Anthony Dennis accompanies chef Neil Perry on a fine-dining safari across the Rainbow Nation.
It's near lunchtime on a terrace overlooking Cape Town's Bantry Bay, and Neil Perry is cooking up a storm, just as a midwinter tempest whips up around South Africa's most captivating city. Clouds envelop a distant Table Mountain, rendering the famous cable car inoperative. Waves pound the rocks below Perry's alfresco kitchen, yet the sun keeps shining above the terrace and on the chef as his dishes, South African style, are enjoyed in this most dramatic of settings.
Lunch is at Ellerman House, a former shipping magnate's mansion that is now one of Cape Town's most luxurious boutique lodgings. Perry, regarded as one of Australia's premier chefs, is barbecuing seafood with his signature Asian flourishes, in concert with Ellerman's head chef, Veronica Canha-Hibbert. The produce includes sweet-tasting crayfish, or kreef; a firm-fleshed indigenous fish called kingklip; soy-marinated yellowtail fish; and root vegetables for a salad. Perry is at the start of a food safari designed to showcase the Rainbow Nation's diverse cuisine, in an itinerary that takes in Cape Town, the Cape Winelands, Durban, Phinda Private Game Reserve and Johannesburg.
Canha-Hibbert reckons visitors tend to be more focused on spotting game in South Africa and tend to have only a vague perception of the nation's cuisine. "Being an African country, we are often seen as serving only African food, such as boma-style open-air meals," she says. "But in South Africa there's a group of highly trained, skilled chefs who are creating a strong food culture and identity."
There's a lot for Australians to love in a country with fine wine, great seafood and where the barbecue, or braai as South Africans call it, is a favoured cooking appliance. Yet what also distinguishes South African cuisine for me is the way in which apartheid can still cast a shadow, even over the dining table. Black South African chefs such as Benny Masekwameng have emerged in the post-apartheid era, but progress has been slow.
Masekwameng was the executive chef at MondoVino at the Montecasino entertainment complex in Johannesburg and one of the stars of the South African version of MasterChef. He cooks with Perry later in the trip at 54 on Bath, a new Johannesburg hotel. While more young black South Africans are studying to become chefs, Masekwameng says their more affluent white counterparts have the educational and economic advantage. For a majority of black South Africans who live below the poverty line, not much has changed on the dinner table. But the middle class, especially in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban, are increasingly exposed to global food trends, Masekwameng says.
From Cape Town we head to the Cape Winelands, passing the international airport built for the 2010 Soccer World Cup and kilometres of shanty towns. As hard as it is to witness such pervasive poverty, one of the joys of this tour is the chance to sample the nation's wines in depth. "South Africa has got amazing wine credentials," Perry says. "One of the real positives is that it has a lot of old vines in the ground and you're getting some fantastic maturity there."
While South African drops are referred to as New World wines, the first vines in Franschhoek were planted by French Huguenot immigrants in the late 17th century. Our first stop is lunch at the whitewashed, Cape Dutch-style Grande Provence Estate. A braai is prepared by Darren Badenhorst, the lodge's executive chef, overlooking vineyards framed by mountains.
On the braai are Karoo lamb chops and free-range spring chicken. No braai is complete without boerewors: a traditional and delicious type of sausage.
The white wines that emerge from Franschhoek's bowl-like valley are some of South Africa's finest. The region enjoys a cool-to-temperate climate and a range of soil types, allowing a diverse range of grape varieties - such as chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and pinot noir - to thrive.
Next, we head to La Residence, one of the Cape Winelands' most exclusive accommodations, set on a 12-hectare estate encircled by vineyards, orchards and mountains.
Before dawn the next day we depart Franschhoek, taking an early morning flight north to Durban and then drive on to Phinda Game Reserve, in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. During our stay at lodges within Phinda, operated by the &Beyond group, we're invited to an outdoor boma - with a dirt floor, stone and reed walls - that is illuminated by lanterns, candles and an open fire. It comes after a day of exceptional African-wildlife spotting, including a "life changing" and close encounter with lions for Perry and his wife, Sam.
On this food safari, as soon as we've spotted wildlife it's time to sit down and eat it. On the menu tonight are shanks of impala and slices of warthog (lion not included), as well as rousing singing and dancing by the resident Phinda staff choir.
Perry is impressed by the variety of antelope, most notably springbok, we've been served during the trip. "Coming from Australia, and not having proper game [on our menus], it was really quite intense," he says.
Earlier in the trip, at a dinner at Azure, a fine-dining restaurant at Twelve Apostles, one of Cape Town's exclusive seaside hotels, we were served a "Cape fusion" main course of springbok fillet with celeriac cream, roasted radish, orange tapioca and sultana-caper paste. The rare, perfectly cooked meat has the consistency of beef but with a distinct saltiness and dark chocolate-like richness.
In Durban, on the way to Johannesburg, we visit the House of Curries on Florida to sample bunny chow: a quarter- or half-loaf of bread hollowed out, with curry poured in. It's classic street food from the apartheid years and is a feature of the national diet across all groups.
On Perry's penultimate night in South Africa, we attend a private chef's-table kitchen dinner at Johannesburg's San Restaurant at the Sandton Sun Hotel. Chef Garth Shnier's creative, contemporary cuisine is excellent, including a clever amuse-bouche of a miniature bunny chow served with a Cape Malay chicken prawn curry.
What impresses me most is that the diners around the table tonight represent the Rainbow Nation's ethnic groups. Under apartheid, this congenial, multiracial gathering would have been deemed illegal.
Now, after a week sampling the country's cuisine, that's what you call food for thought.
Anthony Dennis travelled courtesy of South African Tourism.
Qantas has fares to Johannesburg from Sydney and Melbourne for about $1930 low-season return including tax. Melbourne passengers fly to Sydney to connect; see qantas.com.au. South African Airways and Comair connect to Cape Town and Durban.
Staying and dining there
Ellerman House Cape Town overlooks Bantry Bay. Rooms from 7900 rand ($915); see ellerman.co.za.
Twelve Apostles Hotel and Spa, Cape Town, has rooms from 4700 rand; see 12apostleshotel.com.
Grande Provence Heritage Wine Estate, Franschhoek, has rooms from 5000 rand; see www.grandeprovence.co.za.
La Residence, Franschhoek, has rooms from 10,350 rand; see laresidence.co.za.
&Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, has six lodges.
Rooms from 3795 rand a person; see andBeyondafrica.com.
54 on Bath, Johannesburg, has rooms from 3450 rand; see tsogosunhotels.com.
See southafrica.net; southafricanholidays.com.au.