Roadtripping on the Rooibos Route in the Western Cape

RON SWILLING explores the Rooibos Route in the rich rooibos-growing area of the Western Cape, home to our favourite South African tea

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What would South Africans do without their rooibos tea, biltong and braaivleis? I’ve a feeling we’d have a tough time giving up any of the quintessential South African fare, and set off to explore the heart of rooibos country, to find out how number one on the list was doing.

“Cheers,” I say to Sanet Stander from the Rooibos Tea House, raising my small glass of honey-coloured tea. Surprised, she laughs and raises hers. “Cheers,” she responds. “From Clanwilliam, Rooibos Central.”

Sanet and her sister, Marietjie Smit opened the Rooibos Tea House here in Voortrekker Street in July 2012, adjoining their haberdashery. “It’s about having a rooibos experience, not just buying tea,” Sanet explains on the veranda of the sprawling old house. Around us, among the tea cosies and old church benches, a large motorcycle group sips on their assortment of teas, and a family takes turns selecting and tasting their favourites.

Once the sisters had narrowed rooibos tea down to 100 flavoured or blended teas, representing ten local companies, they grouped them in seven rooibos clans: herbal, fruity, flower, spicy, sweet, natural and green, and devised their tea-tasting ‘ceremony’.

After a short slideshow on the rooibos-growing process, visitors relax at outdoor tables and mull over a leaflet on rooibos, its history, health benefits and fascinating facts, with a section left open to fill in the seven teas you have selected. You make your choice with the help of the menu and an array of small labelled bottles to shake and sniff.

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After the tasting, you can sit back and enjoy a muffin, cupcake or slice of cake, with a Fresh Red (iced tea with apple juice), a Rooibos Cappuccino, a Red Shake (rooibos milkshake) or, if you’ve had enough tea, a good cup of coffee or a cooldrink – all available from their menu.

Soon after the Rooibos Teahouse opened its doors, people told Sanet and Marietjie that they wanted to have more of a rooibos experience. Two years later, the sisters were offering the Rooibos Route, encompassing the rooibos-growing area that extends from Citrusdal/Piekenierskloof Pass in the south
to Vanrhynsdorp in the north.

This incorporates members who can provide some sort of rooibos experience, be it guest houses that use rooibos products, restaurants that tempt diners with rooibos-infused delights, salon treatments with rooibos products, companies that offer rooibos pairings or tastings, or farm visits and stays. And Sanet has arranged a variety to give me a good taste – of not just the tea, but what the Rooibos Route has to offer.

Before she waves me out, I ask her about the National Rooibos Day they have initiated for 16 January every year. When the sisters noticed that there was a national day for pretty much everything, including melktert (on 27 February), they decided it was more than time to honour the humble and hardy plant.
On the first National Rooibos Day in 2017, they invited the descendants of two rooibos pioneers – Bruce Ginsberg, grandson of Benjamin Ginsberg, and Jas Strauss, the local doctor and grandson of Dr Pieter le Fras Nortier – to say a few words. Ginsberg Snr was born on 16 January 1885 (the day chosen as National Rooibos Day in his honour) and was instrumental in the production and trade of the plant, while Nortier unlocked the key to rooibos germination, enabling it to be grown commercially.

My tailor-made rooibos trip starts with overnighting in the town. A huge slice of rooibos and beetroot cake, made from a recipe in the cook book A Taste of Rooibos (produced by Rooibos Ltd using recipes from 14 top local chefs), welcomes me at Saint du Barrys guest house, a century-old house in a rambling, shaded garden. The owners, Joan and Wally Willies, believe in promoting the area. “We want our visitors to get involved in the magic of it,” Joan says passionately.

Living as they do in a rooibos- and citrus-growing region, they offer freshly-squeezed orange juice at breakfast and use local rooibos body products – Red Cedar, made by six ladies in nearby Wupperthal, and the natural fynbos range from the Storytellers Fynbos Apothecary in the Agter Pakhuis Valley of
the Cederberg – in their guest bathrooms.

The days roll out like a rich red carpet as I feast on a meal at Reinholds Restaurant (Sanet told me not to miss the Rooibos cheesecake) and learn about the intricacies of rooibos production. My knowledge is brushed up at Rooibos Ltd, where I sip on a cup of tea and watch a documentary about rooibos, before purchasing a range of teas, and body and culinary products.

Rooibos Ltd was established when the Rooibos Tea Control Board was privatised in 1993. More than 300 farmers supply Rooibos Ltd. The rooibos undergoes a lengthy process of pasteurisation and grading before being packaged for distributors throughout the world. Reinvesting in the local community, Rooibos Ltd sponsors several school, and cultural and sports events in Clanwilliam.

As a sponsor of Rooibos Day in 2017, it selected the rieldans group, Die Nuwe Graskoue Trappers, who live in the region and have grown up on rooibos farms, to be the face of rooibos and its ambassadors, for the year.

With my head full of rooibos facts, I make my way down the road to the Clanwilliam Museum in the old jail where, after browsing through the rooibos display, I sit in the cool interior with Harriet April, the affable museum curator. “I remember when I was little, it was just rooibos tea for my mother and grandmother,” she tells me.

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“We called it stokkiestee (twig tea). On the black Dover stove we always had a kettle for water, a kettle for rooibos tea and a kettle for moerkoffie, which was only served when we had guests.”And that’s where it all began, with the simple stokkiestee, which was first used medicinally by the inhabitants of the ederberg region before it was cultivated and marketed, becoming a popular and caffeine-free alternative to Ceylon tea.

Going back to the land and the source, I make my way to Skimmelberg, producer of organic rooibos and buchu teas and other products, via the scenic, hilly and tarred Marcuskraal road between Clanwilliam and Citrusdal, which meanders idyllically between citrus trees and fynbos. Skimmelberg is named after the dappled-grey colour of the mountain peak overlooking fields of rooibos and buchu, grown without chemical fertilisers or herbicides.

On the farm, Jannie and Ria Slabbert use natural methods, weeding the rows of rooibos by hand, using compost tea from their earthworm farm and carrying out all the necessary processing on the farm to control the health and safety aspects. This ensuresa top-quality product that satisfies the
stringent criteria required by the Certification of Environmental Standards, and for export to the EU. In keeping with their sustainability ethic, Skimmelberg has donated the mountainous area of the farm to CapeNature on a stewardship basis.

In an energetic wind, Ria and I take the farm tour of both buchu and rooibos fields, and the ‘tea court’ (the drying area), nursery and rooibos-processing building. “We are fortunate to be in the mountains, in an area where rooibos has been grown traditionally,” she tells me.

Her husband Jannie spent his life in the vicinity. He was born on the neighbouring farm, as were his father and grandfather before him, and has rooibos (and buchu) flowing in his blood. “When the Titanic went down, eight bales of buchu were on board.” Jannie believes that it came from these farms that exported some of the first buchu.

The night is spent peacefully in their well-equipped farm cottage, surrounded by blossoming orange trees and looking out onto the Olifantsrivier mountain range. In the morning, I say my goodbyes to the friendly couple and head southwards to the Paleisheuwel road above Citrusdal to keep my appointment with Carmién Tea on their Bergendal Rooibos farm.

At Carmién, I realise how far rooibos has come. It was started 12 years ago by sister-team, Mientjie Mouton, now the managing director, and Carmen Niehaus, who grew up on the farm (the name Carmién is a combination of their names). Although Carmién still sells good old-fashioned stokkiestee, their exciting new range of blends is modern, trendy and innovative.

They use organic rooibos with ingredients like ginseng, acai berries and turmeric, among others, to spice up their range. They also have developed a line for kids and mommies, a set of teas to soothe, revive and cleanse, and even a red mocha dessert tea with vanilla, coffee and chocolate flavours for a sweeter nightcap. Bergendal Rooibos (of which their employees own 50 per cent) uses eco-friendly farming practices and supplies all the rooibos for their teas.
At Carmién’s tea emporium or tea bar, where several stylish, glass tea pots offer visitors a taste of the interesting tea-and-herb blends, I sample some of the new varieties. Carmién’s quality assurance manager Ilze Bruwer has been instrumental in developing the new range of teas. “It’s not only enjoyable tea, but high in health benefits,” she explains.

A sudden rain shower sees me to my final destination, Hebron, on the Piekenierskloof Pass, ending my rooibos route at its southern-most end with, as Arnel Pellegrom tells me, “the three best things from the Piekenierskloof Mountains”.

Owners of Hebron, Steve and Caro Oldroyd, started the tasting room with the idea of using wine from the area. Piekenierskloof Wine Company took it over, collaborating with Hebron and Carmién for a wine-food-and-rooibos-tea pairing. Although a selection of nibbles is also offered, I opt for the three-course meal, expertly assembled by Steve, to be savoured with Arnel’s selection of teas and wines.

Surrounded by orange pincushion bushes, unirrigated bush wines (the secret of the Piekenierskloof wines) and a rumblingsky, Arnel introduces me to the subtleties of a pairing, of how the tea opens up the nose to identify aromas, playing mischievously with the wine and food to accentuate the various flavours.

The sky is clearing as I make my way out to the peach-pit driveway and my car laden with bunches of pincushion proteas to add to my supply of rooibos that will be the envy of any South African. I recall what Sanet said to me as I left the Rooibos Tea House in Clanwilliam, at the beginning of my intriguing rooibos journey.

With the spectacular backdrop of towering Cederberg mountains in the distance, she looked frankly at me and said, “Nowhere else in the world can you have this experience.” With rooibos only growing in this small sliver of the country, the Rooibos Route certainly is one of a kind.

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