Despite the rain-clouds hugging the mountaintops, it’s not hard to see that spring has arrived in the Franschhoek Valley. Alongside the R45 the orchards are in blossom, arum lilies thrive in the culverts and watsonias bloom in sprays of pink and white. And, of course, the first green leaves are pushing out of the trellised vines that carpet the hillsides around Franschhoek.
There are few winelands towns quite so appealing for tourists with food and wine in their sights as the ‘French Corner’, which is why I find myself meandering down the Happy Valley Road dreaming of charcuterie.
From his Farm Kitchen on Môreson Estate chef Neil Jewell become famous for offering some of the finest charcuterie in the Cape: bresaola, prosciutto, coppa, lomo, saucisson sec… the list goes on.
Neil is also the accomplished chef behind the estate’s ‘Bread & Wine’ restaurant.
The bistro menu here changes with the seasons and aside from the charcuterie dishes – don’t miss the three-year-old prosciutto – could include local trout, silky risottos or, my personal favourite, a Cape bitterballen of deboned pork ribs; the salty richness well balanced by a sweetcorn velouté
The wine list offers exclusively Môreson releases, but that’s certainly no hardship and you’d do well to head for a wine tasting before lunch.
With over 90 percent of the estate planted to white varietals Chardonnay and Méthode Cap Classique dominate the tasting sheet. The unwooded Chardonnay is gently rounded thanks to plenty of time on the lees, while the Mercator Premium Chardonnay is elegant but oaky and a sure-fire palate pleaser for fans of full-bodied whites.
If that sounds like you, then you won’t be disappointed by Maison Estate.
With high ceilings and cool screed floors framing the chic furnishings in the tasting room and restaurant, it came as no surprise to learn that décor magnate Chris Weylandt owns the estate. Terrace tables give onto spacious lawns and vineyard views, while on a rainy day the hearth lends a cosy ambience to the main dining room decked out in a sleek Nordic style.
The winery is most famous for its Shiraz, the current 2011 vintage given a flush of floral notes by a splash of Viognier, but the barrel-fermented Chenin Blanc Reserve is, I’d say, the star here. A lightly oaked Chardonnay and Viognier are also worth a taste.
Tastings come with chocolate, cheese and biltong pairings and the homemade charcuterie platters are a hit with tourists looking for a nibble while they taste. If a nibble just won’t do, chef Arno Janse van Rensburg’s menu offers accomplished country cooking with plenty of surprises. That could be a rabbit saddle rolled in pancetta, or perhaps beef short rib with spiced kimchee. On the daily chalkboards you’ll also find wonderful shared dishes: the likes of Moroccan Roast Baby Lamb to well-aged Prime Rib.
And while the valley may be famous for its French flavour, a new band of chefs are increasingly offering more adventurous cuisine.
Chris Erasmus, formerly of Pierneef à La Motte, is certainly turning heads with his new restaurant Foliage. In a cosy bistro setting at the top of Huguenot Street, the new venue has allowed Erasmus to indulge his passion for wild and foraged foods.
At first glance the menu offer bistro-style cuisine generous in both portion and flavour, but a closer look reveals the wilder elements of Erasmus’ kitchen: a warm salad of sweetbreads and calamari tubes is tossed with forest greens; the terrine of confit duck, foie gras and eisbein is served with nasturtium salad. The menu changes almost daily according to what’s foraged, but never disappoints.
“The greens are all picked wild from the forests and fields around Franschhoek,” explains Erasmus. “In winter it’s easy with mushrooms in the forests. Spring is a wonderful time to forage as there’s just so much fresh greenery out there, but foraging in the summer is really exciting. In summer we have to head up to the koppies in search of fynbos.”
There’s certainly no shortage of mountain scenery surrounding the town, and one of the very best views of all has just been given a new lease on life.
Mont Rochelle Hotel was recently purchased by Sir Richard Branson and, following a three-month renovation, has reopened with a fresh look and feel. A stylish new spa has opened in one wing of the hotel, while the 22 rooms and suites have been transformed into modern colourful spaces with a subtle African motif.
Striking fabrics frame the king-size beds, eye-catching protea prints line the walls and discreet private lounges offer quiet corners to soak up the mountain views. Those views are perhaps best enjoyed from the fine-dining restaurant Miko, or the poolside terrace with its dramatic mountain views.
But while Mont Rochelle embraces its new look, I headed out for a taste of the old.
Pierneef à La Motte has long championed the notion of ‘Cape Winelands Cuisine’ and, since taking over from Chris Erasmus; Chef de Cuisine Michelle Theron has further developed and refined the approach.
Traditional techniques and heritage ingredients – many of which come straight from La Motte’s vegetable gardens – populate the menu from start to finish. The Old Cape Dutch chicken dish baked with a pâté and a quail egg is superb, as is the Karoo lamb in cabbage with wild mushroom karmenaadjie.
The adjoining Pierneef gallery pays tribute to one of South Africa’s most famous artists, whose works also grace the label of La Motte’s signature wines. Cellar Master Edmund Terblanche’s wide range offers something for most palates and pockets, but their top-tier bottlings of Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah/Viognier are well worth the extra spend. What’s more, the elegant wine-tasting experience conducted by well-informed staff is one of the finest in the valley.
Though the rainy spring day was driving me back to Cape Town, there was one last stop I had to make. As the R45 skirts the Simonsberg, look carefully for the cows. The herd of happy Jerseys ruminating peacefully on pasture marks the muddy farm road towards Dalewood Fromage.
Rob Visser is the second generation to farm these lush pastures and, together with wife Petrina, has won just about every major award in the local cheese world. Most notably, in 2013 their Huguenot semi-hard cheese walked away with the top award at the SA Dairy Championships.
The Huguenot is also the largest head of cheese produced in South Africa, at a hefty 25kg per wheel, and if you can convince the tasting staff to offer a sample of the 12-month matured Huguenot you’ll soon see just why this humble farm cheesery has won quite so many awards.
From Dalewood it was a muddy track that led me back to the R45 and home; a journey that ended much the same as it began: with the mountain peaks scratching at the heavy bellies of the rain clouds. But no matter; the food and wine of the French Corner is superb, come rain or shine.