The Columbusing of Company’s Garden

Leafy, cool and nestled in dappled sunlight, the new restaurant in Cape Town’s Company’s Garden has much to be recommended; a menu that accommodates many budgets, a diversity of seating options, prompt and unobtrusive service, and well prepared and presented food.

Operated by the Madame Zingara group – Zingara restaurants are to Cape Town (Eurocentric theme, waiters with BAs in performance, vaguely homosexual) what Moyo restaurants are to Joburg (African theme, nouveau riche, surly) – the restaurant formerly known as Haarlem & Hope is part of a “revitalisation” of the Company’s Garden, which also includes a vegetable patch that references the public park’s first function – that of a garden for the colonising forces.

Due to its up-market nature, its comfort and its newness, the eatery now known as The Company’s Garden Restaurant is far more popular than the venue’s previous offering, yet despite the queues of hipsters and tourists, we only had to wait 20 minutes to get a table.

Starting with hand-pressed clementine juice to take the heat off the day, we begin with the Governor’s Choice – chicken livers prepared with just the right amount of brandy, sherry and thyme. The Drunken Camembert’s beer batter is light, in harmony with the rich cheese. For mains, I opt for a mid-range fish and chips (R60), which is most definitely superior to the fish and chips served in the previous eatery. My companion’s chicken burger, while a perfectly adequate burger, errs on the side of too much bun. The entire meal comes to less than R300 avec tip. It was a decent, affordable meal in excellent surroundings and the pace was relaxed.

Glancing over the menu, it’s obvious they have tried to make concessions to the fact that the previous restaurant was a popular spot for regular visitors to the garden with a selection of toasted sandwiches that come in at only double the price of the old establishment. But even if those families and students who used to come to the garden for a cheap meal, or to linger over a pot of tea, were to be able to pay these prices, the façade that the new space presents is simply too up-market to be anything but daunting. Of course, Zingara is not to blame for this dissonance – the city granted it a lease and it’s a business.

The menu tells the story of the 60 survivors of the grounded ship Nieuwe Haarlem in 1647 and their “Columbusing” of a land that was “rich and fertile with sweet waters that allowed them to plant seeds and grow produce”. It tells of their rescue by one Jan van Riebeeck (to their credit, they mention that he “was on his way back to the Dutch East India Company?...?to face charges of trade violations and breaking of laws”).

The menu then states: “It is this coincidental encounter that changed everything.” And indeed it did – Van Riebeeck’s arrival led to 400 years of slavery and colonialism, torture, rape, murder and?...?oh wait, no it didn’t, according to the menu: “Van Riebeeck had big ideas to harness and work the bountiful soil and create an oasis on this new developing route,” which led to him returning to the Cape “to plant the very first garden on the continent”.

This garden was the motor for the Dutch East India Company’s spice trade, the accompanying trade in humans and the partial genocide of the Khoi and San.

But none of this bears mention on the menu, and how could it? One does not want to consider barbarity over a Bobotie open sandwich served on Paradise brown from the Huguenot Collection. Instead, we are told that due to this garden, “the Cape, a place that was previously feared, became known as The Cape of Good Hope, a beacon on the journey to the east”.

That the Cape of Good Hope was not previously feared by its first citizens and that there is evidence of formal gardening in South Africa long before the arrival of the Dutch seems to be of little consequence.

While cultural appropriation-lite often occurs when restaurants serve foods from other regions, and history is often smudged to prevent offence to the tourist, the menu is tragically ironic. Initially named after a ship that brought the first pillaging tourists to the Cape who displaced the region’s first inhabitants, the restaurant itself has displaced an eatery that catered to the Company’s Garden’s most frequent visitors, the citizens of Cape Town, the clerks and students and labourers who take their breaks in the garden, the families who come on the weekends, the surly pensioners. Couldn’t, between the city and the restaurant, a less exclusive space and less expensive menu be created? Cheap seats off to the side no doubt, but seats all the same. Maybe it could realign itself in relation to those who were in the garden first.

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