Part 3 of a 2008 South African travelogue
by Thor Iverson
Wind whips sand into my face. Not with the bullet-like speed of the past few days – there’s no blood drawn – but it hurts all the same. However, there’s finally a benefit to the persistent gales: the penguins are bereft of their usual malodorous stench.
Let me back up a bit…
With the hurricane-force bellows to which we’ve been subjected for two days subsiding, though not exactly disappearing, we decide to take a chance on a day of (mostly) outdoor activities. Unfortunately, Table Mountain remains entirely sheathed in cloud, so we arrange a rental car and head down the Cape of Good Hope.
Alas, wee don’t make it all the way to the end. Escaping Cape Town is easy, as wide multi-lane avenues (largely bereft of traffic, though what there is drives with aggressive and occasionally careening purpose) curve and curl around rocky outcroppings and then settle into sedate neighborhoods, but as we move southward and the geography narrows, rises, and exposes itself to the sea, so do the roads. Not to mention that time must be made for sightseeing on such routes. The vistas and the curved vehicular precipices that run through them remind me a little bit of Big Sur…or rather, Big Sur as it might have looked in the Paleozoic era. The foliage is untamed, the shores rocky, the ocean endless, and for long stretches there’s no one but us in sight. It’s captivating, but it’s also time-consuming to navigate, and our plan to reach Cape Point and do a little hiking runs aground on the cold realities of a midday lunch appointment at an allegedly difficult-to-reserve restaurant. With no little regret (and a measure of self-recrimination at not getting an earlier start), we turn around.
The divisions that rend South African society are well-known, and they’re obvious to even a marginally-observant traveler. Neighborhoods are, in the main, clearly demarcated, and while the innumerable gates, walls, and bars that guard them are visible everywhere, the more significant barriers are the intangible ones.
In this context, Simon’s Town is a bit of a surprise. Yes, there are wealthier enclaves and more downtrodden exurbs (the worst of which I’m sure we can’t see), but there’s a vibrant middle in which the borders suddenly don’t seem so obvious. The waterfront heart of the town is clearly tourist-oriented, which may make a difference, but for the first time in our brief stay, we see something resembling the most positive of the many possible futures for this country: black and white walking the same streets, and appearing to conduct business in the same places. Perhaps not “together” in all senses, but at least not permanently and inexorably separate. As always, progress is measured in small steps full of stumbles.
Black, white, and small steps full of stumbles, I said? I guess that’s why this town is a perfect place for a penguin colony.
Sisters are molting it for themselves
There are guards in the parking lot. Not the unofficial panhandlers we’ve been warned about, but actual guards. Simon’s Town may look like a sort of progress, but sensible precautions remain sensible precautions in the face of reality. We leave our car bereft of anything worth stealing (per endlessly-repeated instructions), but we feel safer all the same.
The colony of jackass penguins (named for their braying call, though it’s more amusing to consider it a personality-derived designation) at Boulders Beach are in full molt. I’ve always felt that molting penguins look abjectly miserable, and there’s not much here to dissuade me of that belief. A few are finally regaining their essential sheen of oil, carefully picking and spreading it with their beaks, but most are in varied states of unkempt tuftedness, crouching away from the wind and staring balefully at the small knots of people who stand within touching distance, pointing and shooting – photographically, I mean – with abandon. More than one penguin stiffens and begins the head-waving dance that signals impending aggression, or at least warning against territorial encroachment, but they’ve nothing to fear here. There aren’t even any sea lions.
There is, within the confines of the reserve, a paid boardwalk that brings one within very close range of many, many dozens of huddling nunneries, but the bargain-minded can probably just walk the long, well-maintained boardwalk further inland and spy the shier clumps of penguinhood trying to escape both windy beaches and prying eyes to molt in private. We explore both, though given the concentrated density of Opus-ness in the actual reserve, we pay more attention to a colorful riot of flowering bushes while strolling the latter. It’s a little taste of the Capetonian floral paradise we’ve missed by a month or so, but if this is the low season for flowers, one would need sunglasses when the season’s in full bloom.
Having satisfied every possible penguin-viewing urge, we head back to our car and pierce the agricultural center of the Cape in search of lunch.
Danger on the edge of town
We’ve seen obvious wealth over the so-far short course of our stay in South Africa, but here is an area that looks exactly like we’ve imagined that wealth’s expression. Vast gated estates, riotously verdant and with their skies carpeted by massive trees, dominate the landscape. And longevity is the heart of our visceral reaction to the area known as Constantia, for here is the oldest wine-growing region in the New World (of which, if only viticulturally, it is part). If there’s an historical image of landed opulence in the Cape Colony that’s been planted in our heads over the years, it stands to reason that this is it. Thus, seeing it up close and in person is a bit of a paradigmatic shock.
Unfortunately, this most lavish of landscapes is also an armed camp. Beyond the usual “armed response” security signs nailed to every home and business, the greatest of the estates seem to bristle with defenses. I have already seen far more razor wire than I care to, which in otherwise beautiful locales is particularly jarring, but here are added fiercely-armed guards that glower at each passerby.
I don’t exaggerate. On the drive towards an interior building at one famous Constantia winery, we cruise down a beautiful vineyard road, admiring the signs designating each block of grapes, while keeping an eye on the quarter-dozen machine-gun-toting, flak-jacketed, paramilitary soldiers that patrol it. It’s a very disconcerting site. On the other hand, I’ve never eaten on a military base before…
But no. I’m being unfair. That South Africa has a terrible problem with crime and violence is no secret. Clear-minded observers will insist, rightly, that almost all of it is restricted to neighborhoods no tourist, unless by unhappiest accident, will ever enter, and – as everywhere there’s poverty (which is in fact almost everywhere) – directed almost entirely at fellow sufferers of that misery. It is also true that the quivering fear so frequently expressed over the mere thought of visiting South Africa (especially by Europeans, a phenomenon for which I have no explanation) is often overly credited; a properly-prepared traveler will be as safe as they will be anywhere of comparable socioeconomic status. Much seems to be mitigated by simply avoiding Johannesburg – though that too is a matter of perspective – and by closely heeding local advice on times and places to eschew.
However…that the country seems to cower under layers upon layers of security is neither an accident nor an entirely unjustified response to the realities on the ground. There is crime, and precautions must be taken. Some pleasant aspects of travel elsewhere – the relaxing roadside picnic, for example – must be forgotten. Packing up at one destination and driving to the next cannot, as a rule, include meandering stopovers by plan or by whim; it’s not safe, unless security is found for one’s belongings and, when necessary, one’s person. It is considered perfectly acceptable to accelerate through a red light at the slightest premonition that someone approaching the car may have bad intent, which increases driver safety but imperils pedestrians.
What’s most bothersome is the crime itself, of course, since South Africa has such an incredible story to tell its visitors (of which much will be said in subsequent chapters of this travelogue). Though many seem to agree with my oft-stated belief that New Zealand is the most beautiful country on Earth, one of the most-frequently counter-proposed countries by the well-traveled is South Africa. (I’d say it’s a different beauty, and it lacks a few things New Zealand has, but I’ve only seen a tiny fraction of the country. Culturally, of course, there’s absolutely no comparison…the rich fabric of South Africa, so complex and yet so often brutally-rent by its inhabitants and its invaders, is one of the most elaborately-woven in the world. Visiting New Zealand is an exercise in accepting the tranquility of the majestic in slow, unraveling stages; visiting South Africa is peeling an onion in which each layer (and there are thousands) represents a breathtaking shift in one’s worldview, but in which tranquility takes the form of explosive shrapnel.
And thus, what’s most bothersome after the basic fact of the crime is the visibility of the response to it. No, I don’t suppose it can’t be any other way; visual deterrence is one of its most effective forms, after all. But it’s one thing to walk past a guard in the door of a shoe store, another to drive twenty minutes without seeing an unbarred window in an otherwise overtly wealthy neighborhood, and still another to have automatic weapons leaning toward you on your way to lunch. I don’t know how anyone gets used to that. And in fact, I know some can’t…or rather, couldn’t. They’ve already left, not all of them voluntarily.
Still – and this is a common refrain one hears in South Africa, and also one which will appear over the course of this travelogue in a number of widely variant contexts – there’s a measure of visible hope, as well. The 2010 World Cup looms large, and as a result crime is a problem that can no longer be ignored. Not just because it’s a fundamental affront to society to suffer uncontrollable crime, but because the very fear of it will fatally wound the tourism necessary to make the event a monetary and public relations success. Yellow-vested folk litter the streets of Cape Town…some picking up trash (though there’s not much), some clearly policing in less officious uniform, others assisting tourists with directions, transportation, and the like…which is not the same as a solution, but which achieves incremental change. Inside the most crucial communities, there’s a growing grassroots effort to combat criminal motivation from within…which, again, is not the same as a solution, but which achieves incremental change. Most importantly, there at least seems to be a bit of governmental will behind an effort to combat the country’s most severe problems (of which crime is just one, though most of the problems are essentially interrelated)…and here, at last, is at least the possibility of something more than incremental change. Will it be enough? For better or worse, we’ll see.
There’s a coda to these musings, one that weaves together a number of frayed and seemingly lost threads into a decidedly knotty conclusion, but it will have to wait. Because lunch is being served.
That Constantia Uitsig is in the middle of copious natural beauty is unquestioned. That’s it’s also a working winery is equally unquestioned; we’ve passed many a beehive of activity since passing the heavily-guarded entrance gate. However, by the time we park our car we feel nearly alone, surrounded only by a few cars and thousands of vines, and staring at a rather lonely-looking building isolated from all other structures. But we can smell food. We’re starving. And we enter.
There are three restaurants at this wine estate. The most famous of the trio is probably the eponymous one, with its long history of high-quality dining, and there’s also the lighter-styled River Café, which still casually lavish, even though it presents itself with far less pretension. But the one at which we’re having lunch is the one and only universal recommendation we’ve received while planning this trip. “You must go,” ordered more than a few email correspondents. Food-oriented web site after web site agreed. There didn’t seem to be much choice in the matter, and so the very first reservation I’d made from the States had been La Colombe. And for lunch; I knew we wanted to tour the Cape at some point, so why not make a day of it?
In the end, I wish I’d booked for dinner. Not due to any failure on the restaurant’s part, but rather because the lack of a midday reservation would have freed up our day from what little structure it had. Also, there are only three other occupied tables, which makes us feel a little silly about the importance we’ve lent to our schedule.
But that’s an irrelevant personal regret. How’s the restaurant? It’s upscale, to be sure, but not “fancy” in the usual sense; in fact, it’s rather comforting, with a beautiful interior garden, an interior that manages to be garden-themed without being lurid about it, and a very simple feel. This simplicity extends to the menu, which – as at Caveau – is presented on a blackboard either brought to or visible from each table. And despite the persistent hype, I admit that at first glance, the menu causes a twinge of concern. Each dish, as described in chalk, seems extremely simple…the sort of food that will rely entirely on ingredient quality and perfection in execution. Have we visited the South African version of Chez Panisse?
Decidedly not. Because when the menu is described in words by the waitstaff, the dishes are anything but simple. They’re not modernistic – ingredients and classic techniques still reign – but each expresses a carefully-conceived central idea given just enough accent and decoration to rise to excellence, but not so many that confusion descends.
Service is politely friendly and without flaw. The wine list is of epic length, and while it includes the wines of the estate and many bottles from neighbors in Constantia, it’s a pan-South African document of not-inconsiderable depth. We sip a few glasses of surprisingly good sparkling wine while we dither over our options.
Constantia Uitsig 2005 Méthode Cap Classique Brut Blanc de Blancs (Constantia) – Highly polished, and presenting itself with sophistication rather than ego. Clean, dry lemon forms a tight cylindrical core, around which are layers of delicate foil that don’t obscure transparency. Finely-beaded and quite impressive. Still, what I’d really love to do is revisit this after a few years, because it’s very primary.
While we sip, tiny toasts with chicken liver mousse arrive, any acridity thoroughly absent, and each flawlessly executed. Our first actual course is a brilliant conflation of seasons: an autumnal cep (as they name boletus edulis in South Africa) tart with spring vegetables, the latter laid bare save for a delicate dusting of cheese that stands in for salt. It sounds so simple, but each element – the tart dough, the quality and cooking of the mushrooms, the soft-snap intensity of the vegetables, the accent of the cheese – is precisely what it needs to be. We move on to tandem sorbets (although they call them “smoothies,” and in truth the texture is more akin to granitas); one verjus and elderflower, the other strawberry and belle rose. Refreshment has been achieved.
Springbok, far superior to last night’s quite acceptable version, is cooked to the perfect moment between raw elasticity and overcooked chew, then served with foie gras and a sort of “gratin” of paper-thin potatoes; “gratin” is in quotes because the adhesion is achieved as much by the knife (or mandoline) work as by any dairy-based binder. Served separately are sides of even more vegetables: a true gratin of potatoes (this is more for Theresa than me) and simply-dressed carrots, again as perfect and flavorful as they could possibly be.
With this delicious food, we savor a wine older than any I’ve had from South Africa (though the final week of our trip will bring its elder), which is tucked away on the final page of the wine list, as if they’re protecting its existence. The sommelier expresses a certain measure of enthusiasm that we’re drinking this bottle, but at 550 rand and given current exchange rates, it seems ridiculous to do otherwise.
Kanonkop 1989 Pinotage (South Africa) – The appellation seems to be as the bottle indicates, though of course under current law this would be from Stellenbosch. The cork is an absolute mess, takes an epic effort to remove in the tiny pieces into which it disintegrates, and by all rights should herald a damaged and prematurely decrepit bottle. But if so, there’s no sign of it in my glass. The wine looks much younger than it is, and tastes so as well, which makes me wonder if pinotage is the South African version of petite sirah…eternally youthful and forever consumed too soon. Quite heavily-fruited still, in the form of a baked fruit compote without distinct elements, though the first stirrings of maturity appear as old, time-burnished furniture and a loamy mushroom quality. Very soft, yet far from unstructured, and seemingly not yet mature by its mouth-filling headiness. Very impressive.
Theresa chooses a selection of South African cheeses for dessert, and while none are truly world-class, we find the most enjoyment in one that the restaurant calls emmental-style, but which actually tastes more like a gruyère. I choose dessert, and my tonka bean parfait is served with a heady concoction that I’d call caramel bread pudding ice cream; in a way, it reminds me of a caramel-enhanced version of the classic Alsatian kugelhopf glacé, but with emphasis more on the kügelhopf than the glacé. It, like everything else, is fabulous.
I ask our energized and newly-chatty sommelier for a recommendation from the list of dessert wines. Rather than answering, he disappears, then reappears with a small flight of them.
Klein Constantia 2004 “Vin de Constance” (Constantia) – Pretty. Sweet, classic muscat with a bronzed quality. (Almost) very good, but the finish is abrupt. Doesn’t live up to its legend.
Asara 2003 “Noble Late Harvest” (Stellenbosch) – Botrytized chenin blanc. Aromatically beautiful, lush, and creamy, but it falls away on the palate. About halfway to being a truly great dessert wine; as it is, it’s very pleasant but uninspired.
Constantia Uitsig “Noble Late Harvest” (Constantia) – Light and pretty, showing sweet apples still shaded by their leaves. The finish is of reasonable length, though there’s not a great deal of complexity.
This is, especially with the extravagant wines we’ve consumed, an expensive meal by South African standards. But given the weakness of the rand, it – like so much else – ends up being an absolutely absurd bargain. Especially because it will be, and I say this without equivocation, the best meal of our entire trip.
Copyright © Thor Iverson