient light, great baths and fresh garden peas
In Hopefield, a Frenchman turns a house into a work of art and finds space to breathe.
The road is dusty and long and I am in a bus with a child who has just been sick into her bonnet. Her very young mum looks tearful and rocks her up and down. I feel like jumping into her arms myself; oh for a mother who would rock you all the way home. We pass Malmesbury, and then suddenly two hours in, here is Hopefield, South Africa’s most untrendy village, filled with the charm that only the less discovered still retain.
I am going to stay at Couvaloup, which means wolf’s den, and is also the name of a French village where the owner Laurent Bayard’s grandparents lived. Its pictures on the internet have captivated me, and I am going to meet my host Laurent who has turned his house into a piece of art and speaks very fast in a French accent. I have spoken to him on the phone.
He is always happy, which is not a good sign (positive people are so tiring) but when I see his house and particularly his garden, I know why. It sits in the middle of Hopefield like a green oasis, tall palm trees you can see from miles away, layers of flowering shrubs, old roses and trees. Laurent Bayard was brought up in Lyon in France but spent most of his working life in London working for brands such as Alexander McQueen, Stephane Kelian and Dries van Noten.
He meets me at the bus stop. “I can see the bus from my bed,” he says in his French accent (why is it that the French never lose their accents?). He is surrounded by five dogs of all shapes and sizes, from Great Danes to small fluff balls. There are chickens roaming in the garden and two female peacocks. “They are my family,” he says.
He loves Hopefield, “It is one of the few villages a few hours from Cape Town that has not been gentrified.” He has always loved the country and often goes on mystery drives through the Swartland revelling in the golden corn fields and wide-open spaces. “Europe is so overcrowded and here I feel there is space to breathe. I love South Africa; I feel completely free here. And to find an old and beautiful house was such a miracle.”
The house was the home of a doctor called Karl Bremer, who has a hospital in the northern suburbs of Cape Town named after him. It was built in 1852 in a country/town style incorporating with wonderful detail both the atmosphere of a farmhouse and a town house with shutters and stylish doors with wide architraves. The windows and doors are of splendid beauty and opening my door in the early morning to a lush treed garden was a delight. Attention has been paid to bathrooms with old cast iron baths and bedrooms with big comfy beds and good linen, vital necessities that are seldom found in small guest houses.
Laurent thinks of the house as his work of art. “I moved in with my mattress, kettle, and the builders,” he says, “it was a huge job and I had 15 people here every day”. The major work included a complete overhaul of the outside barn where there are five extra bedrooms. The focus of the house is the wraparound verandah that overlooks the garden and where on a starry night you can pick out the Southern Pointers and the Milky Way.
Couvaloup is a comfortable and easy place to stay with access to help-yourself food from the fridge and plenty of local produce to eat, delivered weekly from a neighbouring farm. Guests can book meals; the garlic chicken with fresh green peas from the garden is a first choice.
But my favourite was the buttered cabbage, very simple if you have the right ingredients. Fresh vegetables from nearby farms are delivered weekly and usually topped up with large cabbages, the stepchild of all vegetables. I am not really a fan of cabbage but braised in butter it is really delicious.
Remove all outer leaves and cut the cabbage into four so it is easy to remove the stalk. Then cut into shreds. Braise in a pot. I use a frying pan. Stir and toss a bit, then cover the saucepan and cook for a couple of minutes.
A note on butter. Once butter was butter and I never thought about it much. I have since discovered that there are vast differences between butter and butter. I used to buy French butter mainly because of its exotic wrapper but Woolworths have also started making a really good hand-churned butter which is less expensive. The king of all butters is a locally made cultured butter by Maria van Zyl of Cream of the Crop, available at The Olive Branch, Life Centre, Kloof Street in Cape Town.
Everyday butter is made from fresh cream that is churned and churned until it rather miraculously turns into butter. To make cultured butter, bacterial cultures are added to the cream and then left to ferment. It is much like making wine, you ferment your cream like grapes and then allow it to rest for about 20 hours. It adds zizz to buttered cabbage.
Bayard’s speciality is a dessert called clafoutis, very popular in France. It is half cake, half pudding. We used to have it at boarding school and called it tooty fruity. It was usually made with apple and we hated it. You can use any fruit, apples are the least inspiring. I made it recently and used a bottle of those cherries German friends bring you from Europe, if you’re lucky, Sauerkirchen. It was killer-good.
You need a cup of milk, 3 eggs, ½ cup sugar, a few drops of vanilla essence and some grated nutmeg, 2 tablespoons melted butter, ½ cup ordinary flour. First preheat the oven to around 180℃. Whisk together the milk, eggs, sugar, vanilla, butter and sugar until the sugar is dissolved. Add flour and whisk until smooth. The recipe calls for a cast iron skillet. I have never been sure what a skillet is, so I just used my cast iron frying pan. Add any fruit, banana, mango or cherries. Bake for 30 to 45 minutes or less time at a higher heat. My oven is on its last legs and it took a little longer than 45 but puffed up like a blaasoppie, more a soufflé than a custard. Try to serve immediately before it all sinks. Next time I am going to use blackberries or even figs.
Hopefield might not have been my first choice of place to visit but after leaving I find myself frequently recalling the silence, the starry nights, the big comfortable beds and the sound of roosters crowing. We visited a cottage where four of the oldest inhabitants were having tea together, all chain smoking and eating Hertzoggies which I was first introduced to when I went to live at Churchhaven on the West Coast. These apricot jam-infused tartlets date back to 1920 when supporters of the then South African Prime Minister and Boer War General JBM Hertzog made them as a gesture of support.
Tannie Winnie’s Hertzoggies
Here is the recipe for Tannie Winnie’s Hertzoggies. But if, like me, you are not a baker, you can often find them at farm markets up the West Coast, made by people who have made them all their lives. When she was alive, Tannie Winnie Barsby who lived at Churchhaven always had a tin of Hertzoggies ready when we visited.
2 cups self-raising flour
1 tsp baking powder
150g castor sugar
Pinch of salt
Pinch of nutmeg
½ cup cubed butter
3 egg yolks
1 Tbsp cold water
3 large egg whites
1 cup castor sugar
½ tsp vanilla essence
2 cups desiccated coconut
½ cup apricot jam
Preheat oven to 180℃, grease a cupcake or muffin baking tray, sift the flour, baking powder, nutmeg and salt in a large mixing bowl; add castor sugar and butter, massaging butter into the flour until it forms fine crumbs. Add eggs and mix, adding a few drops of water if necessary.
Knead the dough on a clean floured surface until smooth, then roll in a ball and let rest for around 20 minutes. In a separate bowl whisk the egg whites until they form soft peaks, adding vanilla essence and sugar. Fold in the coconut. Press the dough into the cake shapes on the tray. Add two teaspoons of jam on the top and then top with the egg white meringue mixture. Bake for 25 minutes or until tops are golden. DM/TGIFood
Lin Sampson stayed at Couvaloup in Hopefield.
The writer supports The Hope Exchange, a group of people who provide food for the homeless in Cape Town. Please help them here.
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