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Food therapy in Stellenbosch

February 9, 2011 2 comments

The Wijnhuis in Stellenbosch, a "must eat".

Stellenbosch dates back to 1679, making it South Africa’s oldest town after Cape Town. It’s a lovely town of around 100,000 people (excluding students), snuggled into a valley amongst the rolling hills of the Winelands. With its shady oak tree-lined streets, outdoor terraces and cafes, Dutch Cape architecture and quirky shops, it goes straight to your heart.

“You’re lucky you’re here at this time of the year when there are no students around,” says our hotel receptionist. We’re here in the Christmas/New Year vacation break and everyone around us is in relaxed holiday mode.

Stellenbosch Vs Franschhoek
Locals (and guide books) told us that Franschhoek is the “culinary capital” of the Cape Winelands but from my experience, the restaurants we dined at in Stellenbosch were even better than my miserly mouthful of lemon cake that set me back ZAR 30 (EUR 4) in Franschhoek which is regarded widely as one of the prettiest towns in South Africa. Unlike Franschhoek, which feels like it is just there for decoration, Stellenbosch feels like a town that people live in and has a bit more of an edge to it.

The Wijnhuis
Stellenbosch doesn’t have many streets, shops or restaurants but the few it has are great and you’ll find plenty to eat and buy. The Wijnhuis housed in an ornate colonial building, is a “must”. It’s lively but cosy and welcoming with a great wine list and, as you glance around at all the wine barrels and vintage memoralia on the walls, you feel like you are in the heart of the wine industry. The food is fantastic and, considering this is probably one of the more exclusive restaurants in town, won’t break your credit card. A starter, main course, bottle of wine, dessert and coffee for two people will set you back around ZAR 700 (EUR 75). They classify their menu as “Mediterranean and light” which it is with plenty of healthy fresh produce but with a decidedly South African touch. It comes with great South African service and a smile. I take the sole with lemon butter which melts in my mouth, as does the crème brulee a little later on.

The Cape Town Fish Market
The Cape Town Fish Market in downtown Stellenbosch is another winner. It combines South African and Japanese cuisine, covering just about everything from fish and chips to sushi and tempura. Non-fish-lovers are also catered for and their Bento boxes are dead cute. The mussels in white wine and garlic sauce, served in an iron pot, are amongst the best I have ever tasted while the generous portion of fresh king prawns with Asian sauce as a main course are delicious. A friendly, chatty waiter completes the picture.

I’ve been in the Cape area for almost a week and haven’t yet had a single bad meal. It’s the winning combination of fresh, local produce, cosy atmosphere, quaint décor, great service with a smile and affordability (for foreign tourists). And as if that’s not enough, on top of it all, you have some of the best wines in the world coming from just around the corner.

And retail therapy…
After all that food therapy,  if you’re really blown away by all the colonial atmosphere and want to take a piece of it back home to recreate, Stellenbosch has some great antique shops and art galleries where you can pick up 90-year-old silver-plated cutlery sets, hand-painted scenes from the area and African art for a bargain, and get your 14% tax back at the airport. It’s just a pity that one of those beautiful Dutch Cape houses can’t fit in my luggage too.

Just one of the quirky antique and arty shops in Stellenbosch.

The charm of the Cape Winelands

February 9, 2011 1 comment

If you’re a fan of South African wines, you’re going to be in heaven in the Cape Winelands, outside Cape Town. And if you’re not, you’re still going to love the winding wine routes that weave their way across the stunning landscape which is dotted with colonial-style wine estates, green vineyards, colorful flowers, set against a rugged backdrop of rocky mountains and gently sloping hills. The effect is so postcard-pretty that it looks almost like a “Photoshop job”.  That’s why the Cape Winelands were added to the “cultural” category of the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List in 2004 – the first step towards getting them included on the official World Heritage List.

The picture-postcard-perfect Cape Winelands

Unofficially, Stellenbosch is often thought of as the “capital” of the magnificent Cape Winelands as it is the best known (and marketed) out of the six areas that make up the Winelands. However, the other five regions – Constantia, Franschhoek, Paarl, Robertson and Wellington – also have their fair share of great wines. In fact, Constantia has some of the oldest wine estates in the Cape Winelands.

South Africa is world renowned for its excellent wines. But this wasn’t always the case. The first attempts to produce wine in the Capelands in the 17th-century were more or less a disaster; it took many years of trial and error before the locals got it right and earned the respect of the more established European wine industry.

Who wouldn't want to live here!

Back in the 1670s, Simon van der Stel, governor of the Cape, set his sights on developing the region and in 1679 he set the foundations of Stellenbosch. His own wine estate at Constantia, one of the first, also became well respected in Europe.

And, in another stroke of luck, the Protestant Huguenots were kicked out of France in the late 17th-century. Fortunately for South Africa’s wine industry, some of them settled in the Cape area – mainly around Franschhoek, Paarl and Drakenstein – bringing their viniculture know-how with them which helped greatly to develop today’s South African wines, and on occasion, surpass their native French ones.

In 2008 South Africa had a “record crop” according to the Rabobank Wine Quarterly report and 2011 is expected to be another “healthy” crop, estimated to reach 1.35 million tonnes. However, while domestic demand for local wines rose in 2010 (in part due to the side-effects of the World Cup), exports dropped by around 4% due to a stronger-than-usual Rand and the ongoing impact of the economic crisis in its export markets.

Regardless of competition from New World countries like Chile, New Zealand and California, and from more traditional wine producing nations like Italy, Spain and France, South Africa is still right up in the top ten global rankings. One of the keys to the success of the industry, a wine industry graduate from Stellenbosch University tells us at a wine tasting, is that “we have always been open to new influences and technology and have a much more modern viniculture than that of the more traditional European vineyards.  We always try new things to improve the quality of the wine and to make our production more effective. Sometimes, in France, they still try to do things the way they did them hundreds of years ago, but they need to update because they are losing their competitive edge.”

Chinese visitors, to the Cape Winelands, she told us, are also increasing. “They want to learn from us so they can go back home and apply it to their own wine industry,” she says. Wine from China? Yep, China also has aspirations here and is moving up the list of global wine producing nations. It was recently ranked the seventh largest producer of wine in the world, according to a study by the International Wine and Spirit Record.

Just one of the many well-known South African wine brands that you'll find on your supermarket shelf.

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