That’s what you get when there’s food with heart. And where wizards are brewing everything from rooibos-wooded wine to a rich ice cream called Fanny Chanel… It’s a foodie heaven in Stellenbosch.
Words: Marion Whitehead
Pictures: Marion Whitehead & Supplied
It’s not often you get to prop up a bar while tasting vinegar, but that’s what I found myself doing in Stellenbosch, heart of the country’s finest winelands.
First, Alexander Ammann took me on a tour through the cellar at Rozendal, his family’s organic farm. He and his sister Nathalie use the traditional French Orléans method of vinegar preparation, passed down by their Swiss father, Kurt. It’s a technique that produces something very different to the ordinary spirit vinegar you find on supermarket shelves, which is very good for cleaning kitchen counters.
Rozendal’s special balsamic vinegar happened by happy accident, explained Alexander as we passed between huge 7 000ℓ oak vats. His restaurateur dad started making wine, but one batch was too high in volatile acids, so he stuck it in a storeroom and forgot about it. Some years later, they opened the reject barrel of wine and found themselves sampling the most perfect, natural, balsamic-type vinegar.
“Balsamic vinegar has so many health benefits. It helps the body balance its pH. That’s why it’s served as an aperitif before meals – as a natural weak acid, it stimulates the secretion of saliva and prepares the stomach to digest heavy food to come,” explained Alexander, an architect who renovated the old cellar and designed the vinegar bar. “Wine will naturally turn into vinegar. It’s part of the maturation process; winemakers add sulphides to halt oxidation,” explained Alexander. “So now we work with nature and allow the wine to mature into vinegar.”
The vinegar is infused with a variety of herbs, from indigenous buchu and rose geranium to elderflower and even kelp, stuffed into oversized ‘teabags’ in small oak barrels. This adds subtle flavour as well as the extra health benefits of each plant. “The secret ingredient is time – what a lot of people don’t value anymore,” said Alexander.
Sampling a shot of award-winning fynbos balsamic, I kept it in my mouth as long as possible, swirling it around while my saliva glands instantly went into overdrive and my eyes popped with surprise. The longer I held it in my mouth, the thicker and sweeter the vinegar became. When my salivary glands could no longer cope, I swallowed and set my gastric juices jumping. It proved a great aperitif – nearly as good as the Ammann’s tale of turning a mistake into an award-winning tonic.
On the other side of Stellenbosch, at the foot of the Helderberg mountains on Audacia, Trevor Strydom was trying his level best not to let his wine turn into vinegar. Depressed after a day in the cellar fruitlessly looking for local alternatives to expensive imported oak that would give his wine the edge over the approximately 16 000 labels local wine buyers have to choose from, he took comfort in the cup of tea his daughter made for him. She left the box of rooibos on the kitchen table and he stared at it morosely.
“Then I had this light bulb moment. Why not try wooding the wine with rooibos?” Trevor told me on a tour of Audacia, where vineyards stretched below the site of the popular Root44 weekend market.
He and his winemaker, Michael van Niekerk, experimented with rooibos teabags in samples of their wines and found the indigenous tea, a natural antioxidant, stopped fermentation without having to add sulphides – a preservative that some sensitive wine drinkers have become allergic to and is reputed to contribute the lion’s share to the next day’s hangover.
Their trials were so successful, they extended them to honeybush. Trevor and Audacia co-owner Paul Harris brought Stellenbosch University researchers and KWV on board and soon they patented this revolutionary means of making wine without added sulphides, expanding it to include beer and cider in a partnership with local brewers. “We took out patents for 83 countries around the world. It was hugely expensive, which is why we needed KWV to join us,” said Trevor.
This caused quite a stir in the local staff of life. There’s a sure-fire way to get Fritz Schoon excited – just ask him about the heritage grains he’s using to make the stack of crusty artisan loaves that fill the trendy Schoon de Companje eatery, on the corner of Bird and Church streets, with their aroma.
Fritz’s enthusiasm for artisan baking has taken him by surprise – he’s actually a quantity surveyor who became fascinated with baking and spent two years training with master pastry chef Markus Farbinger at Knysna’s famous Île de Païn. When he moved to Stellenbosch, he built his oven in a back courtyard no one wanted. “I put in a coffee machine so people could drink something while waiting for their bread,” said Fritz, introducing me to Black Betty, his ferocious wood-fired oven. He also grinds the organic wholegrain wheat he uses and adds wild yeast that makes the bread spring up eagerly.
There’s a romantic story behind the Fanny Chanel artisan ice cream on sale in home-made cones at Schoon de Campanje. It’s made by Fritz’s wife, Chanelle, whom he swept off her feet after a whirlwind six-week courtship. She was fresh out of chef school, so neither of them had restaurant experience but they decided to open an eatery when the space adjacent to the oven became available. “We just want to make honest food and support local producers,” said Fritz. “I believe this is the future of food.”
Artisan chocolate gets a local twist in a converted garage in Paradyskloof, where Nini Jerman coats the sundried Boland fruit of her farm childhood memories in rich, dark, Belgian chocolate. “It’s all bite-size pieces and the fruit is the centre, so it’s a little bit healthier than the cream and butter centres we also do,” she said of her Winston & Julia Tjokfruit brand of confectionery. “I don’t know of anyone else doing fruit centres the way we do.”
Hubby Nick helped her start the business and, for the first few years, there was a lot of experimenting. “And learning what doesn’t work,” said Nini. Things came together two years ago when they imported a special tumbling machine to coat the fruit, got their packaging right and launched themselves at the Stellenbosch Slowmarket held every Saturday morning at Oude
Libertas, where I tracked her down. “It helped us make contacts and reach a wider audience,” said Nini.
The name of the brand refers to a moment in George Orwell’s famous dystopian novel 1984, where the heroine, Julia, hands the protagonist, Winston, a piece of chocolate and he knows just from the smell that it’s not the ordinary stuff. “We often get called Winston and Julia here,” said Nini with a laugh.
There’s a rich mix of accents and European languages around her stall at the Slowmarket, proving that the international swallows are as happy with her decadent treats as local shoppers. Stellenbosch’s artisan food producers recently found ‘asylum’ in a heritage building in the heart of the old town. Stefanus van der Walt and his partners developed what was once a police station and then a lunatic asylum into De Warenmarkt, a hub for purveyors of speciality foods.
From vendors in an enclosed courtyard behind the restaurant, you can choose a charcuterie platter from butcher Ryan Boon or a cheese platter from the deli, add some of Manoli Chatzikyriaskos’ artisan bread made in the wood-fired oven the way his Greek granny taught him, and wash it down with craft beer or freshly brewed coffee or juice. Or just take a basketful of goodies home with you.
“We fully support artisan and local producers of quality food,” said Stefanus. “We want to create a great experience for those who love good food.”
- Foodie heaven happens every Saturday morning at the Slowmarket under leafy trees and in a hall at Oude Libertas wine estate. Whether you’re after organic chicken and sausages, sun-ripened strawberries, fresh oysters, real German cakes, gluten-free chocolate brownies, Tunisian schwarmas or unusual teas, you’ll find something to tempt your tastebuds here.
- Founded by Dr Gail Blake, an integrated health practitioner, it’s at the forefront of the wholefood revolution and the emphasis is on food that’s good, clean and fair to consumers, producers and the environment.