[Article first published in Aspire – Etihad Airlines business-class inflight]
At first glance, South Africa doesn’t exactly leap to mind as one of the world’s great culinary civilizations.
This was a land founded by nomadic tribes and pioneered by equally tough settlers. Neither had much time to concentrate on haute-cuisine and their daily diet consisted of simple hearty staples that could provide sustenance with the minimum of waste.
The Bantu and, later, Zulu lived largely from their cattle and from what hardy crops of maize they could eke out of the African dust. Even today mealie-meal (a sort of thick porridge made from maize) is the staple diet of the majority of South Africans. The Boer pioneers specialized in dishes that were designed to provide nourishment on the trail and to deteriorate as little as possible. They dried meat into tough, desiccated strips of biltong that could last for weeks in the dry African air and in times of plenty they made potjie campfire stews.
Even today biltong remains almost exclusively a South African specialty, although occasionally found in specialist stores in Europe (and, in a similar form, as ‘jerky’ in the US). Mealie-meal, meanwhile, is eaten (under a different name – sadza, pap, fufu…) in traditional communities all over Africa but is almost impossible to find north of the Sahara.
While South Africa has added little to our planet’s gastronomical riches it has functioned as a sponge that has absorbed some of the most vibrant culinary traditions in the world.
There are those who claim though that, as the most cosmopolitan South African city, Cape Town is finally coming of age as a culinary capital. By 1700 the city that was founded as an outpost of civilization at the farthest edge of the world was already a cultural melting pot of Dutch, British and Portuguese settlers. The various ruling empires brought in indentured workers from the east in the form of Indians and Chinese but it’s the Malays who have had the greatest influence on Cape cuisine. The colourful little quarter of Bo Kaap, under the abrupt Lion’s Head ridge (little sister to great Table Mountain) is the traditional settlement of the people who have always been known here as the Cape Malays. Their forefathers brought with them, from far off Surabaya and Batavia, spices like turmeric, lemongrass and cardamomand although few outside their little community ever realized it, the Malays were soon well on their way to founding a traditional Cape cuisine.
In 1682 a seemingly unimportant event happened that changed the face of The Cape forever. A tough female adventurer by the name of Catharina Ustings Ras settled on a farm at a place called Steenberg and planted the first South African grapes. The old vineyard is now celebrated as a National Monument and Steenberg Hotel (just an hour by road from modern Cape Town) offers some of the region’s chicest accommodation along with fine dining and exquisite wine at the restaurant known today simply as Catharina’s.
In just a few years Cape Town has burst into the limelight as one of the great culinary capitals of the southern hemisphere.
More recently the establishment of one of the world’s most flourishing wine traditions has led quite naturally to a heightened interest in fine-dining and some of the world’s best chefs have set up their kitchens here.
English chef Luke Dale-Roberts had only been in South Africa for two years when he won Eat Out’s coveted Chef of the Year Award. He won it again in 2011 and judge Abigail Donnelly summed up the acclaim: “His thrilling flavours have pushed the boundaries, and eating his food is simply heart-stopping.”
Dale-Roberts’s restaurant, The Test Kitchen, is arguably now the best in the entire country. Set in a matter-of-fact industrial ambience in what used to be an old biscuit mill, The Test Kitchen has the no-nonsense air of a workshop/laboratory where the preparation of food is pushed towards sheer perfection. Few other restaurants are booked to capacity for three months in advance but The Test Kitchen is more than just a restaurant. If you’re lucky enough to get a front-row seat with a view of the open kitchen you are privileged to witness a perfectly orchestrated cast of up to a dozen talented chefs perform a synchronized high-speed dance as they turn out a whole sequence of culinary works of art.
The Test Kitchen’s full eleven-course gourmet menu is surely one of the finest dining experiences on the planet. The trick is in supplying such an abundant and flavoursome menu without leaving diners feeling uncomfortably bloated. As Dale-Roberts points out: “We’ve tuned the ingredients carefully and are sparing with cream and rich juices. There’s only ever one starchy dish too so although you’ve eaten a lot there is nothing heavy.”
Each beautifully plated dish is paired with a perfectly matched wine from one of the Cape’s celebrated labels. Occasionally, by way of a change, the dish might be matched with something of typically Asian origins – a glass of infused sake for example.
My time in England taught me to cook but my time in Asia broadened my horizons.
“Much of what I learned in Singapore, Malaysia, Korea and the Philippines can be applied so well to cooking in South Africa,” Luke told me during a brief spell when the orders were finally slowing.
Over at One & Only Hotel – lauded as Cape Town’s most luxurious urban hotel – local cookery hero Reuben Riffel heads another kitchen that has become a real tribute to Capetonian cuisine. It’s hard to believe that the restaurateur who now owns three celebrated establishments in the Cape had never eaten in a restaurant himself before he was fifteen.
“I’d never had a restaurant meal in my life before I actually started working in one,” Riffel laughs. This was not unusual, however, for a young man who grew up in a segregated neighbourhood under the shadow of apartheid.
“But we were lucky and my mother used to bring food home from the restaurant where she work. So I tried things like salmon mousse with cream, rotisserie lamb and crème caramel. I’d never imagined flavours like that and the effect was truly life-changing.”
Riffel’s restaurant at One & Only (known simply as Reuben’s) lacks the casual intimacy of The Test Kitchen but there are those who say that some of the dishes prepared here are still life-changing. The menu is truly mouth-watering and the starters alone include local delights like Cape Malay pickled fish (served with spiced alioli and apricot jam), smoked Franschhoek salmon trout and West Coast oysters. Knowing that Riffel is famous for his truffles and that South Africa has some of the world’s best beef I order beef tartare with truffle dressing and follow it up with delicious mustard-glazed ostrich steak with soft polenta.
Apart from local tastes the menu is spectacularly international with guest appearances from items like soft-shell crab tempura, Reuben’s signature Caesar Crunch salad and even tiger prawn pizza.
It seems that South African produce is capable of lending itself to all culinary styles.
“My dishes are classic Italian with South African ingredients,” chef Giorgio Nava tells me. Nava’s restaurant 95 Keerom is known as the country’s finest Italian.
“South Africa produces good wine, fantastic olive oil, good fruit and vegetables, great fish and meat,” Nava points out,“- and that’s all you need to feel like you’re in Italy. In Cape Town food trends move very fast, and South Africans are very adventurous so we try to be innovative.”
In fact 95 Keerom, while observing the greatest traditions of Italian cookery, probably offers the most adventurous menu of any Italian restaurant on the planet. I consider slow-cooked springbok casserole and grilled ostrich fillet with marsala sauce. Finally I make a decision to go with the irresistible-sounding Selvaggina.
By the time I’ve finished the variety of three succulent steaks – kudu, springbok and black wildebeest – in olive oil and rosemary I’m convinced that South Africa is well on the way to making the most of its unique culinary traditions.
Steenberg – www.steenberghotel.comg
The Test Kitchen – www.thetestkitchen.co.za
Reuben’s – www.oneandonlycapetown.com
95 Keerom – www.95keerom.com