Actually this is a story of how important it is to stop for a cup of coffee while travelling. Well, more about how that cup of coffee became a life-changer for a South African/Italian family. And the place where all this happened is called La Sosta in Swellendam. The Italian La Sosta means to stop, halt, rest or take a break, which makes the story even more fantastic.
It’s also the story of two chefs, Nina Mathew-Branda and Salvatore Branda. Nina’s family left South Africa in the early 1990s and ended up in Lugano, Switzerland, where Nina completed her schooling in Italian.
“It was there that I started to work at a restaurant in Lugano and fell in love with the kitchen. It was the chemistry of the food that did it. And the intensity in the kitchen. As the orders came in you had to sharpen up.”
She decided to make food her career and began a rigorous three-year apprenticeship at a food institute, “Where I learnt everything about food, growing it, nutritional science, and the science of cooking.”
Salvatore studied economics in Milan but felt he was going in the wrong direction. He loved cooking for his fellow students and they all urged him to make food his career, which meant it was time for the dreaded discussion of a career change with his father.
“My Dad, the saint, asked what I wanted to do and arranged for me to work in peak season at L’Approdo, a one-star restaurant in Vibo Marina, Calabria.” Nothing could change Salvatore’s mind that he was on the right career path. “I applied myself fully to learning as much as possible from some of the best mentors in Italy.”
And then two serendipitous events happened. First, the youngsters ended up working together at Luce al Gargantini in Lugano, and fell in love in a very busy kitchen. Second, Salvatore hurt his shoulder and had to have an operation that put a halt to work for four months, a good time for Nina and Salvatore, both living in Lugano, to join Nina’s family on a nostalgic trip to South Africa.
“We were on our way to Arniston from Knysna, and wanted to stop for dinner,” says Nina’s father Chris Mathew. “Using Tripadvisor, Salvatore found La Sosta in Swellendam. Nina called and spoke to the owner, Gianni Minori, but we couldn’t get a booking. But she persuaded him to let us stop for coffee although I think he only agreed because we were speaking Italian.”
One cup of coffee led to another and Gianni and his wife Christiana eventually sold the Overberg icon La Sosta to the Mathew/Branda family. The family extended the bed-and-breakfast accommodation before they re-opened the doors in October 2017.
Chris, the former banker and investment expert, has taken to his front-of-house duties like a duck to water at this Swellendam favourite, known as much for its food as for its warm welcome.
In the kitchen, Nina, Salvatore and their team of four assistants are busy with their set menu that is divided into three categories – sea, land and garden. The ‘sea’ dishes have fish and shellfish as the focus, while ‘land’ offers meat-based dishes and ‘garden’ gives vegetable dishes a turn to shine. And the wine list consists of hand-picked local options and some Italian imports, all chosen to complement the categories.
Unsurprisingly, Nina and Salvatore are very serious about their offerings at the table. There’s nothing random here and they have carefully considered the type of cuisine they wish to present, each new dish chosen to fit into their framework.
Salvatore reminisces about his family and food, “Food was what kept our big family together, every celebration was an excuse to connect around the table, sometimes seating up to 40 family members.”
He takes me back a decade or so in time, letting me in for a peek into a kitchen in the city of Cosenza in Calabria, where a little boy is watching his Nonna Mirella prepare a family meal.
“I was different from my cousins who were always playing games outside,” says Salvatore. “One of my favourite places was with my granny. I had a deep curiosity for food and flavours and, aged five, was eating lobster, mushrooms, olives. For me the magic lay in a raw ingredient changing completely in the hands of the cook.”
He adds wistfully, “My afternoon snack was bread rubbed with tomato, and finished with oregano and olive oil.”
It’s easy to understand why both he and Nina are committed to being sincere to their ingredients. “Our menu is a journey that gives us the opportunity to explore the potential of the ingredients in our area,” adds Nina. “The ideas for a dish come with memories. We discuss our flavour memories of an ingredient and give it structure using the flavour memory as the starting point.”
What they then present is true to the flavours of the regional cuisine of Calabria, with a sophistication in presentation that gives it a fine-dining edge. It’s the perfect crossover of simple, local, seasonal ingredients that are treated with respect by two highly skilled chefs.
Open Tuesday to Saturday 18h30-23h00.
Booking advisable, accommodation available. 028 514 1470, www.lasostaswellendam.com