Since returning from my last trip to South Africa, I’ve spent the past weeks thinking about my relationship and writing this post. If you haven’t read the first part I strongly urge you to read that as well. It paints a good picture of all the amazing regions and describes to the best of my ability the amazing things it has to offer. I held off editing the content here a few times and posting my second part of “South Africa” which was due at the end of June. The events unfolded of their ex president – Jacob Zuma’s trial, his imprisonment and the violent events that came of it shortly after. The worst violence the country has seen since the end of the racist Apartheid regime. As I saw this all happen on twitter and news channels I understood it to a certain extent but it was heartbreaking nonetheless. Many South Africans have been watching the bubbles form at the bottom of the pot for years and to say that last week’s events could have been even more violent of a boil by far is an understatement.
After all the times I’ve traveled there, I wanted to give my honest opinions about what I’ve experienced there and the opinions of close friends who have experienced the good, the bad and the ugly. I’ll try to relay my experiences without my own opinions. I was reminded in a book a read earlier this year by a South African photographer who traveled the world to the last wild places on earth said, “It is impossible to judge a culture from our own standards”. While apartheid was wrong in every sense and standard, I haven’t walked in either footsteps since it has ended or before . Also as a foreigner it’s very difficult to understand the complexity that is South Africa. The author of “To the Edges of the Earth” did this while traveling the Yukon and seeing the Native Americans along with Non-native hunters more recent to the Yukon and Alaska’s wild lands. Seeing both taking advantage of their situations either no cap on hunting or capped but using much more convenient technology and what was considered their right to hunt. Some on both sides of the coin understood the balance in life and the eco systems and showed restraint for nature, some didn’t care at all and took what they thought was their right or more than the fair share. Not to compare this to Apartheid and South Africa but to say we understand very little of another culture and the journey they have taken to this point in time. As foreigners we don’t have the right to judge another culture, what they have seen and what is burned into their judgement of others based on experiences both good and bad we can’t fathom or comprehend. Besides taking sides on what we know definitively as humans as right and wrong and what our social norms are, let’s get this straight all decent human beings can agree apartheid was wrong in every way.
While I try not to be political in my writings, South Africa is a place that means too much to me not to talk about the problems that still haunt this country. Perfect as its cuisine can be, it’s not all wine, fine dining and caviar here.
The mesmerizing dirt road with happy cows, Karoo lambs, farmland and coastline for days quickly turns to a very different landscape. Along one stretch in Cape Town is Khayelitsha, where more than 400,000 people live in makeshift housing with the bare necessities, yard animals roaming freely, plastic garbage thrown about a space originally constructed to house up to 250,000. The poverty that breaks your heart will be forever in your memory. This is how the majority of the country live. You are “well off” in a township if you have a car, most people rely on taxi service and even with that, a daily walk of 20-45 minutes up the hills from the main road to the wealthy homes where many work at is the normal commute for many.
You still go to restaurants in the less metropolitan areas where the only people of color in the restaurant are the ones serving you food and drink and cooking it. The average wage for a domestic employee is 3,000 rand a month (roughly $200). You can hire someone to fold your underwear and iron it six days a week for $300 a month, on the high end. Us Americans and many other parts of the world are accustomed to paying $150 – $200 for the same services DAILY for a household of four. It’s mind-boggling to the outsider. To have a staff of 2-3 “domestic employees” is common enough here.
From my years of traveling to South Africa, I believe only God can fix the gap here; it’s just too broad, and they are trying to reverse the destruction of Apartheid so rapidly that it’s to the detriment of all. There is animosity on each side of the table, and even Black South Africans and Black immigrants from the remainder of the continent look down upon each other. Both sides complain about the government and how it’s fleecing government programs and the citizens alike to the tune of billions, you don’t need a forensic accounting team to uncover how deep this runs. If corruption is synonymous with South Africa, there is a reason for it. Tribal mentality is what some blame the situation on, where the chief gets a piece of everything. In this case, his friends who run industries throughout the country get to eat from the same trough. How else do you have career politicians that are billionaires? Reminds me of the wise adage from my Australian friends, “don’t pee on my leg and tell me it’s raining”.
I remember walking past one resort with billboards along the sidewalk 6-7 years ago in Cape Town of people enjoying themselves in different scenes around the resort, the pool, the restaurant, the rooms, the bar and the balcony. The only person of color (any color) was the one working the grill with a chefs cap, this just left me shacking my head as does a lot you see and hear here.
White South Africa is upset that things are moving too quickly and that they are told whom to hire or even whom to have as a business partner based on their skin and the young can not get jobs after school. They also complain about the inexperienced new government, concerned with how it will squander the resources they have through poor stewardship. The stories you hear certain people tell of unfounded concerns of what their future South Africa will look like is mind boggling to the outsider, opinions that I wont repeat on pen or paper and should die with my memory only. There are however some valid concerns – clearly the case with the electrical grid, which affects the entire nation and isn’t partial to one skin color over the other. The ignorance of some of the leadership in state controlled industries is felt here and is a major complaint of everyone. No developed nation should have to turn their electricity off for several hours a day, several times a day due to the instability of the grid. It’s commonly blamed on a foreign company’s electrical switch that went bad, or the coal mines used to feed the electrical plant in the north being flooded and the coal “two wet to burn”. These are stories that the entirety of South Africa realizes are fairy tales yet they manage and work around the load shedding and carry on with their day.
It’s a very difficult situation when the majority of those living in poverty are of one skin color and they have been hamstringed to earn an income, let alone walk on the sidewalk with everyone else, as recently as the ’90s. I’ve heard a dozen times that all countries had some type of segregation, but the only reason South Africa has a mark on its character is because they put a name on it: Apartheid. Most countries learned from their errors in recent history. South Africa was way behind the curve by a mile.
Its even more stunning when you do an aerial view of this and see a massive mansion with pool and 4 cars in the driveway and across the street see miles of corrugated metal roofs. I’ve been in townships many times, and ive sat on upside down milkcrates for chairs while having deep discussions with friends and stranger alike and I can tell you the owner takes as much pride in their living space as the mansions a stone’s throw away.
All over the world, countries hide their extreme low-income working class. Try to find a homeless person in Dubai, you will have a hard time finding them but they are definitely there tucked away where tourists cant see them. Most of the poverty you wont see in Dubai face to face but you’ll see indirectly in the buildings, roads, and attractions they built with their blood sweat and tears and in a lot of cases lives have been lost in the process. Many places have a working class that they underpay to overperform, living on a fraction of what the rest of the population does. It is a worldwide issue, and the gap only deepens with each financial crisis or world event like this pandemic. That is why I’m sticking with my opinion that no matter the intent or movement behind correcting this, no matter how big or small it is, only God can make a difference and a lasting solution to this worldwide.
REFLECTING ON THE FUTURE
Although a difficult topic, I felt that it was important to go into the politics and problems of South Africa; otherwise, this would have been a joke of an article, talking about this country without discussing my opinion about the gap in wealth. You can’t talk about the roses without discussing the thorns.
This is a food blog from a chef’s perspective however so let me turn the discussion back to something i’m better versed at and talk about what this country has in abundance, and we only hope and pray that they figure out how to work together to take advantage of all this amazing country has to offer and not squander its resources. It is so much and really with all the issues it’s such a unique place on earth.
CUISINE AS INCREDIBLE AS THE SIGHTS
One of my favorite destinations in South Africa is the Karoo, home to Karoo lamb, one which, in my opinion, not only rivals Australian and New Zealand lamb, but surpasses it. Lamb and pork, more than many other animals, take on their flavor by what they eat. The Karoo lamb grazes mostly in a harsh habitat on indigenous flora that gets very little water. The Karoo bush consists of about 6,000 different types of fynbos, half of which are endemic to the region. This produces the most unique and floral lamb you’ve ever experienced in your life.
The Rupert family, one of the wealthiest not just in South Africa, but the world, own a hotel called the Drostdy in Graaf Reinet. This was where I first experienced Karoo lamb—and it ruined me. Imagine your first flight being in the first-class cabin with Emirates; everything after it would be second-class. The chef who prepared it, Jason Fortuin, was obviously classically trained. The rack of lamb was meticulously frenched, leaving nothing but white bones. The vegetables on the plate were perfectly turned, a lost art of cutting vegetables into gem shapes that is rarely seen in fine dining these days. The sauce was divine: thick, velvety, and luscious. It was easily the best lamb I’ve ever had, so much so that it could do laps around its competitors.
The same natural bounty that gives the lamb its flavor is one of the things that contributes to South Africa’s beauty. Out of the world’s six floral kingdoms (including Europe, northern Asia, and North America, all combining to create Boreal, the largest kingdom), the Cape is the smallest (Capensic), yet the most diverse. It’s home to 9,000 vascular plant species, 69% of which can only be found in that part of the world. You’ll come across species on hikes that look like they’re out of a James Cameron film set in the distant future on a distant planet.
Just as incredible is the jacaranda tree. Although native to Brazil and Argentina, these magnificent trees have been blooming in Australia and South Africa for more than 150 years. In Pretoria alone, in the northern part of the country, over 70,000 of them line Celliers Street and the neighborhoods of Waterkloof and Riviera in an explosion of purple.
Food culture in South Africa, however, is shrinking … in a good way. Same as in most of the developed world, fast food is getting more refined and farm-to-table is getting so localized. The farm-to-table scene here showcases their products and their pride in what they produce. An amazing example of this is Alje van Deemter and his property Fynboshoek Cheesefarm. I wouldn’t be shocked if all he bought from outside the four corners of his farm was flour, salt, and sugar. He serves lunch only for 12 guests at a time—no menu—and in the past three times I’ve been there, the offerings haven’t changed. They don’t need to; you leave perfection alone. Everything down to the pickled pears and the sunflowers on the salad are from his farm.
As for Chef van Deemter himself, he’s unassuming and kind, but I’d say his strongest attribute is his humility. He shies away from the applause the six of us in the dining room give at the end of a fantastic meal. Rhubarb, fig, and raspberry pie is the dessert, served with homemade ice cream from this morning’s milking, ending the meal on a high note just when you thought the prior course couldn’t be topped. The star of his offerings, however, is the cheese, award-winning both locally and nationally. Smoked provolone; not one, but two world-class goat cheeses; a Romano; a young cheddar; feta; and mozzarella make for a cheese board like no other. He is the South African Jaime Montgomery: top of his class. Accompanying it, fresh-baked bread with hand-churned butter. The bread’s yeasty steam hits your nostrils and primes you for a loaf that he has perfected. It just doesn’t get better than this.
What does add to the experience is the smoky fireplace, which he carefully attends, and his three massive Rhodesian ridgebacks nestling their jowls at the corner of the table as if they’re making the strongest attempt to be part of your conversation. Purring at your feet or near the fireplace is a Siamese cat that you know is accustomed to joining Alje around the property on his numerous daily chores—the end result of which is his knowledge, experience, and passion on your plate, and etched into the memories of his diners.
I’ve had more than a few meals like this in South Africa, meals where I can recall each moment to mind any time I wish, remembering scent, taste, and sound. Hopefully, I’ll be able to do this into my old age, because in the end, what is life but a collection of memories good and bad that we enjoy or learn from, and that bring smiles to our face years later.
The small batch Gin movement is strong here as well, for sure you can see the British touches here but to an entire different level, I recall a friend messaging me after reading an article in the Economist titled “What’s Fueling the Gin Industry in South Africa” and saying “Don’t Drink the Gin”! in the text, the article was literally referring to the FUEL that was used for heating of the stills was Elephant dung, something very common in a country with so many game reserves and large animals.
If you are looking for a food destination, South Africa should be on your horizon. Tasting menus abound and talented chefs are bred here, after all. Bertus Basson, Liam Tomlin, and Luke Dale Roberts, to name a few. Tomlin of Chefs Warehouse folds in heavily flavored dishes accented by Southeast Asian cuisine. Bertus Basson dives deep into the Afrikaner history of food and stays true to his culture. Luke Dale Roberts of Test Kitchen trained in Zurich and plays with technique for one of the most sought-after tasting menus in Cape Town.
LOOKING PAST THE TABLE
Despite its problems though (which let’s face it, every country has), it’s the place I love most. I’ll retire there one day, that is certain; the quality of life with the right amount of savings can’t be beat. However, I realize that quality of life isn’t all about how much your currency or someone else’s can buy. It has to do with what you do with your time, and the other non-intrinsic resources you have.
When you put South Africa in front of you as a whole, sure the dollar goes far, but the things that make me happy are plentiful and reasonable. Weekend farmers markets are bountiful—they rival farm neighborhoods in California. Wine culture is shockingly ingrained, with such variety and quality to rival California, France, and Italy. The beaches, mountain ranges, lavender fields, deserts, rivers, and hiking trails will exhaust even the most active person. To raise the ante even more, there’s the flora that leaves you awestruck.
While South Africa isn’t perfect, I couldn’t imagine my future spent anywhere else.