I’ve never known a nation to put on quite so many food and wine festivals as the South Africans – apart from maybe the French.
OK, so Stellenbosch may in the heart of the Cape Winelands, where the focus is definitely on all things alchoholic and/or gastronomic, but even so. Let me give you an example: the very first week that we arrived in town (at the end of January), there was a 10-day wine festival here to celebrate the start of the harvest.
On the opening Saturday, a flotilla of tractors pulling brightly-coloured floats complete with local bands and dancing farm-workers paraded through the town, before stopping at the historic Rhenish Church near the green, which is called Die Braak, or “the fallow area” in English, for an official harvest blessing from the minister and the Mayor.
This little burst of excitement was then followed by tailored food and wine pairing experiences at innumerable restaurants in Stellenbosch itself or at one of the local wine farms round about. And if you’ve not experienced it firsthand, I can now confirm what a huge difference having the right wine to go with a meal can actually make.
Instead of just knocking it back, if you’re given the chance to sample several varieties side-by-side during your repast, you can really taste which work and which don’t. Some will enhance the flavour of the dish, others will dampen it down, while still others will completely obliterate it.
So if you go somewhere posh and happen to run across a Maitre d’ who knows their onions, so to speak, then cherish them. In fact, so impressed were we by such discoveries that we’re now thinking of doing a beginner’s course at one of the local wine farms over the winter months in order to get a better handle on it all.
Anyway, the aforementioned festival finally culminated in an inevitable three-day “Wine Expo” back on Die Braak, which basically consisted of loads of stalls offering wine-tasting (no knowledge required).
While this particular little indulgence appears to be a regular fixture at most outdoor events around here, this was wine-tasting extraordinaire, with at least 100 stands offering their wares with gusto.
South African cheese festival
So after paying the entrance fee, it was simply a matter of grabbing a free wine glass and wandering around, looking for anything novel or interesting to catch the eye.
It must be said that the sparkling wines of JC LeRoux, made in the Methode Cap Classique, or classic French champagne-style to you and I, numbered among my own especial favourites – as we didn’t hesitate to inform the stall-holders while launching into our second, or maybe third, glass.
Anyway, it isn’t just wine festivals that you’re likely to stumble on in this neighbourhood. We’ve been to everything from slow food and organic markets to cheese and olive extravaganzas, and they’re always packed.
In fact, our quest for new culinary delights took us, and 27,000-odd others, up to the grandly-named South African Cheese Festival in Sandringham a couple of weekends back, a place about half an hour’s drive more or less directly north of Stellenbosch.
My beloved is a big cheese-lover and, despite my dairy intolerance which means that I’ve got to be careful, I have been known to indulge in the odd morsel or two of blue now and then – the pongier, the better generally.
Whether you’re a cheese-lover or not though, it really wouldn’t have mattered too much because, despite the wealth of choice, it definitely wasn’t the only item on the menu.
Beyond the inevitable wine-tasting stalls, there were also cakes, charcuterie, relishes, jams and chocolate in as many forms as the imagination would allow. As well as a new innovation in the shape of Marmite Cheese, which sounds vile but was actually quite nice – a more creamy version of the original really, although I guess the old ‘love it or loathe it’ adage would still apply.
For lunch, meanwhile, we also sampled some scrummy Dim Sum, followed by the worst paella either of us have ever tasted, as we sat in the sunshine and watched a live band singing cover versions of old US classics. Great stuff.
Riebeek Kasteel olive festival
Nonetheless, probably my favourite food festival to date was last weekend’s olive spectacular at Riebeek Kasteel in the fertile Riebeek Valley. The Valley is located in the municipality of Swartland, or self-proclaimed Shiraz country, and is only about an hour’s drive north west of Stellenbosch, so not far.
The town, which was deservedly nominated in 2009 as one of the Western Cape’s most beautiful – alongside Stellenbosch (hurrah) and Clanwilliam, which is up north on the way to Namibia – by South Africa’s highest circulation Afrikaans-based Sunday newspaper, Rapport, also boasts the country’s oldest hostelry in the shape of The Royal Hotel, which is quite exciting.
In fact, the place is altogether a charming one, with a slightly Provencal feel – lots of little white-washed shops linked by narrow back alleys, all sitting on the slopes of the 946 metre-high Kasteelberg mountain, with the church and hotel acting as the town’s main hubs.
The olive festival itself, meanwhile, was dotted all over the settlement and its spacious environs. In the square, a large marquee dubbed the ‘Olive Emporium’ had been erected to house everything from olive oil and wine-tasting stalls to vendors selling various kinds of sausages as well as oysters at R10 (about 70p) a pop.
But hop on a tractor pulling trailer flatbeds stacked with hay bales for (at least theoretical) comfort or an open-topped ‘fun bus’ and you were also whisked off to a choice of six other venues.
My favourite though was the ‘Het Vlock Casteel’ wine farm, where you could sit on yet more comfy hay bales in the gardens and either simply watch people as they meandered from one food/wine stall to the next or drink in the vista over the valley to the mountains, which rise in a semi-circle from the valley floor. Stunning.
So all in all, I’d say the South Africans have it sussed when it comes to putting on a good food/wine festival. None of your being herded into vast, airless, impersonal exhibition halls for them – oh no (which perhaps says more about the relative attitudes of the British and South Africans to food and food production than we realise).
Here it’s all about conviviality and making the most of the amazing settings from which all of the lovely fresh produce actually comes. And what a difference it makes. Really.