Back in the seventeenth century, the Dutch East India Company decided that the Cape would be an excellent place to plant a garden. A young ship doctor, Jan van Riebeeck, was tasked with sowing the first seeds, and in no time intrepid seafarers were popping in for some quality R&R, fresh edibles and — eventually — fine wines too. Sheepherding Khoikhois, hunter-gatherer San bushmen and Strandlopers living off the sea have all contributed to the evolution of the country’s culinary integrity, the quest for a unique and distinct national cuisine has been simmering for the past 350 years.
It’s a rare ragù, frequently seasoned with the exceptional bounties of the Cape Floral Region, a World Heritage site boasting the earth’s highest concentration of plant species, with 70% of them grown nowhere else on the planet. Until recently, these riches were largley ignored by local cuisiniers who were more eager to mimic foreign trends. Today, however, Cape chefs are embracing these multi-faceted fynbos edibles and incorporating many of them into their menus.
The top end, flag-flying establishments boast cooks that are currently holding their own among the world’s top cuisiniers, they are wholeheartedly celebrating this country and its ingredients in forward-thinking ways. Their newfound respect for the locally sourced is not only lekker, or alluring, it’s one of the nicest surprises to have surreptitiously snuck onto the scene in recent times.
Cape Town is a movable feast whose gastronomic reach extends far beyond the city’s footprint and spills quite naturally into The Cape Winelands, making the territory a lushly diverse gustatory destination. A scant hour’s drive is all it takes to discover a smorgasbord of historical estates and an à la carte selection of wineries and eateries helmed by ingenious restaurateurs.
Hungry gourmets, both home-grown and foreign are demanding more casual fare and less intimidating spaces to eat it in. Privileged pockets still find plenty to please them on the top end of the scale but dining out is sometimes just as delectable and satisfying when done in a farm-to-table country-setting.
South Africans, a warm and hospitable people, never count how many potatoes we’re putting into our casserole or curry — there must always be sufficient for unexpected guests. And as our national and international self-esteem gains momentum, culinary gems from the past are once again being presented with pride.