Monday, March 31, 2014

Notes on South Africa

Cheers from Mossel Bay!
Greetings from the other side of the world.  Last month I traveled to South Africa to learn about the wine industry there and explore the Western Cape province.  Traveling to the other side of the globe with my husband took some time, with a three day layover in Istanbul, Turkey letting us get used to the 11 hour time change.  Istanbul was a great country to spend some time in--we could walk to the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia easily from the hotel.  Such an ancient trading port with so much history.

Hopped off the bus in Camps Bay
to enjoy a glass of wine at Zenzero
Arriving in Cape Town, South Africa. Cape Town is the mother city of the country.  We flew in at the end of February, which found us in beautiful, balmy autumnal weather.  For several nights we stayed in the downtown area of Cape Town.  The first night we made our way out to the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, a very modern shopping and dining complex at the marina in Cape Town.  It felt a lot like Monterey or San Francisco, but with a touch of Afrikaans thrown in and some new dishes to sample.  And it was surprisingly affordable in South Africa.  When we were traveling the US Dollar was buying a bit more than 10 Rands.  Dining out with an appetizer, entrees for two and a bottle of wine typically cost about $40.

Things to see and do in Cape Town:  In the next few days we took the Hop-on, Hop-Off tour bus which allowed us to learn about the entire city and spend time at places we wanted to explore a bit more.  We saw all the government buildings including the Houses of Parliament where Nelson Mandela gave his first speech after his release from prison, the church where Desmond Tutu was archbishop, the wonderful Kirstenbosch botanical gardens and the Constantia wine producing area.

Neil Grant of Burrata
Food and Wine:  All good travel includes plenty of wonderful meals, and South African food was very good.  We had a lot of curries and fresh seafood.  I loved trying as many South African dishes as possible, and have a soft spot now for bobotie.  Not so much for biltong, but I wouldn't mind packing it for a hiking trip.  I came across a "pop-up" winery spot near Long Street, and got to sample local food with the wines of Spier.  We also got to have some great pizza with a wonderful Cinsault (2012 Waterkloof, Stellenbosch) at Burrata, a great restaurant run by Neil Grant in The Old Biscuit Mill.  Neil is also the President of the South African Sommeliers Association.

Visiting with the elephants in Knysna
Touring the Western Cape:  From Cape Town we headed out east to Cape Agulhas, the southernmost tip of Africa and then on to Knysna.  Knysna was a quiet waterfront town with beautiful views of the bay and the ocean.  Knysna also had an elephant sanctuary where we got to be with the elephants and learn about their habitat and rehabilitation.  Touring to Mossel Bay had me eating oysters on the half shell with a fun South African sparkling wine.  Delicious!  A surprising hit of this part of the trip was visiting the Birds of Eden, the world's largest free flight aviary.

The thatched huts at the game lodge
Game Reserve:  Visiting South Africa as a tourist would not be complete without seeing Africa's Big 5; the elephant, rhino, leopard, lion and the Cape buffalo.  Our trip took us to the Garden Route Game Lodge, where we saw 4 of the 5 big animals.  Our guide did a great job of teaching us about the animals, and keeping us close to the animals but out of harm's way.  We stayed in a private thatched roof cottage and enjoyed ourselves immensely.

La Carbonne's Winemaker Hardus Van Heerden
Wine Country:  The Western Cape has many wine producing areas, and we visited Franschhoek, a quaint European enclave just to the east of Cape Town.  Winery visits included Glenwood, Haute Cabriere, La Motte and Chamonix. We also got a personal tour at La Carbonne during the harvest, visiting with Winemaker Hardus Van Heerden for a tour of the production facility and samples of the tank fermentations and of the wines in barrel.  Visiting La Motte for lunch we dined on wonderful cuisine at Pierneef a La Motte, an award winning restaurant in Franschhoek.  This was consumed along with a memorable Shiraz blended with Viognier.

Enjoying a braai with locals:  Upon returning to Cape Town we had the fun experience of a braai at Denis Garret's spot in Woodstock, just outside of The Old Biscuit Mill .  Denis Garret is a wine consultant and sommelier serving as an ambassador for Champagnes and Cognac in South Africa.  Denis hosted us at a friend's house where we had wonderful conversation, home cooked food (the grilled pork belly was yummy), superb wine which included a 1981 magnum of Nederburg Edelrood.  That wine had held up wonderfully and was quite a special wine to share that night.  Denis is very optimistic about the future of South Africa's wine and culinary scene and provides educational and consulting services to promote the wines of the Western Cape.  He's also an excellent host who knows A LOT about wine, a good friend to have!

University of Stellenbosch.  The next day we took the Metro train to Stellenbosch where we visited with Dr. Wessel du Toit who teaches enology at the University of Stellenbosch.  The university is the epicenter for enology and viticulture studies and research in all of Africa.  It was quite interesting to learn about the wine industry and about enological research from a well respected professor in the winemaking field.  Having lunch with Professor du Toit allowed us to find out about the students involved in the program, the connections with the wine industry and about some of the research projects the university is undertaking.

It's All About the People:  As always, the people are the most important component of any trip I take, and everyone in South Africa was extremely friendly and approachable.  From wine folks who took us under their wing to commuters on the train who offered up stories of day-to-day life, through to the street vendors we dealt with, all the South Africans were excellent ambassadors for their country.  South Africa does have their share of challenges to deal with, just as every country does.  We were pleasantly surprised by everything in South Africa, and would go back in a heartbeat--if only the getting there part wasn't so exhausting.  If you are interested in visiting South Africa I give it two thumbs up--way up.

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