It hadn’t ever occurred to me that I might get to celebrate that greatest of all French festivals, Bastille Day, in South Africa. Paris, tick. Lyon, tick. But South Africa?
Being a francophile and one-time fluent French speaker having studied the language, along with German, many years ago at university, I’ve been lucky enough to attend the country’s 14th of July celebrations in both of its major cities and can safely say that the French know how to do such things with aplomb.
After a grand military parade along the Champs-Elysees watched over by the beady eye of the president and other dignitaries, the whole affair dissolves into a day of eating, drinking and dancing in streets all over France, followed by a stupendous firework display in the evening to bring the country’s national day to a close.
The festival, which has been celebrated since 1880, takes place on the day that a band of artisans stormed the Bastille fortress (aptly seeing as this is France, a couple of restaurants are now located on the site), thereby firing the opening salvos of the French Revolution.
This momentous event eventually led to the collapse of absolute monarchy in the country, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen and the state’s rebirth as a republic. All very significatif.
So I was intrigued to know just what form the South African version of le quatorze juillet might take. Knowing the South Africans, it would definitely include partaking of some form of food and drink, particularly as the celebration was taking place in Franschhoek, the culinary capital of the Western Cape and a town of French Huguenot origin in the heart of the Cape Winelands.
Just to refresh your memory as to who they actually were, ‘Huguenot’ was a name ascribed to French Protestants who were initially influenced by German monk, Martin Luther, and later became members of a reformed church set up by French theologian, John Calvin, in 1550.
In a bid to escape religious persecution in Catholic France, however, between 1688 and the early 1700s, about two hundred of them (out of an estimated quarter of a million who fled the country) accepted an offer of safe passage to, and farmland in, the Cape of Good Hope by the Dutch East India Company, which had a base there.
Once in the Cape, the majority of settlers were awarded land in the Berg river valley between Wellington and what was later to be dubbed Franschhoek (‘French corner’ in Dutch), which is about half an hour’s drive more or less directly east out of Stellenbosch.
But even though many of the Huguenots had no farming experience much at all, being, as a rule, merchants, artisans and craftsmen of different types and descriptions, some handily brought with them wine-making experience and a knowledge of viticulture from their homeland – and even named their new wine farms after the areas of France from which they came, for instance, La Motte, Provence and/or Chamonix, which are still there today.
Due to inter-marriage with local Dutch farmers and a ban on any language but Dutch being spoken in schools or employed in official correspondence, however, within two generations, the Huguenots had lost their distinct identity and no longer spoke French as a home language
But just because they assimilated so swiftly doesn’t mean to say that they completely disappeared from the scene. Not only did the settlers contribute significantly to the lucrative South African wine-making industry, but they also went on to sire some of the country’s most famous sons.
These include former president FW de Klerk (Le Clercq), who along with Nelson Mandela brokered the end of apartheid, and Eugene Terreblanche, leader of the extreme right-wing Afrikaner Resistance Movement, who was beaten to death in April 2010 by two farm workers following a dispute over unpaid wages .
So, while the Huguenots may have nothing to do with Bastille Day, having left France nearly a century before, we felt that it really wasn’t for us to let historical fact get in the way of a good knees-up.
And so it was that my beloved and I wended our way through the beautiful mountainous terrain on route from Stellenbosch to Franschhoek last weekend to see what delights awaited us.
Bastille Day a la Franschhoek
And what a surprise we got – as we entered the environs of the town, it seemed that just about every wall and Frenchified or otherwise building was decorated with red, white and blue flags and bunting.
Visitors and residents poured up and down the main street in red, white and blue berets and wigs, and, somewhat bizarrely and in decidedly unGallic fashion, a cheery steel drum band merrily played their percussive rhythms as if they’d never left Trinidad and Tobago.
Although, sadly, we’d missed the boules competition, which anyone could enter but which had taken place the day before, we were nevertheless treated to the rare sight of the ‘Waiter’s Race’. Compered by the most bored and disinterested-sounding MC in the entire Western Cape, it comprised a relay race of slothful waiters using one hand to balance a tray with a plastic bottle of water on it, who proceeded to potter around a track marked out by hay bales.
By the time the audience had woken up, it was all over and the winner was given a Cup made of metal wire, of which he proceeded to drop the lid. Not South Africa’s finest sporting hour, it must be said.
More to the commercial point, however, was the inevitable Food and Wine Marquee, which for R150 (£10) bought you entrance, a free wine glass and five tasting vouchers. Although unable to partake as I was driving that day, my beloved took full advantage, choosing to specialise in the local sparkling wines, while we both snacked on that old French classic, mushroom gnocchi (?!!?).
Not quite what I had in mind, although I shouldn’t complain as the subsequent mushroom vol-au-vents were lovely.
So all in all, it was a bit of a mixed bag really. The good people of Franschhoek may have been hosting the festival for the last 20 years, but it still hasn’t quite got the panache of its genuine French counterpart, I’d say.
Nonetheless, as we posted later on my beloved’s Facebook page to much hilarity: “Great time at the Franschhoek Bastille Day festival. Those French Hugenoses certainly know how to party like it’s 1784.” It was funny at the time.