This is turning out to be a splendid day. The gusting north-west wind here in Stanford did scary stuff to our roof sheets last night, and then ripped out our landline for good measure, but I am leaving it all behind for a visit to Gondwana at the Sanbona Wildlife Reserve in the Klein Karoo.
A favourite winter haunt
The Klein Karoo is one of my favourite winter haunts, what with its mild days, and colder evenings for snuggling up to a fire. Bliss. And the drive to the 58 000-hectare Big Five reserve is just as heavenly, not far from Montagu along the R62, in the direction of Barrydale. We enter the reserve at the main gate to get to Gondwana Family Lodge, one of the three luxury lodges here (there’s also an Explorer Camp).
It’s one of those lovely, sunny, winter days and the large, glass doors of the lodge are wide open. Fynbos, renosterveld and succulent Karoo vegetation flow right in, blurring the boundaries between building and landscape. The main building’s thatched roof blends in perfectly with the koppie behind it, but the feature that pulls me right back to the beginnings of this ancient landscape is the stacked, drystone walls, a tribute to the skilled artisans of this traditional Karoo craft.
The lunch service subsides somewhat and we are introduced to the chef at the helm, Timothy du Preez. “Every meal, breakfast, lunch and dinner, plus morning and afternoon snacks and picnic packs for game drives, comes out of this kitchen,” says Timothy. “And tonight, if the weather holds, we will treat our guests to a braai in the boma.” After lunch, we step into a spacious kitchen, no doubt the envy of many a city chef. I have deep admiration for the team that pulls this off seven days a week and still has broad smiles when a visitor walks in.
Most of the kitchen staff were born and bred in or around the reserve and received their training in the kitchens of Sanbona. They are now making rusks, biscuits and muesli, and in the meat drier (Timothy made it himself) there are rows and rows of droëwors and biltong ready to be sliced and served. “I call this the Home of Homemade,” says Timothy. “We source ingredients as close to home as possible and make as much of what we serve in our own kitchen.”
Almonds and olive oil come from the neighbouring farm, Amanteco Almonds, meat is bought from Werner’s Meat Market in Montagu, cheese from La Mont dairy farm, and fresh fish from selected suppliers in Mossel Bay and Cape Town. “We started a kitchen garden to have fresh leaves and garnishes for our plates, and to support the green initiative,” says Timothy.
He takes me to meet Frans (Pypies) de Jager. Frans has a small, enclosed section of the garden in which he grows most of the garnishes for the restaurant. “We would love to extend the garden so that the restaurant could be more self-sufficient, but are doing our best in this water-scarce area,” explains Timothy.
When the plates come out of the Gondwana kitchen later I notice that almost every one boasts a touch or two from Frans’ garden – the lemon brûlée sports a violet flower, while a sprig of thyme tops the kudu wrapped in bacon. Asked why he sources seafood all the way from Mossel Bay, Timothy says, “I have strong ties with the town. It’s where I was introduced to the restaurant trade. From Mossel Bay I went on to do a stint in Wales, and then learned in London how a commercial kitchen works. After gaining invaluable experience, I returned to South Africa, to Mossel Bay, where I was offered the position of executive chef at Stone Hill.”
In 2015 Timothy joined Sanbona and what a good move that turned out to be, because here love blossomed when he met his wife Marelize.
“It does help greatly to have a partner who is also dedicated to the reserve, and who understands that we work long hours. But we live in a most special place.”
I must agree. When you drive to work and the traffic jams are herds of elephant or giraffe taking their time to cross the road, you surely live in a special spot on the planet.
And where does he find his inspiration? “My mission is to showcase South African food in a refined manner. I research old South African recipe books and use my grandmother’s recipes. Our biltong recipe and recipe for a salted buttermilk cheese, which we serve with our cheese platter, comes from those old cookery books. I am constantly considering ways to improve our guests’ experience. We recently added a bakery section to our kitchen, and I hope to introduce bread-making courses in the near future to hone my skills.”
A magical evening
The dishes served from the Gondwana kitchen have some international flavours, such as crème brûlée with shortbread, and home-made nougat studded with cranberries and pistachios, but the menu leans strongly towards Timothy’s vision of South African cooking. There is also a hearty curried pumpkin soup, bobotie and rice, kudu fillet and a baked rooibos-and-date pudding on the menu. All familiar Karoo dishes, perfect for winter, but all tweaked on the plate.
By late afternoon, the boma is being readied for the evening braai. Huge fires are lit and three-legged pots with Cape Malay curry and tomato bredie are simmering away. As the sun dips behind the lodge, the Karoo lamb chops sizzle and a magical evening unfolds in the Klein Karoo. To crown it all, next morning, as we leave, a soft drizzle sets in, and we hope it brings relief to this arid, but fascinating, part of the Western Cape.
Pictures Daniela Zondagh