Cape Town: SA’s Captivating Food & Wine Capital

by Jared
 * This article first appeared here in OutThere Magazine

While swirling our glasses of Constantia Sauvignon Blanc and surveying the surrounding vineyards, I could easily be forgiven for thinking I was sitting on one of France’s finest estates. Around us, slivers of vineyards eagerly reach up the steep hills like green fingers grasping for the sky.

Beau Constantia is one of a handful of vineyard estates in the revered Constantia Valley – Cape Town’s very own vineyards and the birthplace of winemaking in both South Africa and in the Southern Hemisphere – or the New World wine regions as often referred to.

Megan van der Merwe, with her distinctive bun, dirty boots, and formidable spirit, is a force to be reckoned with. And that’s perhaps a good thing – she’s a winemaker in an industry that has taken a battering of late sadly, as estates have had to navigate a string of state-imposed prohibitions.

Filling our glasses with Cecily (the Viognier named after the estate’s owner) Megan describes her wine-making philosophy as “making wines of integrity goes far beyond how you farm in the vineyards. It extends into cultivating community – wines made with respect for their entire environment.”

In referring to the South African wine brand she says “It seems at this point that we are still way too burdened by our traumatic history to successfully brand ourselves, so instead we have resorted to drawing from outside references. This, however, is a “borrowed” solution. It is not authentic. We feel inferior about our heritage, so much so that we have been compelled to mirror our global competitors to attract the international consumer.”

Talking of history, Cape Town’s modern history is a relatively short one, which for the purpose of this article deserves mentioning – it quite literally had its genesis as a food garden. While many recount the story of the 1652 arrival of Jan van Riebeck, there’s an earlier tale worth telling. In 1647 the Dutch Nieuw Haarlem floundered into the waters of Table Bay and half of the sailors were forced to remain onshore to be collected a year later. Upon returning to The Netherlands, they convinced VOC that the land would make a decent victualling station for the company’s ships and seven years later Cape Town would see its first settlement with thriving gardens (and vineyards) soon following suit.

A good 400 years later the city still serves its purpose as a food and wine destination, with people flocking to the Mother City for her enticing epicurean experiences.

A stone’s throw from where we’re sitting is South Africa’s famed La Colombe Restaurant, this is where I first met sommelier Joseph Dhafana. His story is one of a near-miraculous journey from refugee to the head at one of the country’s top restaurants. As with many in the industry, the pandemic shakeup meant that Joseph left the restaurant with the intention of devoting more time to his emerging wine label.

Among his string of achievements, Joseph was one of the founding members of the Black Cellar Club (BLACC) – an organization whose goal was to make wine feel less intimidating to the general populace and he has a continued desire to see grass-roots level education around wine – particularly in an African culture where wine is not the usual drink of choice.

Over a tasting of his Mosi 2020 Syrah, we talk about the tasting notes and Joseph points out that while many western wine drinkers are familiar with the flavour wheel (which helps give tasting references to respective varieties) in many African contexts the usual terms are completely lost. With the assistance of others, they’re producing a more related flavour wheel that will be available in three African vernaculars – and this is just one of several projects that roll off his tongue.

“A decade ago, I’d attend a wine function and would be the only person of colour present. That’s now changing.” Armed with his fierce determination, charming smile, and a bottle or two of his wine in hand, Joseph is a trendsetter who’s undoubtedly helping usher in a more diverse dispensation.

With the shake-up that was the pandemic, restaurants around the country were forced to reimagine their offerings almost overnight. The Test Kitchen, a name familiar in global gastronomy, unfortunately, was a casualty too, having to close their doors. However, not long after it closed its doors it rose again like a phoenix from the ashes in the form of ‘The Test Kitchen Fledglings.’

Dylan Frayne, the humble head chef at the helm of this new venture, told me that “Fledgling’s main focus is advancing the skills of the staff members who otherwise would not have the ability to get hospitality training.” And his enthusiasm is entirely contagious, “Initiatives like this are incredibly exciting as the more inclusive our industry becomes, actively involving all employee’s ideas, knowledge, perspectives and backgrounds.”

Nathan Clarke is one of the young protégés I met whose narrative is a reminder that the proof is in the pudding (and in the case of the Fledglings, it’s the chocolate fondant). Growing up in a challenging area of Cape Town known for its gang warfare and crime, Nathan now stands proudly as sous-chef.

He doesn’t only have big dreams for himself, but also for the industry. “What I would like to see more of in the industry here at home is a strong willingness to use all local produce. I would also like South African Chef’s to take a deeper look into our cultural backgrounds and try to incorporate local cooking methods and techniques into their food.”

I have no doubt that only weeks in, these Fledglings are already inspiring a new decade of inclusivity in the food industry.

Cape Town has always thrived on an evolving dining scene from convivial cool to haute cuisine, but if it has achieved one thing during the pandemic is that it has prompted a shift into a more authentic expression of that creative spirit. Not just a return to basics, but a reorienting around purpose, passion, and perhaps a bit more grounding.

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