It’s no secret that Cape Town is the gourmet capital of South Africa. Once you’ve ticked off your safari at a private game reserve in the east of the country, it’s a rare and foolhardy traveller that doesn’t set their sights on the south. A few hours from the Big Five you can be sipping on Chardonnay and feasting on some of the finest restaurants in the country.
And then there’s the winelands, just a short drive from the cosmopolitan city centre, where you’ll find fine Sauvignon Blanc in Constantia, the robust Pinotage and Cabernet of Stellenbosch, the elegant Champagne-style wines – known locally as Méthode Cap Classique - of Franschhoek.
But with the weak Rand making South Africa more affordable than ever before, what’s on offer for your second or third visit to the country? When you’ve ‘done’ Cape Town and ticked off much of the winelands, where to next?
My advice? Look north of the ‘Mother City’, to where South Africa’s windswept West Coast offers an unbeatable mix of warm hospitality, stunning scenery and gourmet travelling.
And it’s with a rumbling stomach that I find myself on the N7 highway heading out of Cape Town. A ramrod straight stretch of tar that delivers you from the sprawling suburbs into the grey-green scrubland that carpets the coastline.
After an hour, flags fluttering above a simple gate mark the entrance to the West Coast National Park. Although home to a handful of antelope, it’s the remarkable birding and explosion of spring flowers in August and September that draws most visitors here.
I press on though, with oysters on my mind. Although the harbour town of Saldanha Bay isn’t much to look at, the cold nutrient-rich waters of the Benguela current have made this the oyster-producing capital of South Africa.
“Saldanha oysters have a unique taste due to the ocean currents and ecosystem of the region,” explains Antonio Tonin, managing director of the Saldanha Bay Oyster Company, which produces over two million oysters a year. “Our oysters are at their best, taste-wise, in Autumn and early-winter when demand is lowest. Summer, when the demand is at its peak, is the spawning season for oysters and they can get a bit milky, with a creamy texture.”
While some local farms will sell shucked oysters direct to the public, an easy way to tap into the best local seafood is the humble Charlie’s Fish Shop in town. Aside from fresh oysters and mussels you’ll find fantastic smoked Angelfish and Snoek. I stock up and head off to Paternoster.
It’s not hard to see why this quaint seaside village is a hot spot for semigrants and weekenders. If you love the Greek islands you’ll feel right at home here with its mix of whitewashed cottages, sandy shores and dramatic rocky coastlines. When it comes to accommodation there’s something for everyone, from glamping at the rustic seafront Beach Camp, to upmarket self-catering cottages and boutique hotels.
The colourful quirky Sugar Shack is a marvellous option if you’re staying for a few days and prefer your own private space. This beautifully decorated cottage offers three spacious double-bedrooms, and living areas that flow out onto a sea-view terrace.
If you’d rather not wash the dishes, Abalone House is the finest boutique hotel in town. Of the 10 rooms those on the first-floor are most sought-after, with access onto a rooftop deck – complete with hot-tub – and wonderful sunset views over the ocean. The on-site Healing Earth spa is another reason to stay, with a good range of African-inspired therapies.
I find my therapy downstairs though, in the intimate bistro-style restaurant Reuben’s. The name embroidered on the linen napery is from local celebrity chef Reuben Riffel, although here in Paternoster it’s Head Chef Aviv Liebenberg who looks after the menu day-to-day.
It’s a menu rich in West Coast influences. Alongside Reuben’s signature dishes of chilli-salt squid and braised pork belly you can expect the likes of double-baked Snoek soufflé with salted apricots, or grilled Rock Lobster on mussel risotto. With the opening of a new sea-view terrace expanding the cosy interior, it’s a fine spot for dinner.
Which is just as well, for if you have an adventurous palate there is really only one spot you should consider for lunch.
Kobus van der Merwe, the owner/chef of Paternoster’s Oep ve Koep has fast made a name for himself as a chef interpreting the terroir of the West Coast on the plate.
That could include anything from bokkoms – salted air-dried mullet that are, shall we say, an acquired taste – to local venison. Saldanha Bay mussels are reinvented as a traditional Cape bobotie, while farmed Kabeljou from the village is a regular feature on the daily chalkboard menu.
Kobus draws most of his inspiration from the seashore and local dunes; locations that also provide rich pickings for the plate, and a feature of every dish are his foraged herbs and greens. Eat your heart out Noma.
“The best way to taste a region is to start nibbling on things in the veld. You can’t get any more local or true to a region than by eating the wild greens,” says Kobus.
Klipkombers seaweed is used as Japanese nori, asparagus-like veldkool is picked in winter, while succulent Dune Spinach makes for a remarkable salad. Perhaps most memorable is Wild Samphire, a plant from the intertidal zone that transforms a simple plate of oysters into an edible memory of the West Coast.
There are plenty of other edible memories to be had in Paternoster. Regional craft beers are best enjoyed at sunset on the wide wooden deck of the beachfront Voorstrand, while the Noisy Oyster offers a quirky globetrotting menu that rarely fails to deliver.
Suzi Holtzhausen’s cosy bistro Gaaitjie is another great option come dinnertime, with sea views that perfectly complement her inspired West Coast cooking. Expect subtly spiced spring rolls of Angelfish, oven-roasted Snoek or local Yellowtail in a curry leaf masala. The wine list, as at Oep ve Koep, is proudly local with a selection of the best the Swartland has to offer.
And it’s the Swartland that’ll draw you south once you’ve eaten your way through Paternoster.
So back down the N7 highway, left at the wind turbines and through the quaint farming town of Darling. If you have time the area is famous for its olive oils, with a handful of decent wine estates to boot. Local satirist Pieter Dirk-Uys also has his much-loved Evita se Perron theatre in the old railway station here, with his regular shows drawing plenty of day-trippers from Cape Town.
But the real vinous action is happening further down the road, as the R45 splits: left to Riebeek Kasteel, or right towards Stellenbosch.
Riebeek Kasteel is where most visitors choose to base themselves, and with good reason. Estates such as Kloovenburg have long attracted visitors to the valley, and as the vines swop green leaves for auburn there are few better times to visit.
Kloovenburg traces its history to 1704, but it’s only since winemaker Pieter du Toit took over 20-odd years ago that it began making a name for its for top-notch Shiraz and Chardonnay.
Today, Pieter takes care of the award-winning wines while wife Annalene looks after the equally acclaimed olive oils and olive products. The atmospheric tasting room in the old cellar, wooden barrels lining the walls, is a fine place to settle in for a tasting of both products. Also on their property is the old Victorian parsonage, today revamped into stylish guest accommodation.
It’s a good option as it’s only a few minutes’ walk to the centre of town where you’ll find a host of restaurants offering homely country-style cuisine. Mama Cucina does outstanding Italian-inspired dishes and wood-fired pizza, while Bar Bar Black Sheep is my favourite bistro in town, not least for the legendary fishcakes and towering lamb burgers. There’s also a great selection of local wine estates on offer here.
For the Swartland is increasingly making waves in the world of wine, thanks to a new crop of maverick young winemakers that are taking the area’s unique terroir as inspiration to craft wines unmistakably of the region.
“We encourage a regional identity to our wines; when people drink wine from the Swartland we want them to know what to expect, because of the varietals, the production practices, the techniques,” says Adi Badenhorst of AA Badenhorst family Wines, whose flagship red blend made it into Wine Spectator’s top 100 wines of 2013.
For whites, it’s Chenin Blanc that now rules the Swartland, after years resigned to the brandy stills. Old vines – thirty or forty years in the ground – are producing top-notch single varietals and blends from cellars that are often hard to visit, but worth a taste.
Doran Vineyards is a relative newcomer to the area, but offers well-priced Chenin from old Swartland bush vines, while Eben Sadie of Sadie family vineyards is near royalty in these parts. His Chenin-driven blend Palladius scored a respectable 95 points in Decanter.
Nearby, Craig Hawkins at Lammershoek is focused firmly on turning out top-notch wines on organic principles, while Mullineux Family Wines, whose cellar is in the heart of Riebeek Kasteel, was recently voted the Winery of the Year in South Africa’s respected Platter’s Guide.
“We’re only working with varieties that have historically proven themselves to have adapted to the area,” says California-born winemaker Andrea Mullineux. “Syrah has proven itself, Chenin has proven itself... it’s hot and dry, it’s breezy, so it’s conducive to organic farming, and everything is made as naturally as possible.”
If there’s a downside, it’s that tastings at most estates are only by appointment. They’re not trying to be exclusive, they’re simply focused on wine making rather than wine tourism and it’s hard to fault that.
Which is how I find myself at The Wine Kollektive in a quiet Riebeek Kasteel side street; a pour of Lammershoek in the glass and a case or two packed and ready for the trip back to Cape Town. This boutique wine shop stocks dozens of wines from boutique and garagiste producers across the region, with all wines sold at cellar-door prices and well-informed staff are only too happy to stop for a chat.
It’s what you’ll encounter across the wild west coast. The welcome is warm and authentic, rarely packaged. From seaside restaurants where the chef greets diners at the door, to wineries only too happy to welcome guests if they remember to call ahead. It’s a place where life carries on with or without tourists, and overloaded tour buses are rarely seen. For an authentic taste of the Cape, this wild west coast should be next on your list.