Hooked on Franschhoek

2011-07-22 07:34

Whenever I’m invited on a wine-tasting tour, images of quaffing good wine and pretending to spit while slowly declining into a warm, tipsy muddle come to mind.

Before you judge me for my crass attitude, you should know that I do know my sweaty saddles from my vanilla, and I spent four years at Stellenbosch University, which fermented me into a fervent wine lover.

While in Cape Town taking in the latest in fashion at the Cape Town Fashion Week, I took a break to visit the sunny town of Franschhoek, which is where the wine-tasting comes in.

Most noticeable about the area – apart from the rolling hills and endless vineyards – are the fences and estate entrances decorated in the French tricolour of red, white and blue.

It seems we had just arrived in time for the yearly Bastille Day Festival, which has been celebrated in the town for the past 15 years.

As they say in SePedi: “Go tsamaya ke go bona (loosely translated as ‘to travel is to see things’).”

I didn’t know there was such a festival steeped in rich history right around the corner from my alma mater – a mere 30-minute drive away.

Franschhoek, which means French corner, is exactly that. It’s one of the oldest towns in the country occupied first by French Huguenots.

The weekend-long festival is a commemoration of the 1790 Fête de la Fédération, held on the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille prison in Paris on July 14 1789 (also French National Day).

This festival ended up in Mzansi because the sympathetic Dutch government of the Cape at the time granted the valley to a community of French Huguenots who had fled their country when Protestantism was outlawed in France in 1685.

Today, most of the wine farms still bare their original French names, ones that are also household names if you’re a wine drinker – La Motte, La Cotte, Cabrière, Provence, Chamonix, Dieu Donné and La Dauphine.

It was with this history in mind that I started appreciating all the French nuances about the town – from the distinctive architecture to French surnames such as Du?Toit, Marais, Du Plessis and Joubert.

The first farm we visited was Babylonstoren, which lies in the Drakenstein Valley between Franschhoek and Paarl.

The farm has a manor house dating back to 1777.

The entrance to the farm leads to a koornhuis (for storing wheat and hay) and an old cellar near the farm’s Babel restaurant.

There’s also an ornate fowl house with freakishly big chickens, a pigeon loft, a leaning bell tower and historic gates that embellish a traditional courtyard surrounded by a low, whitewashed wall.

However, the pièce de résistance is the huge garden designed by French architect Patrice Taravella.

The garden bears more than 300 varieties of edible fruits and vegetables harvested year round for use in the restaurant.

By mid-morning, I was helping myself to some of the more edible greens because, cooked or not, I needed to fuel up for walking.

Next up was another farm not too far from Babylonstoren called Vrede en Lust.

Upon arrival, we started sampling their delicious rosé, white and red wines, with a variety of cheese and dried fruits.

Before we used up all our stomach space, we headed back to Babel for one of the best meals I’ve ever had of pork belly.

It might have been because I knew the fruit and vegetables had just been picked, but the immediacy of the kitchen garden made it special.

For dessert, we visited the Huguenots Fine Chocolates factory in the middle of the town where they hand-make Belgian chocolates.

The boutique chocolaterie, in the main street of the town, belongs to Danver Windvogel and Denver Adonis, who are Belgian-qualified chocolatiers.

There we learnt about the chocolate-making process and the different varieties.

I told the guide that I would need to try a lot more chocolate as I wasn’t too sure of the differences between the varieties. I doubt she believed that, but hey, it’s all for the love of chocolate, right?

The last spot was the cheerfully colourful Bread and Wine Vineyard Restaurant at Môreson winery, where they pair their wine with cured meat.

The restaurant is headed by an engaging gentleman Neil Jewell, who is a charcuterie guru.

Charcuterie, or cured meat, is a branch of food preparation where meat is preserved without a fridge.

In fact, biltong is a type of charcuterie.

Jewell presented some of his best work alongside Môreson’s hunky winemaker, Clayton Reabow, who explained how the wines complement the cured meat.

Our day in the Cape’s little “French corner” was well spent and I daydreamt about retiring to it to contemplate a life well lived accompanied by fine wine and delicious food.

Or perhaps I will just make a point of being there again for next year’s Bastille Day celebrations. Vive la France!

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