Koornlands Restaurant in the historic town of Swellendam is renowned for using excellent local produce and serving mouthwatering game.
Words: Diana Wemyss
Pictures: Anthony Johnson
Marianne and Stephen Altham make a powerful team, and have been cooking with their own particular style and gusto in Swellendam for 17 eventful years. Marianne, a jolly person with a huge enthusiasm for life and a ready laugh, is the perfect partner and foil for the more serious Stephen, who admits he was “a bit of a shy, retiring and introverted geek” until he was handed the job of front of house when the Althams started their first restaurant in the town.
“You would have thought Marianne would have taken that job,” he says, eyes twinkling. “But no, she said she’d be in the kitchen. We opened our first restaurant on the day we were married so we catered for our own reception. It was a three-day party. The restaurant was in an old water mill, De Molen, which I had renovated.”
Stephen, a trained electronics engineer turned television producer at the SABC, still studies theoretical physics, for which he was offered a place at Leeds University when he was barely 14. He met Marianne, who hails from Brabant, Holland, in Port Elizabeth in the 1970s, at a time when dining out was largely limited to a visit to the local steakhouse.
“In those days there were no restaurants worth eating at,” Stephen explains, “so we started entertaining at home, so successfully that occasionally we would not even know our guests. They came as friends of friends. Eventually our evenings became such occasions with so many people that we were at times forced to pass around the hat.”
Marianne had gone to chef school in Holland but she says it was the “retirement-from-formal-employment-move” to Swellendam that lead them to formalise what had until that time only been a hobby. Their latest venture, Koornlands, which they opened in September 2011 in a lovely,old, dove-grey house they own on the main road, happened after a fire destroyed the premises they had rented further up the road for seven years.
Named after the river that runs through the town, the restaurant was a three-bedroom family home. “It was complete with, horror of horrors, a sunken lounge, and the style of the building swung violently between 1860 and 1960,” says Marianne.
Stephen, an enthusiastic renovator, set about bringing these two centuries together into a working whole. “I love taking rubbish and turning it into something nice,” he says. Chunky Oregon beams taken from the Victorian house where they live were used to build the bar counter in the new restaurant.
The restaurant rambles through several rooms with gently creaking wooden floors and out onto a paved stoep. At night the place sparkles with fairy lights strung from the trusses. Marianne is a keen art collector and ensures there is always local art for sale in the restaurant. She plates their food with an art connoisseur’s flair, while Stephen takes charge of the grilling, which he does with an enviable focus, juggling 20 orders at a time.
They have begun to expand their menu to include vegetarian fare, adding this to a full complement of raw and cooked dishes. Stephen is a follower of both French and Japanese cooking. “These countries have had the same methods of cooking for centuries,” he says. “The methods work and are so well proven, why look elsewhere, why change?
I was interested for a time in molecular cooking, but the equipment needed for this is so expensive and I really don’t think that, in South Africa, people are ready for it yet.”
As it is Stephen pushes the boundaries with such things as crocodile sashimi, warthog samoosas and venison tatiki on his menu. “People are turning more and more to game meat because of its health qualities,” he says. “Zero fat, no cholesterol, no hormones. We don’t do chicken because really that gets taken care of at home and people don’t go out fine dining for chicken.”
One of the dishes they can never take off their menu is springbok with blue cheese and green fig preserve. “It is our signature dish,” says Marianne. “Until now, if people wanted vegetarian dishes, we were serving a meat dish but holding back the meat and leaving the vegetables. Now we are developing an exclusive vegetarian menu.”
Stephen recalls their first vegetarian dish. “My Vegetarian Cupcake Number One was inspired by a book I read about cocktails and the days of the rajah when the drink of choice was Pimms No.1 Cup.”
The bottom line in the restaurant business, says Stephen, is the food. You can have buzz and vibe and atmosphere, but ultimately people return because of what you serve. And it would seem that he and Marianne have the perfect partnership. How does it work so well?
“I listen to everything she says and do everything I’m told,” he says mischievously.
Koornlands Reservations: 082 4308 188