Forget fussy foams and fiddly presentation: from Durban to the Cape Winelands you’ll find pioneering chefs preparing big hearted dishes with ingredients from their own back garden.
One of Durban’s best chefs is getting all misty eyed over some oxtail. “In the old days, people used to cover these cuts of meat with coals and leave them for a whole day to tenderise,” laments Janine Fourie, head chef at Durban’s Big Easy Wine Bar and Grill in the city’s iconic Hilton hotel. Janine, you see, has made it her mission to revive traditional South African dishes, with a focus in her kitchen on slow cooking and hearty stews. The oxtail in question is going to spend eight hours in the oven before being mixed with marrow and transformed into a plate of silky, crispy fritters, a signature dish at the Ernie Els-endorsed restaurant.
“I think we’re seeing a move away from over-the-top, molecular-style cooking, back to good, wholesome food again,” says Janine. “If you get a wonderful piece of meat from a brilliant butcher, you don’t need to add a thousand ingredients.” This last part is key. Janine spends days sourcing incredible local produce – her burgers are topped with cheese from a nearby dairy farm, trout comes from a local family fishery, vegetables from the market and meat from various producers in the surrounding KwaZulu-Natal region. She is not the sort of woman to be found down the cash and carry.
It’s this preference for fresh, seasonal, locally sourced ingredients, over liquid nitrogen and foie-gras foam, that has come to define South African cooking, and the country is fast making a name for itself as king of farm-to-table cuisine. Of course, it helps that South Africa is one of the most fertile countries on the planet, surrounded by seafood and covered with game and grapes. Needing little encouragement, I resolve to hand the reins of my holiday over to my stomach and take in South Africa one bite at a time.
Too often overlooked by tourists, the beaches should be at the top of your list of things to do in Durban. They are washed by the Indian Ocean and are where many South Africans come to let their hair down – and enjoy the flavours of the Indian subcontinent. The city has a large Indian and Bangladeshi community and that means excellent curry houses and great markets. I browsed homemade pickles and freshly ground spices at the Bangladesh Market and tried more than one portion of the city’s satisfying signature dish, bunny chow – a hollowed out loaf of bread filled with a spicy slick of bean or mutton curry. In a stroke of genius, Durban has also become famous for producing the perfect bunny-chow accompaniment: craft beer. There are a handful of local breweries but Shongweni pale ale is found behind nearly every bar and happened, conveniently, to be my favourite.
When thinking about what to do in South Africa I had planned to split my time between Durban and the country’s more famous seaside city, Cape Town. You can fly to the cape in a couple of hours but this is one journey you really shouldn’t rush. Instead, I suggest hopping halfway by plane, picking up a car in Port Elizabeth and embarking on the most gobsmacking drive of your life. The route hugs the coast, cramming in the gorgeous Garden Route, whale watching in Hermanus and chardonnay-swilling in the Cape Winelands. Drive it all in one go and you’ll be in Cape Town in eight hours, but it’s more fun to stretch the miles out over a week.
Just two hours outside Port Elizabeth, you’ll hit the mountains, pine forests and perfect sandy stretches of The Garden Route. All this lovely-looking nature was a bonus; I was really here for the glass-fronted restaurants facing the sea and to meet the small-scale producers who supplied them.
If you have the joyous good fortune of starting your drive on a Saturday, one of the best things to do is to head straight to Harkerville Market, near pretty Plettenberg Bay, and pick up some locally made cheese, locally baked bread and locally grown fruit (if your timing is off, Wild Oats is another Saturday farmers’ market further into the route, near Sedgefield) and then throw a pin at the map to decide which gorgeous beach you’re going to devour it all on.
The blue-and-green town of Knysna is a charming place to stop, too. Set beside a glassy lagoon, it has a forest inhabited by baboons, an annual oyster festival and a cute town centre stuffed with museums and galleries. By far the best way to absorb the essence of the place is to order a bowl of seafood curry at the East Head Café, a simple shack that sits almost in the water, at the point where the calm lagoon waters get into a brawl with the sea.
There’s no need for sat nav in these parts, just wind down the window and follow the scent of steaming bowls of mussels and spicy crayfish. After the Garden Route comes Hermanus, where you’re likely to find whales messing about just offshore, and a string of fishing towns leading all the way to Cape Town. At some point though – I suggest around Kalk Bay – it’s a good idea to wrench yourself away from the coast and swing inland for a drink.
Less than an hour outside Cape Town, the Winelands are a magical, velvety region where soil is put to the serious business of growing some of the world’s best grapes. Paarl, Franschhoek and, prettiest of all, Stellenbosch are the three main towns to aim for, with cellar doors cluttering the roads in between. Wherever you start, end up at Haute Cabrière’s winery in Franschhoek. They grow other stuff as well as grapes here and dinner is a series of little treasures crafted out of whatever’s been dug up on the farm.
Cape Town is probably the best looking city on the planet, hemmed in by the red flanks of Table Mountain, dazzlingly white beaches and the icy blue of the Atlantic. It’s also one of the tastiest. I crammed in as much as I could during my final few days in the city, tucking into bobotie, a fruity, spicy mince dish in Bo Kaap, the old Malay Quarter, and sinking umpteen painstakingly brewed coffees on Bree Street, the city’s most Instagrammable road.
On my last day, a Saturday, I stocked up on fancy biltong to take home (it didn’t make it past the flight) at the weekly Neighbourgoods Market in newly gentrified Woodstock. The market is inside the Old Biscuit Mill, which is also home to interesting shops and restaurants – the best of which, The Pot Luck Club, sits on top of what used to be the silo. The view stretches to Table Mountain and the dishes on the tapas-style menu were exciting without being overwrought. They also featured a couple of my favourite treats of the past few days: a delicious Ken Forrester chenin blanc that I’d sampled in Stellenbosch and some Kalk Bay octopus – here it was jazzed up with pickled cucumber and soybean mayonnaise. As I casually chatted about the provenance of these with the waitress, I had only one regret. That Janine was back in Durban and couldn’t hear me. She would have been so proud.
Where to eat
Big Easy Wine Bar and Grill by Ernie Els is in the Durban Hilton and, conveniently, a short stroll from the beach.
The Bangladesh Market pops up just south of the city centre on Fridays and Saturdays.
Harkerville Market takes place on Saturdays, just outside Plettenberg Bay on the road to Knysna.
Wild Oats Community Market is further to the east, in the lovely little town of Sedgefield on Saturday mornings.
East Head Café in Knysna is the dream spot for seafood with a sea view.
Cape Town and The Winelands
Tour the winery at Haute Cabrière in Franschhoek then settle down to vineyard views and six sensational, farm-fresh courses.
In trendy Woodstock, Neighbourgoods Market takes place on Saturdays and is more about delicious food stalls than raw ingredients.
In the same building as Neighbourgoods, you need to book in advance to get a table at The Pot Luck Club.
Barbeque in Johannesburg
The highlight of a South African’s diary is the weekly braai, essentially a high-end barbecue. The township equivalent of a braai is a Sunday shiza nyama, aka a communal knees-up at the local grill. The best one is Panyaza in Soweto. Meat is local and adorned only with chilli, salt and fire. There’s no cutlery, just a side of satisfying pap (ground maize) and really loud R&B. There are plenty of things to do in Jo’burg; stop in to see Nelson Mandela’s modest house, it’s just around the corner from Panyaza, and in town don’t miss the brilliant Apartheid Museum and the galleries on Jan Smuts Avenue, which showcase fantastic local art.