Talking about a revolution
Originally published in Cape Etc magazine
It’s a 35°C day in Riebeek-Kasteel. The only correct thing to do at the stroke of five is to answer the siren call of a gin and tonic at The Royal Hotel.
It may be politically incorrect to say it, but I’ve never felt so colonial as I do at this moment, stretched out in a wicker chair on this historical terrace, which the hotel proudly (and somewhat comically) claims to be the longest stoep south of the Limpopo. Potted palms wave in an occasional and treasured breeze, while overhead what are possibly the world’s most ineffectual fans rotate lazily as though they, too, have had enough of the afternoon’s heat. It all feels very Old Cataract Hotel circa Death on the Nile – which is just lovely an hour outside of Cape Town and in 2015.
And so it should have a sense of history, the last structural change to the hotel having been the addition of its arched terrace in 1927. But even this grande dame is but a debutante compared to Riebeek-Kasteel itself, which numbers among South Africa’s oldest towns.
Named for Commander Van Riebeeck, upon whose instruction a hinterland expedition that led to its settlement was conducted, Riebeek-Kasteel today provides an excellent base from which to make your own discovery of the surrounding Riebeek Valley. Known for its wine and olives, the valley has a wonderful ability to make you feel far from the madding crowd while still being less than 90 minutes from the Mother City’s various amusements and beaches.
It’s hemmed in by the Kasteelberg, Paardeberg and Porseleinberg mountains, and there’s a bucolic feeling to the landscape thanks largely to the wheat fields stretching from horizon to horizo as you approach from Malmesbury, golden in summer and a rich green come Cape Town’s wet winter.
Riebeek-Kasteel is perhaps the best known of the valley’s three villages, its sisters being Riebeek West, a stone’s throw of but five kilometres away, and tiny, elevated Hermon. A wander around the three or so blocks that comprise its central business district doesn’t take too long, but there’s plenty to carry home with you. While away some time with a tasting at The Wine Kollective, a homage to local winemakers with cellar-door prices. If garagiste olive oil has not featured in your life up until now, don’t miss The Olive Boutique either, where a selection from this valley’s other notable industry is available for tasting.
Poke around the rest of the doorways and you’ll find everything from fine art and vintage treasures to biltong, handmade chocolate, natural soap, homeopathic remedies and clothing a friend who lives in the village has aptly termed ‘Swartland tannie chic’.
The market square is mostly used for parking day to day, but stop to snap a photo of the solemn red ox erected in 1938 to commemorate The Great Trek, and a VOC (Dutch East India Company) cannon as a tribute to the village’s founding fathers. You’ll also find a large topiary elephant here, though its presence seems to be more whimsical than historical. For a more detailed record of the town’s Voortrekker past, head to De Oude Kerk, a beautiful church built in 1856 that now houses the Valley Museum.
Riebeek-Kasteel may have all the hallmarks of a small South African town, but the pervading spirit is far from a small-town South African mentality. Beneath the heat, beneath the quaint charm, beneath the fiercely preserved history, there is the tremor of a beat from a drum that’s anything but ordinary.
For a start, there’s Kobus, or at least I am assuming that’s the name of the man frequently spotted zooting around town in a golf cart with a licence plate bearing that legend. There’s little to no chance that plate comes from a municipality office, but we’ll let it slide, Kobie.
Then there’s the secret garden, hidden just behind the Kasteelberg Country Inn & Bistro on the square. An insider tells me to stop by that evening to hear a travelling musician who’s just arrived in Riebeek-Kasteel on his bicycle to treat us to a guitar serenade.
Can we talk about the cuisine for a second too? The catch-all ‘traditional country fare’ hardly does it justice. Bar Bar Black Sheep in Short Street still has Capetonians trotting up for lunch to enjoy the likes of kudu carpaccio, viskoekies, goat stew in Jamaican curry and pork loin in a thyme and rum gravy. Next door, Eve’s Eatery and Bar offers rustic Italian dishes, while for pizza you’re going to want to order a few to share at Mama Cucina. For brunch, tuck into the signature Egg Nest on the vine-shaded terrace of Beans About Coffee, or enjoy salmon scrambled eggs in the courtyard of Café Felix beneath a 150-year-old oak tree.
But perhaps most representative of the Valley’s non-conformist spirit is Swartland Independent, a collective of maverick winemakers who’ve come together to revolutionise the area’s wine industry. What these guys are all about is making wines that are a true expression of their origin.
A list of criteria must be met before a bottle can bear the now coveted Swartland Independent logo. Chief among these is that the grapes must be grown entirely in the Swartland, as well as vinified, matured and bottled here. Another biggie is holding to natural production methods, which means minimum manipulation in the vineyard and cellar, with no supplements, added tannins, or chemical or technological processes of any kind.
If you have limited time, plan your visit around the wine farms of Eben Sadie (Sequillo), Hein and Adi Badenhorst (AA Badenhorst Family Wines) and Callie Louw (Porseleinberg). Together with Chris and Andrea Mullineux (who recently – and sadly – moved their operation out of the valley), these guys are the original revolutionaries. And while they take Swartland wine seriously, to be sure, you certainly won’t find a more entertaining, light-hearted group of winemakers out there. One evening in the company of Adi ‘The Personality’ Badenhorst on his farm, Kalmoesfontein, was enough to convince me that you can taste the geniality and passion he’s known for in his wine.
Tastings at most SI farms are by appointment, which seems like a hassle until you realise that means you invariably get to taste the wines with the very person responsible for making them – infinitely more personal than a large-scale tasting room staffed by Elsenburg students.
But back to happy hour and that Royal Hotel gin and tonic...
Let me tell you, a bow-tied barman hovered over it for some time. We might be sitting in colonial central, but this creation is out of left field – traditional lemon, lime and cucumber joined by strawberries, pomegranate seeds and passion fruit syrup. It’s refreshing, delightful and has that perfect Riebeek-Kasteel collision of old world and new ideas; history and reinvention.
There’s a beat here that’s anything but ordinary, and people are marching to it.
Photo by Kendall-Leigh Nash