We drive past quiet vineyards, gleaming horses and Hansel ‘n Gretel cottages. Watched over by towering mountains, idyllic Franschhoek Valley (about an hour away from Cape Town, South Africa) seems to be the land where time stands still.
More than 300 years ago, when Protestantism was outlawed in France, hundred of Huguenots were forced to flee their homeland. When a group of them arrived at the Cape of Good Hope by ship, the Dutch government gave them land in this valley. It was then home to wild elephants and called Oliphantshoek, or Elephant's Corner. In a delightfully appropriate twist of phonetics, it became Franschhoek — French Corner.
We kick off our day of culinary tourism at Graham-Beck wineries, where cellar master Pieter Ferreira walks us through the elegant tasting room, lined with lustrous bottles from floor to ceiling. Upstairs, in the private dining area we gather around a table bearing a tray of smoked salmon and an array of wine glasses filled with the most curious ingredients. There's a glass of bright yellow butter. Apples, oranges and strawberries. Crumbly brioche, thick honey, roasted almonds.
There's even one filled with what smells like instant soup mix. “It's got umami — which is the flavour that you also get in tomato and parmesan cheese,” says Ferreira, opening a bottle of Brut NV, a sparkling wine made with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. He then gets us to match the flavours in the wine with the ingredients in the glasses. It makes the usually airy-fairy exercise, so loved by the connoisseurs, far easier to understand.
We're understandably a very cheery group by the time we get to their Cuvée Clive, a sophisticated bubbly that tastes of spring. Ferreira explains that they wait for six years, till the carbon di-oxide gets more integrated, “it becomes finer; the bubbles feel softer, rounder, like feathers on the tongue”.
We're plied with more bubbly as we enter the sprawling grounds of Le Quartier Français, a restaurant so distinctive it's practically become a local institution. Owner Susan Huxtur's got all sorts of stories about guests, ranging from petulant celebrities to Russian businessmen accompanied by a flood of gun-toting bodyguards. Listed on the San Pellegrino's influential list of the world's top 50 restaurants, it's even managed to edge ahead of Thomas Keller's iconic French Laundry.
It's surprising because unlike the restaurants of chefs such as Keller, Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adrià — all acknowledged to be culinary revolutionaries — Le Quartier Français is defiantly laidback. You almost expect to see people in scruffy Bermudas lounging by the pool, beside the resident cat.
However, the moment the starters arrive it's clear why this restaurant is special. The food is simple, focusing on maximising flavours by using the best local ingredients and intelligent techniques. And then there's the tongue-in-cheek presentation.
Fluffy corn bread is served in a dented sardine tin besides crisp sheet bread peppered generously with fennel seeds. All accompanied by the most deliciously nutty butter. “You allow butter to clarify, and then whip it into fresh butter to get that caramelly taste,” explains Chef Margot Janse, adding with a grin, “All the butter and milk here comes from a cow called Daisy who lives nearby.”
That morning, when she was jogging Janse found wood sorrel, which turned up for lunch. It's set on a salty jelly of porcine, in the form of foam that tastes like sour grass. We also eat a coffee roasted warthog loin served with potato fondant, garlic puree and currant vinaigrette. (It helps that I don't know it's warthog till well after the meal.) And there's lamb, from the Karoo region of South Africa, served with chakalaka marmalade, inspired by the spicy chakalaka made in the townships of Johannesburg.
This is food that is rooted, and that's its greatest strength. Today's gourmands don't want to travel halfway across the world to eat the expected, no matter how smothered it is in time-honoured exotica like truffles or caviar. They're in search of the unexpected and irreproducible.
Which is why Janse's approach works: she leans on the strength of local ingredients and is constantly inspired by traditional recipes and flavour pairings. Then, she reinvents it all for a global audience.