Great taste of the Cape
Known as the gourmet capital of Africa, Cape Town – at the continent’s southern tip – offers culinary experiences to suit all tastes, from fine dining to laid-back eating.
Conde Nast Traveler China
The sun-kissed seaside city’s fresh produce, world-class wines and diverse cultural influences all contribute to make magic on a plate. Even better, the weak Rand currency makes the inventive creativity of award-winning chefs readily accessible.
Cape Town was first dubbed the” Tavern of the Seas” in the 17th century, when the Dutch East India Company in the Netherlands set up a halfway point for ships travelling to the East. Fresh fruit and vegetables for the sailing ships’ crews came from a fertile garden established below the world-famous Table Mountain.
And as proof of the burgeoning interest in all things flavoursome and nutritious, a portion of that same Company’s Garden was given a facelift last year, with the design and planting of a charming produce garden. It will be watered by the same mountain spring and has already inspired both locals and tourists to try their hands at homegrown production
The rich history of African, Dutch, French, British and Asian influences have now been supplemented with modern cross-cultural influences. International chefs are clamouring to enjoy Cape Town’s famed lifestyle, and locally trained chefs travel overseas to build their repertoires before returning home with fresh fusion ideas. The produce of the Mediterranean climate, two oceans (the warm Indian and cold Atlantic) and rich soils are now being elevated to new heights.
Suppliers, too, are also increasingly aware of and passionate about sustainable, organic farming; and stylish, beautiful yet unpretentious eateries reflect the growing interest in design: Cape Town was chosen as the 2014 World Design Capital, just one of many accolades such as taking number one in the New York Times “52 Places to Go in 2014” selection.
There are many fabulous stops on a Cape Town food journey, and one of the pinnacles is Luke Dale-Roberts’ The Test Kitchen restaurant. British-born Luke trained in Switzerland and England before heading to Asia for a five year stint, launching several restaurants in Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea and the Philippines.
“My time in Europe taught me to cook; my time in Asia broadened my horizons, it was a big eye-opener for me,” he told Conde Nast Traveler China over a steaming coffee, much-needed after celebrating his birthday party the previous night.
Since coming to Cape Town in 2006, Luke has consistently proven his world-class standing with a string of accolades. A four year tenure as the executive chef of the world-famous La Colombe restaurant at the Constantia Uitsig wine estate culminated in the title of Acqua Panna Best Restaurant in Africa and Middle East 2010, and 12th place in the overall San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2010.
Luke then opened his own restaurant because he craved complete freedom for his creativity and talent. Breaking with usual fine dining conventions, he opened The Test Kitchen in the industrial area of Woodstock, about one kilometer east of the city centre.
This neighbourhood is where, over the past decade, young professionals have been taking advantage of relatively affordable Victorian semi-detached houses. Many have been beautifully renovated and restored. The area got a further kick-start when marketing giant Ogilvy & Mather refurbished and moved into an existing building. But the main attraction was when young entrepreneurs Justin Rhodes and Cameron Munro succeeded in their aim to revive and reinvent the public food market as a civic institution, with the founding of The Neighbourgoods Market at The Old Biscuit Mill nine years ago.
The Mill has food at its heart, but is also a great place to browse in small shops for craft and design pieces, clothing and art. Its gritty surroundings of raw brickwork and old peeling white-painted window panes complement artisanal food, freshly-roasted coffee and other culinary and creative wares spilling out onto the narrow walkways.
When a small unit became available in this Biscuit Mill complex, Luke knew he had found the perfect location for his Test Kitchen. This vibrant hub is also the home of his second outlet, the Pot Luck Club. Situated on the top floor of the Silo of the Old Biscuit Mill, since its opening day two years ago the Pot Luck has filled two sittings each night throughout high and low seasons.
It has been dubbed the coolest place to be in Cape Town and its success is based on innovative cuisine, served in a relaxed yet edgy environment in a part of Cape Town that previously never attracted an evening dining crowd.
And a third restaurant, Naturalis, has just opened. Housed in an upcycled set of containers, this space is set to be a model of sustainability with food experimentation at its core. It is a conceptual space that only seats a small number of patrons.
We visited Luke on his return from a charcuterie course in France. “I can’t wait to use what I’ve learnt,” he exclaimed, describing how he would like to acquire a pig every week and turn it into a variety of delicious cured meats. “The whole Naturalis concept is centred on the idea of old cooking methods, fermentation, curing, brining, culturing and drying.”
Luke describes his flagship space, The Test Kitchen, as “comfortable, relaxed, pretentious but design-oriented.” Wooden beams, ducts and pipes expose the integrity of the building. The rough appearance of the oxidised metal and wood tables blends in with leather-backed bar chairs, while cosiness comes from richly coloured and textured fabrics, and soft lighting from felt pendant lights. Bottles of preserved pears, topped with ribbon-bound hessian, nestle in the narrow, high windows with shoppers strolling by.
An open plan kitchen engages directly with the guests seated at the wooden bar. Customers see and enjoy the buzz of the chefs at work, as they churn out folds of bright beetroot pasta and peer into simmering broths.
Luke’s selection for a Conde Nast Traveler China, Cape Town-inspired dish was Pickled Fish, from the lunch tasting menu. It draws on the abundance of the sea and the rich culinary tradition of the Cape Malay people, whose ancestors were brought to the Cape from the Dutch East Indies (known as Indonesia today), as well as from colonies such as Madagascar, India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).
Cape Malay food is renowned for its masterly blends of spices such as turmeric, garlic, ginger, chilli, star anise, cumin, coriander seeds and many more. Its influence has been incorporated into the menus of many Cape Town homes and restaurants, where slow-cooked dishes are simmered with onions and tomatoes and laced with chillies, spices and vinegar.
In many Cape Malay homes, fish is traditionally cooked then pickled, and served cold with a green salad and crisp rolls. In the hands of maestro Luke, however, this comfort food is elevated into a highly refined dish.
Smoked snoek (a long, thin species of snake mackerel found in the seas of the Southern Hemisphere) is blended with potato and leek vichyssoise, to make a foam. Add tuna, pickled onions, curry dressing, tosazu jelly, and it’s no surprise that it’s a firm favourite on the lunch tasting menu. The accompaniment is Silverthorn The Green Man 2012 sparkling wine, with fresh aromas of green apple and acacia blossom, backed up by subtle hints of minerality and whiffs of freshly baked brioche.
Another favourite, on the gourmand menu, is Amasi, Beetroot and Trout. Amasi (traditional African cultured milk, a nutritional staple for many people) is made into a curd cheese that is spread on the plate. Trout comes from the pristine waters of Franschhoek, a town about 75 km from Cape Town, renowned for its French Huguenot heritage and excellent restaurants and local wines. Lime and parsley apple, miso yaki barbequed beetroot and pickled quail egg finish off the dish, accompanied by Cape of Good Hope Serruria Chardonnay 2013 wine (or Red of Africa tea).
Luke, who gets his own inspiration from surfing the ocean waves – “it grounds you and clears the mind” believes that “the most important thing is flavour, and layers of flavour”.
This is revealed in other items on the lunch tasting menu which incorporates numerous fine, local ingredients such as Springbok (buck venison) with chestnuts, beetroot and cocoa nib; pork belly with parsley pressed apples, wild rosemary-infused honey, blue cheese cream and crackling; guinea fowl (a dark smoky meat) and octopus. A range of South African cheeses reflects the rise of local cheese-making.
“Cape Town has grown dramatically as a food destination,” says Luke. “There’s a wonderful creative energy here, with numerous specialist shops.” He reels off a list of excellent small suppliers he’s discovered, from butchers to fishmongers. “I always say everyone has to drive themselves. The supplier cannot be driven by the chef. We are there to inspire, but there’s an equal emphasis on the supplier now, which is amazing.”
This pride in production is vibrantly apparent on a Saturday morning at the Neighbourgoods Market. It’s buzzing with activity as the doors open and a basket laden with loaves of freshly-baked bread is carried aloft past a stand of brilliantly-coloured fresh flowers.
The market features over 100 specialty traders and is a weekly platform for local farmers, fine-food purveyors, organic merchants, bakers, butchers, chefs and micro-enterprises.
It’s worth getting to this award-winning weekly event, housed in an old sky-lit brick warehouse and courtyard, early ahead of the crowds. You can fuel up on a delicious breakfast washed down with fragrant fresh coffee or sparkling wine, then browse the laden stalls. You’ll discover everything from soft cheeses and local chocolates to craft beers and confectionery.
If you can’t get there on a Saturday morning, there are still plenty of foodie spots open at the Biscuit Mill during the week. Family-run Saucisse Boutique Deli is a great place to sample artisanal cheeses and cured meats. Cocofair offers handmade truffles, while Espresso Lab micro roasters have great coffee.
Espresso showcases coffees from fully traceable farms, estates and cooperatives, emphasising sustainable, fair and equal trade. The coffees are from various botanical varieties, processes and topographical areas, from Brazil to Rwanda. This offers the curious coffee drinker the opportunity to discover a wide range of freshly-ground tastes and to take home some favourites.
Wine emporium Wine @ The Mill was opened in 2011 by Nigel Cattermole and Tanya Becker, drawing on Nigel’s vast experience of the local industry. He predominantly works with small, boutique producers to offer the very best from South Africa’s vast selection.
They have collected some very special wines under one roof and are happy to recommend a selection to suit both your palate and budget. The shop offers a door to door service to China, Japan and Hong Kong that includes full insurance and taxes.
Sipping on some of these superb wines could inspire you to visit some of the vineyards where the grapes are grown and the wine is produced. While there are numerous wine routes neighbouring Cape Town, the good news for visitors with limited time is that the Constantia wine valley is only 20 minutes from the city centre. It offers a blend of centuries-old, established wine homesteads and stylish new boutique wineries. These are set in simply spectacular mountainous countryside and a wide range of iconic, premium wines of world class quality is available for sipping and buying.
You could consider staying in Constantia the night before, so that you wake surrounded by lush vineyards. Enjoy breakfast under the oak trees and plan your wine tasting by consulting the helpful website constantiavalley.com. The oldest estate is the historical landmark Groot Constantia, and the newest is Beau Constantia, with its modern tasting section.
One of the most traditional and beautiful farms is Buitenverwachting, which lives up to its name – beyond expectation. The original thatch-roofed, white-washed Cape Dutch building houses the signature restaurant and there is a mountain-facing terrace offering iconic views over the vineyards.
Chef patron and partner Edgar Osojnik’s Austrian roots are evident in the fine dining experience. Cuisine is elegantly timeless, yet with a sophisticated, contemporary feel, with dishes ranging from poultry to seafood and decadent desserts. Menus change frequently, accompanied by Buitenverwachting’s internationally-acclaimed wines of great complexity.
For the not-so-hungry, or if you haven’t the time to linger over a signature dish, try the estate’s Coffee Bloc coffee shop and deli. This is also situated in an historic building, with the roastery close by so that you can view the roasting process. Various blends and single location coffees are available.
If all this food and wine is slowing you down, a visit to the world-famous Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden (about 15 minutes from the city centre) is a must. Billed as the most beautiful garden in Africa, Kirstenbosch was established in 1913 to promote, conserve and display the extraordinarily rich and diverse flora of southern Africa.
With over 7 000 species cultivated here, there are always interesting flowers and plants to be seen. Every season has its charm and it’s an ideal place to stretch your legs and discover why National Geographic magazine chose it as one of the world’s best picnic spots. You could join a free guided walk led by one of The Botanical Society’s volunteer guides, who are brimming with amazing knowledge and insights, or take your own path and wander amongst indigenous medicinal plants, a cycad amphitheatre, plant fossils, the fragrance garden and much more.
When you’ve built up an appetite, join the locals at the Kirstenbosch Tea Room, an extremely popular venue with a relaxed, friendly atmosphere. It serves breakfast, lunch and teas, and also caters for groups and special parties. You could also order a picnic – either dishes from the menu, or a special picnic meal with smaller portions so that you can explore more options.
Owner Pamela Shippel-Granoth – cook, teacher, consultant, broadcaster, columnist and restaurateur – has studied in South Africa, New York and London. She ran her own catering and food consultancy company in Israel for 10 years before returning to South Africa, and her restaurant menu reflects her love of old favourites as well as the more exotic.
Popular dishes include hamburgers, roast chicken pie and wholesome winter soups, plus delicious sandwiches on homemade breads and crispy fresh salads, accompanied by homemade dressings.
“When you have come down from a walk on the mountain, wearing boots, you don’t want to sit formally at a white tablecloth,” commented Pamela, as we tucked into a delicious lunch of a Middle Eastern platter, locally-caught fresh hake fish fried in beer batter, and Thai salad with crispy rings of calamari (squid).
After years of high-pressured catering for diplomats, she is passionate about less fussy, but excellent, everyday food. “I believe in generous portions and the best quality, and love what we have here: Good, old-fashioned, unpretentious food, with little tastes of everything from everywhere.”
Open 364 days a year, this is also a good place to experiment with some traditional Cape foods, such as bobotie. Cape Malay in origin, this dish is meat loaf with onions, fruit and spices, topped with bay leaves and baked egg custard. It is served with yellow rice and lentils, tomato and onion salad, banana in yoghurt, crispy papadam (Indian flatbread) and chutney. There’s also Malva pudding, a rich, baked, traditional Cape Malay dessert served with vanilla custard.
The on-site baker produces the freshest scones, breads, cakes, cinnamon buns and desserts throughout the day. Aware that many customers have allergies or special food needs, Pamela (who studied Home Economics, including nutrition, at university for four years) has developed recipes to cater specifically for these – vegan, vegetarian, sugar-free, dairy-free, wheat-free, gluten-free and carbohydrate free. Pastries are best enjoyed on a cold day with the famously rich hot chocolate drink, made from Belgian dark and milk couverture chocolate.
As a functional souvenir of your visit, or as a gift for friends, you could buy Pamela’s latest recipe book. The easy-to-follow recipes include all of the dishes on the restaurant’s menu as well as her most sought-after dishes for entertaining friends at home. The book is well-illustrated with colour photographs of the food and the beautiful garden, and includes handy conversion tables to ensure that home cooks can deliver up the same stunning results.
As we left the restaurant, holding our copies of the book, I was not surprised to hear a customer call out: “Pamela, your food is amazing!”
First published Conde Nast Traveler China October 2015