“I love the sun,” sighs Ryan Smith, staring out a little gloomily at the rain pelting down on the vineyards. “I enjoy going to the beach or on picnics with my family, and I like my sport. But when it comes to cooking, I definitely prefer winter; you just can’t serve those rich dishes and deeper sauces in the hot Franschhoek summers.”
Ryan, executive chef at Mont Rochelle Hotel and Mountain Vineyards in Franschhoek, is not alone among his peers in expressing this sentiment. As the temperatures drop, chefs across the winelands shift into creative overdrive in their kitchens. “People are less diet-conscious in winter,” he adds with relish. “They don’t sit down and count calories, they just eat. They’ll munch through starters and the most exciting mains, ask for more sauce, eat the extra piece of bread (with butter), order side dishes and still have dessert. Brilliant.”
This is certainly a boon for chefs when the long Cape winter seems bent on keeping people at home. Yet the dismal spectre of empty tables is often deftly side-stepped when the restaurant happens to be located on a wine farm or estate, where a simple wine tasting can become a spontaneous gourmet affair. In Ryan’s case, Mont Rochelle’s fine dining restaurant, Mange Tout, and more casual Country Kitchen have the added benefit of being located at a busy hotel. “Some of our wines are considered more European in style, and pair very well with my modern European cuisine. For example, our braised springbok shank with chestnuts is magic with Mont Rochelle’s 2002 Cab.”
It’s for good reason Franschhoek is considered the country’s ‘gourmet capital’, with a crop of highly rated restaurants located on many of its wine farms. Some are well established, such as at Haute Cabrière and Grande Provence. Others have opened more recently, keeping the Valley an enticing option for regular foodie visitors.
One such restaurant is the re-launched and massively refurbished Cotage Fromage on Vrede en Lust estate, where three Valley chefs—Matthew Gordon (also the chef-patron of Haute Cabrière), Duncan Doherty and Jean Pierre Smith—collaborate on a menu centred on fresh bread and seasonal produce.
“Just like the restaurant, the food is well priced, accessible, fresh and clean,” says Duncan. “Of course our menu will evolve accordingly for winter when comfort food and spicier flavours are more in demand. More of the dishes will involve tails, shanks, that sort of thing.” He adds that winter also brings wine out to play, which affects the menu significantly. “Vrede en Lust’s winemaker, Susan Wessels, has made a Shiraz with a dollop of Viognier that will go well with our lamb shank Rogan Josh.”
Duncan does not believe it’s essential for a wine farm to offer food, but concedes that having a restaurant definitely boosts wine sales. “On the other hand, Vrede en Lust’s owner, Dana Buys, believes the trend is for people to spend more time at one wine farm than try to get to as many farms in a day as they can, in which case a restaurant helps. And yes, the winter months are quiet, so it’s good to be able to offer a bit more as part of the deal—we’ll be running cooking courses at the restaurant, which has a nice fireplace too.”
Michael Broughton, chef-patron of Terroir, the award-winning restaurant on Kleine Zalze Wine Estate outside Stellenbosch, loves all the big flavours that come with winter dishes. “In my kitchen you’ll always find lots of stocks for braising and red wine for sauces. Wine can really add so much depth and flavour.” Both of which you get by the ladle-full at Terroir with its unfussy, robust French-origin cuisine ‘with a few modern twists’.
Because the menu changes all the time, Michael explains, it lends itself well to seasonal adjustments. “Previous winters have seen diners going mad for dishes such as veal fillet served with a risotto of the shin and Madeira sauce, braised lamb shank with pea purée, or roasted beef fillet with Bearnaise and duck fat potatoes.”
But there’s something else that makes winter a good time to be a chef. “The pace of life is different; the restaurant shifts into a calmer rhythm and is not so frenetic.” And, he laughs, “With the restaurant kitchen always hot, being there in winter is a welcome change.” Terroir’s patrons also get to bask in some of the heat, or at least that which is generated by the cosy fireplace that burns all winter long in the restaurant.
You’ll find more toasty hearths in both the tasting room and inside the restaurant at nearby Dornier Wine estate. Tullishe Le Roux, who heads up the kitchen at Bodega restaurant, says winter is all about slow food and earthy flavours. Serving up comforting farm cuisine in an inviting space characterised by bright spicy tones and a warming fireplace, Tullishe enjoys the fact that she’s able to change the menu on a daily basis, adapting dishes to suit the weather.
“I love cooking with wine as it has a character of its own and in its own right creates ever-changing flavours. Anything braised in red wine is always a triumph,” she says.
It’s the ingredients that really get the chefs excited about winter. “I adore being able to use hearty legumes with spices such as cumin,” says Tullishe.
“I love root vegetables like celeriac and parsnips,” says Michael.
“And versatile winter fruit such as quinces, pears, plums, oranges and naartjies,” adds Jean Pierre.
This enthusiasm about seasonal produce extends across the winelands to Constantia, which boasts an excellent selection of restaurants at some of its wine estates. Some have even more than one dining option, such as Constantia Uitsig which has three. For chef Luke Dale Roberts, at the helm of the lauded La Colombe restaurant, it’s wild mushrooms, figs and Jerusalem artichokes that inspire him in the colder months.
Describing his style of cuisine as modern French with touches of Asia, he says winter will see the menu become more comforting. “I’ll be utilising slow-cooking techniques and home-smoked flavours, and of course some of our Uitsig red blend for dishes with a nice touch of spice; I’m doing a spin on the classic Bordelaise for wing rib of beef, as well as salmon wrapped in Black Forest ham.”
While the chef is quick to acknowledge the importance of wine tourists to the estate (“they’re great because they love their food and wine.”), he likes that it’s more accessible across the board in winter. “We can show local people a good time at an affordable price,” he grins.
Neighbouring Steenberg Estate is also gearing up for winter at its Catharina’s restaurant, popular for fare described by chef Garth Almazan as Cape contemporary with classic undertones. “Our winter menu differs mostly in respect of the produce available and that we add more comfort dishes, although the emphasis is on healthy eating whatever the season,” he says. “This winter I’ll be looking out for Namibian truffles and cooking with plenty of red wine, which I use in many of my sauces. I also use it in slow roasted dishes such as the springbok shank and braised lamb shoulder, both on the new menu.”
The best things about winter, adds Garth, are roaring fires with a glass of red wine in hand and hearty aromas wafting through from the kitchen. The worst thing is that it’s difficult to get a variety of seafood because the seas are often rough and the boats can’t always get out. “Also,” he smiles, “Capetonians tend to hibernate.”
Clearly there are nice things and not-so-nice things about the Cape’s blustery winter months, with hearty food and wine at the top of the list for most. Adds Tullishe: “The best thing for me is lying in bed with the rain against the window and the worst is getting out of that bed. Ooh, but that’s not specific to winter, is it?”
Ryan agrees: “The rain just seems to go on and on and on. And then, when it eventually stops, you have to start working off all those calories.”
What the Chefs Are Eating This Winter
Michael Broughton, Terroir, Kleine Zalze: “‘Ragout’ type meals that have been on the stove for a while or slowly braising in the oven for a few hours. We also tend to drink more red wine along with it, and starchy food like mash, roast potatoes and home-baked bread.”
Ryan Smith, Mange Tout, Mont Rochelle: “Hearty soups that could be mistaken for stews. Pulses such as lentils or white beans always form the base and then it’s plenty of sliced Boudin blanc or pork belly inside. Served with heaps of ciabatta and butter.”
Luke Dale Roberts, La Colombe, Constantia Uitsig: “Slow-cooked lamb shoulder or a good cheese fondue—I’ll definitely be having one of them this winter.”
Garth Almazan, Catharina’s, Steenberg Estate: “Curries, either lamb or chicken, or oxtail, but especially my grandmother’s vegetable soup—she absolutely won’t share the recipe with me.”
Tullishe Le Roux, Bodega Restaurant, Dornier Estate: “There’s nothing like a bowl of warm hearty soup on a cold evening, while snuggled on the couch. Also less washing up!”
Duncan Doherty, Cotage Fromage, Vrede en Lust: “Homemade pasta. Now that Thomas, our three-year-old son, is getting to know his way around a pasta machine, the kitchen is always full of flour and usually messy, but it’s great fun.”
What’s on the Menu this Winter?
Haute Cabrière Cellar Restaurant, Cabrière Estate: Warm salad of Calamari, Prawns and Chaurico with smoked paprika dressing. (021) 876-8500.
Morgenhof Wine Estate: Tender Beef presented with Carrot Risotto and oven-roasted Root Vegetables, drizzled with a Red Wine Sauce. Tel (021) 889-5510.
Hilda’s Kitchen, Groote Post Vineyards: Springbok and Apricot Pie on a Butternut puree with a Rosemany and Red wine jus. Tel. (022) 492-2693.
Red Leaf Restaurant, Beyerskloof: Pinotage Burger with salad and potato wedges. (021) 865-2135.
Hermitage Restaurant, Hazendal: Flavoured risotto topped with spinach and parmesan cheese—pair with the Hazendal Chenin Blan Wooded 2006; Herb crust rack of lamb accompanied with garlic creamed potatoes, comfit of baby onions and rosemary jus—pair with the Hazendal Shiraz Cabernet Sauvignon 2003. (021) 903-5112.
Catharina’s, Steenberg Vineyards: Pan-fried ostrich fillet with shitake, goats cheese ravioli and wilted baby spinach. (021) 713-2211.
Bodega, Dornier Wines: Lamb shanks, slow roasted pork belly and braised dishes. (021) 880-0557.
Mange Tout, Mont Rochelle Hotel & Mountain Vineyards: Wilder meats such as pigeon and rabbit, richer sauces and creamy purees. (021) 876-3000.
La Colombe, Constantia Uitsig: Pressed ham hock, parsley and truffled potato terrine, spicy apple puree, chickpeas, wild mushrooms and truffle dressing. (021) 794-1810.
Terroir, Kleine Zalze Wines: Melted Swiss hot chocolate with hazelnut and orange foam with cinnamon-jam doughnuts. (021) 880-0717.