See also the first part of Nick's guide to restaurants in South Africa's spectacular wine country.
Perhaps the most fascinating meal of all during my week in South Africa last January took place at one of the longest-established wineries and was prepared by Tillie Collins, obviously still in her cooking prime at the age of 65.
The Delheim farm was founded by the Sperling family on strong paternalistic lines (it supports 13 families other than the founders). Its Garden restaurant is relatively simple in design but is well shaded and with splendid views. Its attraction for me lay in the opportunity to taste Cape Malay food, a range of local speciality dishes that have drawn their spicier influences from those who arrived on the Cape from Asia.
Sweetly spicy, but never overpoweringly so, is the obvious approach taken by Collins in a delightful range of dishes served 'family style' to our table of six. Triangular beef samosas with a homemade sweet chilli sauce; chicken curry with sambals; ostrich bobotie, a dish of minced ostrich meat, turmeric (the key spice in this style of cooking), almonds and a creamy egg topping; and denningvleis, a slow-cooked, extremely dark lamb dish, the bowl of which I had no hesitation in wiping clean with the bread Collins had baked that morning. Her melktert, the creamy egg tart that is another Cape speciality, was one of the best I have tasted.
Four other, younger chefs from very different backgrounds were to offer their own very personal interpretations of more modern Cape cooking.
The first was Scottish-born George Jardine, who, having established his reputation in Cape Town, is now cooking at the The Bakery cafe and restaurant of the Jordan winery owned by Gary and Kathy Jordan, who also own the High Timber restaurant in London.
I had been warned that Jardine is naturally taciturn so I was not surprised when, after a quick handshake and hello, he returned to his open kitchen, with its stunning views of dams in the valley below, jackal buzzards on the wing and trails of clouds in the sky above, before delivering an excellent meal.
This began with a gently poached fillet of kabeljou, a firm, white fish he had caught on a recent fishing trip with his father-in-law, alongside flowering courgette flowers; slices of pink roast springbok with a sweet-potato puree; and a most refreshing dish of ultra-fine slices of particularly sweet melon with a lime jelly and lots of refreshing mint. This was a highly suitable finale for such a hot day.
Chris Erasmus is the very opposite of Jardine. Tattooed, bearded and bald, he scoots around the kitchen of his Foliage restaurant, which opened in the heart of Franschhoek last summer, rallying his staff, despatching orders with a red towel draped over his left shoulder, and moving around the tables to talk to his customers towards the end of the evening. It came as no surprise to learn subsequently that he is an enthusiastic skateboarder.
On the main wall is a painting of a large, black rhinoceros only a few inches away from a small bird. This sense of being nowhere other than in Africa is reconfirmed by a menu that includes a series of local, foraged and consequently untried ingredients that are turned to very good effect - although that effect might be even more memorable if there were just one fewer ingredient on each plate.
Rooibos, the herb normally used for tea, is used to infuse mascarpone alongside smoked cauliflower and golden beets; whey appears with a black garlic risotto and smoked water buffalo; and a honeybush jus next to slices of grilled wildebeest and purslane. The geranium and honey nougatine and caramel delice desserts stood out, and not just because they were proudly brought to the table by the two female pastry chefs.
Finally, to two restaurants, Overture at Hidden Valley Wines (so called not because it is located at the end of a long valley beyond the winery carrying the name of golfer Ernie Els but because it is owned by Dave Hidden) and that at the Waterkloof winery overlooking Somerset West (pictured) for dinner and a farewell lunch respectively where Nature could not have put on a better show.
The sun was setting as we drove to Overture, while in the car park after dinner we tried to count the stars but failed miserably. In between, chef Bertus Basson and Thembi Veremu, his infectiously enthusiastic maître d' and sommelier, put on an impressive double act.
Basson makes it easy for his customers by writing a brief, exciting and well-balanced menu. Chilled ertjie sop, the Afrikaans fresh pea soup, was enlivened by a lemon cream; broccoli and courgette gratin was an excellent vegetarian main course; while the chocolate pot au crème with liquorice ice cream provided a rich finale as the crescent moon appeared.
Our final meal, planned to allow us to set off late afternoon for the airport, was to the Waterkloof wine farm and the journey alone left several different strong memories. Firstly, of a walk along the sandy beach in Strand, a busy suburb; of driving up past the worm farm and paddock full of horses that have replaced the tractors in the switch to biodynamic farming; and of sitting in the ultra-modern, glass-fronted winery and restaurant designed by Australian architect Mitch Hayhow.
Waterkloof is owned by Paul Boutinot, a British wine merchant, whose parents once ran a renowned French restaurant outside Manchester. This connection continues via Gregory Czarenecki, a 34-year-old chef from Burgundy. Precision is the key here, most notably in a dish of a plump prawn wrapped in crisp strands of potato alongside a cube of apple and ginger and his refreshing interpretation of the classic vacherin dessert incorporating a mango mousse, lychee sorbet and a meringue of light-green matcha. The views across to Gordon's Bay were most impressive, as was the service from our waiter Ishmael.
Natural beauty, excellent food, and great wines co-exist in many of the winemaking regions of the world today. The current weak state of the rand is an obvious further inducement to visit South Africa at the moment. But it was the standard of hospitality on offer throughout that stood out and would make me most keen to return.
Garden Restaurant at Delheim
The Bakery at Jordan
Overture at Hidden Valley