DOWN TO THE BONES
From the Cradle to the table
To think it’s all linked to food, good food, food from right here. This is the Cradle of Humankind. It appears to be full of food.
There’s a view. The ultimate world-away view. Just as we step down and out of the countryside car park, I look out and there is infinity. It’s bushveld as far as I can see and endless sky above that.
And to think it’s all linked to food, good food, food from right here. This is the Cradle of Humankind. It appears to be full of food.
Gert and I’ve been talking on the way about what it means to “get out of Jozi”. Jozi is enthralling. Both of us love it. He’s from Holland and I’m mostly from South Africa. Getting out of Jozi is shedding the excitement, loosening its grip and, well, breathing in and out slowly and calmly. Relaxing. Shoulders right down, in the way you never seem to do in the city.
It’s still early, time for a steaming coffee, because we’ve booked a game drive well before lunch. There’s little more relaxing than the pace and gait of a giraffe, I think dreamily. Giraffe. The image stirs a memory but no, it passes gracefully, dappling out of focus.
Though Gert and I’ve shared many meals and he cooks well and knows a lot about food, his big thing is places and lodges, while mine is food. We seem to have hit on the ideal spot for both of us, The Cradle Boutique Hotel Restaurant, which, beyond the restaurant itself, has beautifully designed, separated hotel suites up the hill and a tented camp on the plain.
The restaurant is where we are now. It looks more like an inside and out lounge with separate and overlapping areas for coffees, drinks, meals, the bar.
I have to take a call and leave the people on the deck for somewhere even more quiet, going down the inner stairs, out of earshot. Suddenly I know where I am. I’ve been here before. Quite a few times. The giraffes! A huge red whirring insect…
As Callan Neilson conducts us to his game-drive vehicle, we take the proffered bottled water, the water from the Cradle here and bottled here, in glass bottles recycled here. This is promising. Now, heading into the veld, we pass a sizeable aquaculture centre, from where fish and vegetables supply the Cradle Boutique Hotel Restaurant and will be shared and maybe swopped for produce from other places in the Cradle area. I have a thing about inland Jozi restaurants and coastal fish on menus. I love it most when our restaurants make use of more relevant freshwater fish from up here, instead.
In the sunshine of the vehicle we think we’re here to see game on the plains but, on the way to it, we also pass the kraal of Shaka Zulu. The producers of the new series, Shaka Ilembe, directed by Angus Gibson, have three very detailed (and ecologically removable) sets dotted around this property. An interesting aside is that the CEO of the Cradle Boutique Hotel is Kobus Botha, once a film producer, who had worked on the old 1980s series Shaka Zulu as a clapper loader.
This reserve is 9,000 hectares of exciting African space. There are botanic species still being discovered here and there are human or hominin species, the remains of, also being uncovered. This is the dolomitic limestone area where discoveries continue to be made. The palaeoanthropological understanding is that, below these layers of discoveries, are others even older, perhaps as ancient as or more so than those in East Africa.
Maropeng, the official visitor centre for the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, isn’t actually in the Cradle itself, but at the edge. This huge property or private reserve is actually within the Greater Cradle, the UNESCO World Heritage Site. This private land that involves the names of the Bailey family and the Nash family belongs to a trust that, together with National Geographic and Lee Berger’s Foundation for Exploration, supports nature conservation and education, the latter through the Malapa Motsetse Foundation.
A nice brag of the restaurant is that it, within the hotel, is the only one in the world situated on an active anthropological site unearthing hominin fossils.
All this on a game drive. There’s plenty of game, of course. Neilson points out wildebeest, kudu, impala, eland, waterbuck, zebra and a little steenbuck. Funnily enough we don’t see giraffe as in my memories, still being unravelled as we go. Some of these animals’ ancestors were very probably eaten by the local hominins.
The restaurant can avail itself of wildlife harvesting, of antelope and wild vegetation. There is no hunting of course. Culled Nguni beef stock bred in the Cradle is another source of meat.
The talk turns to sabre toothed cats and the giant hyenas that roamed here of yore. Neilson and his guests discuss Robert Broom who found the remains of six hominins in the area a decade before Mrs Ples, who may be Mr Ples but who is definitely Australopithecus africanus. Ronald Clarke recognised hominin bones from here, those of Little Foot, whose mooted name, Mogale, for African cosmology’s Queen of Heaven and Earth, as in Magaliesberg, was never made official.
Lee Berger found two Australopithecus teeth at Gladysvale, here where we’re getting our feet on the ground again. This active dig is deep within a cavern, too muddy and steep to skid down safely, I reckoned sadly. Here, a little further down the hill, under a shadecloth, we meet South Africa’s famous woman archeologist, Dr Keneiloe Molopyane. She shows us excitingly calcium-encrusted breccia, which she and her team are examining in the increasingly likely seeming hunt for more hominins.
We estimate our time before lunch to see the property’s other active fossil dig and decide to chance it. This is Malapa, where Lee Berger’s son’s dog, Tau, found bones from Australopithecus sediba. Here’s a viewing platform, a magnificent piece of engineering and award-winning architecture delicately shielding the dig.
We rumble along through time and a lot of open space, marvelling at this pre-lunch “game drive” experience. Rumbles seem to be coming from our tummies too.
Within the glass enclosed area of the restaurant, I’m soon picking up a fork to pierce the creamiest burrata from Curds and Whey, the burrata specialists just a few kilometres away from here. Other cheeses come from another very local dairy, Van Gaalen. Crisped basil leaves are from the property and the marinated sweet little tomatoes mingle with chef Tyrow Power’s local pesto, with a helpful, toasted wing of the restaurant’s own sourdough. All breads and pastries are made right here.
Yes, his name is Tyrow Power. He gets Tyrone Power a lot from the older guests. He also gets Richard Carstens’ name a lot because people associate him with the time he spent at Pennington’s Lynton Hall as first sous and then head chef for Carstens. I specially don’t ask if he gets Trump’s name a lot because he was also sous chef at Mar-a-Lago. Before that he was chef at Laurel Links Country Club in Long Island and before that he was in Ghana. But many years ago he started out in the kitchen of the Edward Hotel in Durban.
At the table next to me are Janine Greenleaf Walker and opposite Charmain Naidoo, both lovely writers and food fundis. It’s great fun and Janine seems obligingly to be ordering different things to mine each time. For instance, she’s eating snail croquettes, a nice, unusual way of getting garlic, snails and white wine together again, this time as croquettes with parmesan, polenta and parsley oil.
For another instance, she chooses and loves chicken breasts, off the farm. The Cradle’s free-range chicken breeding project supplies eggs and chicken meat. They’re pan seared with a glaze of local peach and asparagus with potatoes dauphinoise. Chef says the vegetables he doesn’t try to get from here or from Cradle neighbours are the potatoes, which he avows are best from McCain. With my coffee-rubbed springbok loin everything is local. The honey is from the reserve’s local veldflower hives, mixed with buchu in a jus. The mielies for the grilled pap, the butternut for the puree, the leeks and little onions are grown here.
By now I’ve put together all the pieces of my giraffe-initiated memory. This used to be called Cornutti at the Cradle. There was an enormous Beezy Bailey art work across the longest wall, this weekender restaurant place being on Prospero Bailey’s farm then. I even remember tourist buses. I loved the simple architecture and the food was pretty good for those days. I remember one afternoon watching giraffe, just seeing the top parts of them slowly going by and realising for the first time that there was game here. Then I remember, possibly another time, watching a plane from Lanseria nearby, followed even more noisily by a huge red buzzing cricket-like insect, the same size from here, as the plane. Eventually chef Coco Reinarhz took over the restaurant but it wasn’t his greatest success. There was also a beautiful champagne picnic some of us attended in the bush, in a cool clearing, with more giraffe nearby.
There are two desserts on our menu, funnily enough missing the one Tyrow says he most likes making. I tease him a little about Carstens here because it’s what he calls a Chocolate Slab, along with chocolate mousse, coffee custard and lots of “stuff”.
“It’s very rich,’’ he promises, for next time. For next time I also fancy another picnic in the veld, which chef Power says he still likes to arrange for groups
For now I have a very grown-up sort of dessert, I think. Weary of so many poached pears in wine, chef Power has his local pears softened in that lovely honey again and mascarpone. He’s added a bit of the honeycomb sweet on the plate, with candied lemon zest.
The other pud is entirely frivolous. Five-star waiter for our lunch, Andile Ndebele, does a twirl with one of the pink-on-pink plates. It’s actually called Flavour of Roses, made with real, local Cradle rose petals “from a neighbouring grower” into gelato, with local berry jelly, and rosy chocolate bits.
I think the pièce de résistance is really the fact that what we’re eating supports less lucky people. It goes for the whole hotel too because all profits go to the Malapa Motsetsi Foundation and that foundation supports the Westbury Project in Johannesburg, which feeds and educates 350 primary school children from Monday to Friday and further supports 11 primary schools in the fraught area.
This part of the Cradle of Humankind may be all about being down to the bones but, for the Cradle Boutique Hotel Restaurant to be a destination in itself, it’s up to the food. So yay to all the good stuff, the responsible food side with its agriculture and aquaculture, the use of organic produce only, the restaurant’s menu rotating according to produce availability and the food seasons, for the nose-to-tail policy and the fresh, locally sourced or seed-produced fruit and vegetables. Lots of plus points too for starting their own charcuterie, own curing, preserving, pickling, fermenting and dehydration. DM/TGIFood
The Cradle Boutique Hotel Restaurant, Route T9, Kromdraai Rd, Lanseria. 087 353 9599
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The writer supports Nosh Food Rescue, an NGO that helps Jozi feeding
schemes with food ‘rescued’ from the food chain. Please support them here.
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