Darling of the West Coast
Originally published in Cape Etc magazine
‘I’m looking for a message in a bottle,’ I say, somewhat furtively, to the woman polishing a beer glass beside the counter at Slow Quarter, the taproom of Darling Brew.
I’m worried she’s going to respond in that kindly tone used by nurses – you know the one, laden with the subtext that you’re probably two sips short of a soda can, but they’re not about to be the one to break it to you.
‘Oh, are you?’ she asks, no subtext in sight. ‘Well, it’s more than beer that comes in bottles, isn’t it?’ (This accompanied by an inclining of the head to the wine shop next door.)
We’re on the Darling Mystery Trail, a kind of scavenger hunt for adult history buffs (or anyone who, like me, never grew out of them). The past couple of hours have taken us from the Darling History Museum, with its tableaux of life through the decades in Darling, to just about every other notable landmark in the little West Coast town, and I’m now familiar enough with its cross-hatch of streets to feel quite at home.
Darling Tourism’s slogan is ‘an hour from Cape Town ... but a million miles away!’ and it couldn’t be more apt. Hop on to the West Coast R27 and before you’ve started to think about a leg stretch or road-trip snack, you’re there. And yet, probably thanks to the pastoral landscape that borders the approach, you feel as though you’ve come much further and, simultaneously, slowed down time.
Founded as recently as 1853, the town was named for Sir Charles Henry Darling, who came to the Cape in 1851 as the lieutenant governor. Historically, its claims to fame include the eponymous creamery established by a pair of Swedish settlers in 1899, its riotously colourful wild flowers in spring and, more recently, being the home of Evita Bezuidenhout, who is ‘the most famous white woman in South Africa’ (but more on Her Excellency later).
The Mystery Trail can be thirsty work, and Slow Quarter seems like a perfect pit stop before we hunt down the next clue. Besides, it’s just gone midday, and on a Saturday in a small Western Cape town, that definitely signals beer o’clock.
It’s no secret that craft beer is enjoying huge popularity in SA at the moment, particularly in the Cape, and Darling Brew is one of the movement’s frontrunners. Owners (and locals) Kevin and Philippa Wood first began toying with the idea of launching a small-batch beer while road-tripping their way around Southern Africa in 2007. Returning home, the question of branding kept bringing their attention to the geometric tortoise, a beautiful and endangered species endemic to the Western Cape. This little guy inspired not just the Slow lager (their first ever release in 2010), but also the ethos behind their whole operation – a slow fermentation process and a return to a gentler pace of living.
At Slow Quarter, you can do a tasting of the microbrewery’s five beers, including Slow, the love-it-or-hate-it Bone Crusher wit beer with notes of coriander and candied citrus, and the ever-popular Native Ale. Light meals of locally sourced, free-range fare make this an excellent lunch stop or late-afternoon refuelling station, and a platter of cheese, fresh bread, prosciutto, olives, sun-dried tomatoes and other deliciousness disappears swiftly in front of me despite its substantial size. Slow Quarter is also a meeting point for locals, and before long I’m enveloped in a communal table of neighbours catching up over a draught.
A little later and we’re uncovering another clue just outside The Marmalade Cat, already reminiscing about dinner here last night. The Cat is a Darling favourite in general, but you’ll want to book a table on Fridays for pizza night, when locals and visitors pack into this light and bright eatery. Wood-fired with plenty of inventive toppings, the pizza here has thrown down the gauntlet for the title of Best in the Swartland.
Of course, as in any small town, food is a large part of life in Darling. You’ll need at least a long weekend to tick all the eateries off your list. Just make sure that, in addition to the Slow Quarter and The Marmalade Cat, you have breakfast at Chicory Cheese Café (with plenty of olive oil and gourmet treats lining its shelves to take home), lunch in the rose garden at Brig’s Barn, and a good steak at Bistro 7.
As for anyone with a sweet tooth, pay attention: you cannot allow yourself to miss Darling Sweet. Sandwiched between Chicory Cheese and the independent book store, the quirky little shop was opened in 2013 and today sells a massive amount of preservative-free, butter-rich toffee. Ingredients are all natural, with flavours such as veld-flower honey and salt (from the pans near Yzerfontein), orange and pomegranate, and chocolate and red wine. Marvel at the neat legions of toffee squares being made by hand in the show kitchen, then stock up on boxes for the road.
In the mood to do some good? Opt for the Tannie Evita’s Classic Toffee, a percentage of which goes to Pieter-Dirk Uys’s Darling Trust. Founded in 2003, it was established to empower previously disadvantaged members of the Darling community, and now runs a host of educational and outreach programmes that do it huge credit.
Unfamiliar with Evita, former ambassadress to the Independent black Homeland Republic of Bapetikosweti? Well, now might be a kind time to tell you that she and satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys are one in the same. The pair have been together since the early ’80s when, during a time of paranoia and censorship, Uys invented his alter-ego Evita to launch a campaign of comedy that would draw attention to the absurdity of SA’s racial politics.
Thousands of one-man shows later, Uys is still using laughter as a vehicle to drive social awareness and change. You can catch him as Evita – and a few other personalities from our rainbow nation – at his Darling theatre, Evita se Perron (‘Evita’s platform’, the entire complex being a renovated train station).
Dinner and a show here is non-negotiable, but make time before curtain-up to explore the entire Evita precinct. The pathways in Tannie se Tuin (‘auntie’s garden’) are a quiet place of reflection, while inside an apartheid museum tells the serious side of our historical separatist legislature, and the Boerassic Park sculpture garden is a more comic look at SA politics in the past few decades. It is a marvel the maverick of the local stage was never arrested, but perhaps less surprising that after endless national and international tours, he’s come to rest in a small, West Coast town like Darling.
Spending any length of time here you will begin to see that, while its history is respected and carefully preserved, Darling is a town that is still evolving. Far from simply being a sleepy locale that Capetonians can add to their list of retirement options, it’s a village of artists and artisans, innovators and entrepreneurs, stagecraft and food art.
After discovering a Mystery Trail clue on one of Darling’s most elevated streets, we pause for a minute to look down and take it all in. It might be a profound moment, if it weren’t for the crinkle of toffee wrappers.
‘Let’s have another quick Slow down there,’ I say to my treasure-hunting sidekick, before realising I’ve inadvertently summed up what a weekend getaway in Darling is all about.
Photo by Jade Taylor Cooke