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Loving Wakkerstroom, where the unexpected happens

Loving Wakkerstroom, where the unexpected happens
Karen Kotze with Mark Kotze’s coconut burfi and limoncello in the garden of their Big-Sky Wakkerstroom guest house and restaurant. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

A French Canadian lured by a Canada Dry sign, a cheesemaker taught by a priest, a one-time diplomat with a Top 500 bistro, a Christina Martin-trained chef, a droll Silwood alum. Butcher. Baker. Coffee roaster. The unexpected happens as a road trip leads to a dorpie flavoured with convivial eccentrics.

Why Wakkerstroom? For the birds? The quest to spot Rudd’s Lark, Botha’s Lark and the Yellow-breasted Pipit is why many a twitcher descends. For the Anglo Boer War history? There’s a cemetery that is a lure for those keen to call back the past. For hiking and mountain biking? Some regular weekend trippers say this is the draw. Why did I make the six-hour-plus road trip from Durban and book a four-night stay at Crabtree Cottage whose owner, it emerged, was returning to Durban after two years in Wakkerstroom? Warm if you guessed culinary! Culinary, plus a bit of a back-story. 

It all began with Mark Kotze, who trained “back in the year dot” as a chef at the 60-year-old (next year) Silwood School of Cookery in Cape Town. Since qualifying he has never cooked in any kitchen other than his own, which for the past few years has included the kitchen of his 20-seater “intimate dining” by-appointment-only eatery at DeKotzenhof, the guesthouse with restaurant he and his wife, Karen, have in Wakkerstroom.

I have no reason to doubt there would be pleasure in the eating of his food, given that Kotze cooks for pleasure, loves playing around in the kitchen and has culinary inspiration dating back to when he was growing up in a home with kitchen chefs and the influence of a mother inspired by an aunt who had a culinary school in England.

But not wanting to be the solitary “appointment”, nobody having booked to dine intimately on any of the four nights I had available, my only proof of his prowess is the pudding I got to eat. His coconut burfi, which he developed while playing around with coconut milk, coconut cream, coconut granules, condensed milk, ramekins and slow-cooking in a bain-marie. This he serves for dessert on occasions with his in-house-made limoncello, pictured above with Karen beneath Wakkerstroom’s Big Sky, which will be an abiding memory for me along with the eclectic assortment of food-focused folk I met there. And a sense of so much food for such a small dorpie.

While I didn’t get to try a Mark Kotze menu, which might have included his 12-hour slow-roasted lamb shank or his 500g fillet stack with red wine jus and Parmesan, I can tell you he is very funny in a droll and grumbly kind of way. This I learnt a year before I went to Wakkerstroom. After he messaged asking to meet me during the 2022 Travel Indaba in Durban.

“Why me? To come and meet you?” I ask, genuinely curious, when I get to the small Wakkerstroom stand at the appointed time.

“Because you write about food and Wakkerstroom is the culinary capital of South Africa,” he says. My mouth, I am sure, falls open. Then we both laugh. Pretty uproariously.

But I take his map, stash the name Wakkerstroom in my head. Until finally last month, while planning a solo road trip in my tiny townie car for other reasons, I see I can easily side-track into Wakkerstroom. Visit this culinary capital, which epithet makes me laugh every time I think of it. There, it just happened again. 

Nkosi Moyo, manager-chef at the Wakkerstroom Hotel, in the bar that adjoins the trophy-filled dining room, with a fillet straight off the griddle. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

On my first night in Wakkerstroom I am saved by the hotel. Getting to the dorpie, somewhere in the middle of nowhere between Volksrust and Piet Retief, takes longer than expected on account of the glut of trucks and abnormal loads, especially along the Ladysmith-Newcastle stretch. If you arrive in the early evening on a Tuesday, as I did, anticipate that the hotel will be the only place open to get a bite (peri-peri chicken livers) and beer (two Black Labels) unless you’ve arrived at your self-catering cottage with supplies.

Which would not have been nearly as entertaining as sitting on the veranda of this establishment eavesdropping on pickled locals. A veranda where pride of place is occupied by a large rhino, which is not stuffed but stone, unlike the many trophies in the dining room, augmented by animal skulls in the bar.

A couple of days later I meet charismatic chef-manager for the past 10 years, Nkosi Moyo, who tells me, while he cooks up a rare fillet for a guest, that the hotel – the only place open 24/7 – is more than 100 years old and belongs to a man with hunting concessions who is out of town.

The Village Bakery, the beating heart of Wakkerstroom. New owner Candi Elisabettini (right) and barista Miempie Mostert with some customer favourites. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

The Village Bakery, next door to the hotel, is the beating heart of Wakkerstroom life in the morning. This being distinct from Jeff Lawrence’s artisanal Country Bread school, where Lawrence teaches bread-making – many courses, including sourdough and health breads and you name it, if it’s bread or hot-cross-buns and croissants, he offers classes. These are held from a stone barn in the garden of the house he and his wife Sue, who does leatherwork, bought in Wakkerstroom 20 years ago as a weekend breakaway from corporate Joburg. They moved permanently to the dorpie when he retired in 2016, at which point he gave himself the gift of a four-day course with master baker Paul Merry at Cann Mills in Dorset. This to tweak what he felt were some gaps in his understanding.

I walk into the Village Bakery after my first sleep in Wakkerstroom hoping to buy a sourdough loaf. But no. “The demand isn’t big enough except at weekends. Saturdays and Sundays we do sourdough,” says Candi Elisabettini, who has only owned the business for a month when we meet. 

Elisabettini has changed little so far, she says. Other than adding a refrigerator with Vleishuis meat, this being the butchery she set up late last year with blockman Christo Joubert at the country house her partner, who commutes back and forth from Mozambique, bought for her after Wakkerstroom became a place she chose to settle in rather than to keep coming to and going from. 

On a Wednesday morning the café-deli-bakery is doing a lively trade in meat pies and brick-shaped regular loaves, steamy from the oven. The on-high chalked menu board takes me back to some of the larger cafés I frequented in coastal California. The tables are busy, the deli shelves packed with bottled jams. Had I wanted breakfast I would have chosen between the rösti potato, egg and bacon stack or, this being a dorpie, the breakfast vetkoek with egg, bacon and cheese.

Elisabettini’s partner had a mom and brother in Wakkerstroom, which is how she learnt about it. “Wherever I’ve gone or lived, I’ve thought, what’s missing?” Teaching with a home-schooling focus and art, both of which she was doing in Maputo, “I realised were not going to make me a living here”. Her partner’s sister’s husband, the blockman, needed a butchery. Then she heard through the grapevine the bakery had been for sale for 18 months. And everything fell into place.

Red Rooster chef and co-owner Denise Schuil with her artisanal breakfast pizza. Inset: A Durban chicken curry order. (Photos: Wanda Hennig)

“Wakkerstroom is full of old people and their parents.” Tony Schuil, co-owner and co-chef with Denise Schuil at the Red Rooster, the eatery for which restaurateurs and others I meet most unanimously express the love, isn’t the only local to share this quip. (And there is a retirement community as testimony.)

“We fell upon Wakkerstroom by chance,” Denise says. She’s made a thin-crusted, crispy artisanal breakfast pizza topped with cheese, bacon, sausage, tomato “and a gorgeous ooze of baked egg and rocket”, exactly as the menu states, for me to photograph then share with Tony and his friend who arrive with a dog to join their three resident pooches.

The Schuils had been fly fishing in the area. Happened to drive through town. Parked in the tiny block-long main drag. Almost next door to the Village Bakery they saw an eatery for sale. “We went in.” Denise points up a wooden staircase to what looks like a storage area, which in fact has a couple of overflow tables. “I saw a Canada Dry sign. I’m from Canada. French-Canadian.” A sign!

“We were in corporate in Joburg, chasing our tails. This business opportunity fell in our laps.” They were on their way to Durban. “By the time we got there, we’d decided.”

It’s the whole thing that goes with food that appeals, she says. “Long hours at the table. Sociability. Laughter. We entertained a lot at home in Joburg. Twenty people around the table wasn’t a lot.” Her first husband was Greek, which meant many Greek island visits to a mother-in-law who cooked. “And I’m part Irish, though mostly French… It’s all been about cooking and food.”

She is responsible for much of what comes out of the kitchen. The slow-cooked Moroccan lamb tagine, for instance, a favourite with diners for which she makes her own ras el hanout (Moroccan spice blend) to rub on the lamb that is then left overnight in the fridge. Tony, she says, handles the steaks and the hot curries.

Everyone I speak to in all of the eateries does everything from scratch. 

“You have to be passionate about food to do this. The hospitality industry is brutal,” says Denise. “There are no stores here if we run out of anything. We don’t close between lunch and dinner.” And they choose to stay open nights till the last people leave. I walk by en route to my digs one of my four nights there after everyone else had closed and see stragglers inside drinking wine, laughing. Then join Denise and Tony by invitation the next night, my last. 

Thyme Out chef Craig Hutton and assistant Mthobisi Nkosi with some menu items: prawns, snails and a deconstructed lemon meringue. Inset: Jill Robertson, restaurant manager; succulent pork belly and sublime cheesecake. (Photos: Wanda Hennig)

“If you want to make a small fortune in Wakkerstroom, arrive with a large fortune,” is another quip that is part of the Wakkerstroom mantra. Here from Sean Pyott, who spent a year transforming what had been a hair salon then pizza joint into a fine-dining establishment, thinking ahead to when the insurance and risk industry veteran sells his software company. Meanwhile, relishing his part-time involvement, which includes overseeing the wine list and having a place to enjoy and share.

Pyott bought a home in the dorpie back in 2008. “I was in Joburg, working every weekend, wanting a life. Then one Saturday afternoon while driving with a friend from Piet Retief to Volksrust we passed this way. No traffic light. No fast food outlets. No traffic. I came back the weekend after. Fell in love and bought a place here.”

He helped his parents move to Wakkerstroom, visited often, but continued to work from Joburg. Until, during Covid, finding himself locked up in his flat, he decided to move. “Run my company from here.”

He was by then well ensconced in the community. Already the long-time volunteer financial manager of both the annual Wakkerstroom Music Festival and the Wakkerstroom Natural Heritage Association.

He met the stylish Jill Robertson, his congenial veteran restaurant manager, in 2008. She had been working at establishments in the dorpie and in Joburg before that.

And Craig Hutton, his seasoned chef for the past year who came to help one busy weekend and stayed, is an alum from the heyday of the Christina Martin School of Food and Wine, the late Martin being, back then, the doyenne of culinary training.

Hutton’s menu changes with the seasons and with what’s available. Except for what he cannot take off the menu, like his slow-roasted pork belly with pan juices, honey, palm sugar and soy sauce, succulent and flavourful, served with Lyonnaise potatoes. The snails vol-au-vent with fresh roasted garlic and creamy blue cheese sauce and the tender calamari strips are other favourites. And the New York-style baked lemon cheesecake, which is a dream.

In Wakkerstroom Hutton can indulge his personal passion for sustainable off-the-grid living and his professional passion for modern country food, a no-waste philosophy, experimenting with flavours. And mentoring and training his kitchen team not least around what he sees as dining’s circle of enjoyment, where everything from who seats you to how you’re served makes for the ultimate dining-out experience.

Goathouse waiter Junior Visagie ready to deliver a French toast croissant with banana and rose petal syrup. Inset: Linda Michelmore (front) and Mariki Els with some of their popular Goathouse choices. (Photos: Wanda Hennig)

It’s a treat to walk into an eatery where nobody knows you and the staff, the cooks and the owners welcome you like an old friend. It happens sometimes in cities. More often in country towns. It absolutely happened with Mariki Els and Linda Michelmore, partners in The Goathouse, open for brekker and lunches daily in this dorp where many of the places only open Thursdays to Sundays.

Soul food, slow food, fresh food made with love and “no store-bought anything” is the commitment of the pair who call themselves soulmate friends and the yin and yang girls: “We just fit together” with Els more in the kitchen and Michelmore hanging with the guests.

Els had regularly travelled with her project manager husband for going on 25 years and lived for three years in Madagascar before she decided enough was enough, she wanted to settle. She opened The Goathouse two years ago at Easter.

Michelmore, who had come by chance to Wakkerstroom with her late husband 18 years before “in midwinter when everything was burned and it was freezing”, bought three weeks later and moved there permanently 11 years ago, was running a gift shop next door. “A million people arrived that first day,” says Els. “Linda just came and started helping – and I asked her if she’d be my partner.”

Partners chef-artist Lizzie Lack and Paul Grobler at The Bistro, which before Covid was listed among Eat Out’s Top 500. Insert: Lack’s arroz de mariscos, a Portuguese seafood dish. (Photos: Wanda Hennig)

“This is quite a cosmopolitan dorpie. Scottish, Irish, German…” says chef-artist-activist Lizzie Lack. “But having a restaurant in this town… well, it has to be a lifestyle choice. Where the passion sits. Because it’s like eating soup with a fork. You can stay very busy but you don’t get full. You’re not ever going to get rich.”

Before Covid, The Bistro, which Lack runs with her partner, Paul Grobler, was listed among Eat Out’s Top 500. They were open most days of the week and popular with groups of international birders, who have yet to come back in numbers.

Lack’s artistic passion is restoring church windows. She does glass fusion art work and The Bistro is an eatery cum veritable gallery of fun arty stuff, from a flying dragon puppet ceiling light to confusions of fabulous colour. A pleasure to explore before you even start on the arroz de mariscos, the Portuguese dish with prawns, calamari and mussels in lemon chilli that Lack whips up for our picture. Which then gets shared with customer-friends from Joburg who pull in for dinner en route to their Wakkerstroom weekend retreat, with her and Grobler sitting to eat, to chat, then back and forth to the kitchen as orders for more food, more wine, come.

Lack, in a former lifetime, was a diplomat. She has a master’s degree in political science. Was deployed in Africa and South America “under the old government”.

“As a diplomat you’re always entertaining, so food is a big part,” she says of her transition. When that life ended, she opened a restaurant and guesthouse in Riebeek-Kasteel when the only other place there was the hotel. Once it got busy and discovered, she left. 

Found Wakkerstroom 17 years ago when looking for a place within a 300km radius of Pretoria, where her dad was living. “We do a Mediterranean thing here. Tapas. And we’ve more or less turned ourselves into a fish restaurant as nobody else was doing fish. Every week, depending on what we get, we change.”

She also makes a point of using local, buying local, from anyone who makes anything delicious. Like both the pistachio halva and the yogurt she insists I try as dessert before I mend my merry late-night way, well entertained and well fed.

The veggie shop with roses – and that sky! Theressa Glover in her roastery; and big cheese Theuns de Bruin shows off a cheddar and a Romano. (Photos: Wanda Hennig)

Theressa Glover. I’d been looking for her since reading that someone was roasting coffee in Wakkerstroom. Luckily she is open on the Saturday I am leaving, brewing, blending, pouring, explaining, including to some Durban folk, and I buy a bag of the Tanzanian, Burundian, Nicaraguan and Brazilian beans blend she recommends and grinds for my AeroPress.

Twelve years ago Glover and her husband, while on an off-road motorcycle weekend, happened to take a gravel road past a dam, and next thing “as we rounded a corner and came into Wakkerstroom we both just fell in love with the place, as so many have before us and after us.” They came back as often as possible, bought a little container home four years ago and, during Covid, decided to take the plunge and leave Joburg for the quiet country life. He is an engineer for a fire risk assessment company. She does the drafting, admin and reports. Both work from home.

Glover bought the roastery with the Genio small-batch roaster last year, learnt the basics from the previous owner and has taken the coffee journey via lots of researching and experimenting from there. She is about to enter her first national coffee roasting competition.

Theuns de Bruin is stirring a huge pot of something liquid – “making a smoked gouda” – when I find him in the farm store building that is part home industry, part dry wors outlet and bigger-part cheese shop next to the 1880 bioscope that is the dorpie’s little information office.

Everyone loves De Bruin’s Honeymoon Valley-brand cheeses. The Bistro uses his haloumi. Thyme Out, Red Rooster and Mark Kotze his cheddar and Romano. His fresh farm cream and ricotta are legendary. And his goats that graze out back.

Friendly and welcoming, he tells me he was initially taught by a Catholic priest who in turn had learnt from parents who made cheese in the mountains of Italy. Loving what he learnt, De Bruin then went to work at a cheese factory in Montagu, near Ashton. And cheesemaking became his life’s work.

Contrasting Big Sky eateries (from left): Welcome to The Bistro, Thyme Out’s evening skyline and entrance to The Goathouse.

Because so many go to Wakkerstroom for the birds, I go with Kristi Garland of the Wakkerstroom Bird Club to a hide in the wetlands to hear about them. No Rudd’s Lark, no Botha’s Lark and no Yellow-breasted Pipit make an appearance. No problem, as I wouldn’t know one if it dive-bombed me.

I drive past the cemetery on my way out of town. Confess I am entranced by the cloudscapes more than by the history.

By then I’ve bought rose petal jam and rose syrup, made by Mark Kotze from roses grown in his garden, to bring home. I’ve both chewed the cud with the folk I’ve met and chewed on some cool food.

So maybe this is not quite the culinary capital of South Africa. But the culinary capital of South African dorpies? Now that’s a new one to chew on. DM

Visit Mark and Karen Kotze’s DeKotsenhof website and on Facebook. The Thyme Out website and on Instagram. Red Rooster on Facebook and on Instagram. Jeff Lawrence’s Country Bread website and on Instagram. Theuns de Bruin’s cheeses on Facebook and on the web. Theressa Coffee Roastery on Instagram. Lizzie Lack’s Bistro on Facebook and on the web. The Village Bakery on Facebook. The Goathouse on Facebook and on Instagram. Follow Wakkerstroom on Facebook.

Follow Wanda on Instagram wanda_hennig

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