Image: Pezula Hotel
In a country with vast, expansive game ranges, if it runs you can probably eat it – springbok, reebok and eland are all commonplace on menus. But apricot jam comes from nowhere.
I’ve been in South Africa for less than half an hour and the conversation between me and my guide, Erick, has inevitably turned to food. I was very interested to hear what he thought the nation’s favourite food was but even more surprised by his answer.
The former I can understand – I’m in a country with vast, expansive game ranges – a country where the meat doesn’t stop after beef, lamb and pork. If it runs – you can probably eat it – springbok, reebok and eland are all commonplace on menus – all share a similar flavour to venison.
But apricot jam comes from nowhere – Erick says South African’s use it in everything, from flavouring sweets to accompanying seafood on a braai. Fish such as snoek is smothered in apricot jam, lemon juice, pepper and garlic butter before being cooked.
We’re making our way along the coast from Port Elizabeth, to Knysna, to catch the end of the town’s Oyster Festival – an annual event which celebrates one of the area's best loved delicacies.
We pass through the famed garden route - where the wide roads are flanked by lush aloes and eucalyptus.
But before I get to Knysna, we turn off down a unassuming dirt path - we're going for lunch. At the Fynboshoek Cheese Farm house I'm greeted by three massive, but friendly, Rhodesian ridgeback dogs and I make my through the colonial farmhouse to a tranquil shaded patio overlooking a lake.
Alje van Deemder, a former microbiologist, inherited the farm and now spends his time
making his own cheeses, selling them locally and serving them to small groups of guests at his house. He brings out a chopping board full of his cheese – there are two made from goat’s milk, one fresh, one matured. He has a provolone smoked cheese and one flavoured with aromatic cumin. In the corner of the table there’s a massive tomato and home-made mozzarella salad and some big chunks of crusty bread. He doesn’t serve much else, and quite frankly, he doesn’t need to. As I sit on the patio enjoying my first South African lunch, I can’t decide what I find more attractive, Alje’s food or his lifestyle.
Knysna, like many South African places, is a town of contrasts. Before I arrive at the sumptuous Pezula Hotel, which overlooks the saltwater lagoon those famous oysters call home, we pass through the townships – a mass of multicoloured corrugated iron huts jammed on the hillside.
Although it might seem voyeuristic at first, a guided tour of the townships offers an interesting, if somewhat humbling insight into how many black South Africans live. Deep in the Knysna township, up on the hill, my guide Mawanda takes me to his house, where he has prepared roosterkoek – bread cooked on open fire. The open sandwiches come in two varieties, ham and the nation’s favourite – apricot jam.
We also call into a shebeen - a township pub - to try umqombothi – the locals’ favourite home brewed-beer. Drunk from a communal cup, it’s bitter and leaves me yearning for another round of apricot jam-topped roosterkoek.
Before we leave Mawanda takes us to the 'million dollar view' – it's another ramshackle hut, but boasting a stunning view over the lagoon.
Back down in town, a boat takes us out onto the lagoon – calm as the sun sets – to try the oysters. The more uniformly-shaped cultivated oysters are fantastic. It’s a waste to douse them in too much lemon juice or Tabasco – a little drop of either is enough complement that unmistakable flavour of the sea. But the best oysters are the wild ones. These are uglier, rounder shells, but inside the flesh is much meatier than their cultivated, earthier cousins.
Despite a rich and bountiful coastline on the Western and Eastern Cape, it’s meat, not fish hogging the menu. As well as good beef, inland there’s Karoo lamb – which is flavoured well before it is slaughtered as it grazes on the Karoo bush. There’s also plenty of ‘macho meats’ for men to tell their friends about. I ate my first ever rack of ribs – from a crocodile – at the Pezula. Served with a citrus-barbecue sauce, the ribs weren’t unlike chicken – but didn’t have that same sticky, meaty joy you get from good pork ribs.
At the Bramon Wine Estate in Plettenberg Bay – the food is as exciting as the drink. Bramon is leading the wine way in Plett Bay, as it's known by locals. It produces a fine Sauvignon Blanc sparkling white - the first and only to in South Africa.
Surrounded by vines, I enjoyed a glass of it to accompany a fine mezze lunch which included snoek pate, melt-in-the-mouth springbok carpaccio and brie with sweet South African figs.