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A Food Safari in South Africa

On a tour that takes in cities, wine country, bushveld and beach, two young food experts lead a hunt for South Africa's biggest game, from lush Cabernets to bacon-wrapped antelope loin.

It was a big Cabernet Sauvignon. Big enough to fill a bathtub. I'd come to South Africa to soak up the country's thriving wine and food scene and found myself soaking in it. Up to my nose in a cask-shaped hot tub in the vinotherapy room of the Santé Wellness Centre at the Winelands Hotel near Cape Town, I wondered at all the changes this country had seen. Five years ago, in the wake of apartheid, you wouldn't have found much in the way of culinary tourism here, even though the green hills and valleys of nearby Franschhoek and Stellenbosch are among the world's most beautiful wine-producing lands. The success of a revolution is probably best judged by more important factors than the quality of the meals (and spa treatments) on offer. But I'll take it as a good sign that the country is becoming a luxury-travel destination, that Franschhoek—where dissident French Huguenots planted some of South Africa's first vines, in the late 1600s—is attracting talented winemakers and chefs and that Cape Town's and Johannesburg's restaurants are packed.

It would be hard to find two people who better symbolize South Africa's culinary future than Barak Hirschowitz and Dylan Pritchard. Barak, who heads the kitchen at Tides—the elegant ocean-view restaurant in Cape Town's Bay Hotel—is one of the country's young rising-star chefs, ingeniously using local ingredients to create delicious modern South African dishes, such as kingklip, a halibut-like fish, topped with a tangy sauce made of green olives from the Cape. Dylan, Tides' sommelier, is responsible for the restaurant's outstanding South Africa—focused wine list. The two are ludicrously well informed and patriotically enthusiastic about all things South African. Since it's impossible to get the word out about the massive transformation happening in South Africa by staying in the kitchen, the two have started a travel company, Gourmet African Tours, leading small groups on customized trips around the country. The aim is not just to eat and drink (although guests will be doing plenty of both) but also to meet and hang out with South Africa's most important chefs and winemakers.

Just before the Gourmet African Tours launch, Barak and Dylan took me on a test run. Our plan was simple: Drive and eat, travel from restaurant to winery to game reserve and never let more than a few minutes go by between meals. In other words: a food lover's perfect African safari.

Outside the Santé Wellness Centre, the sun shone down on grapes nearly ready for picking; inside, my skin had just been rubbed with a vigorous Shiraz Body Scrub, a fragrant mixture of crushed grapes and coarse salt. I couldn't help thinking that, with the addition of a little rosemary, I'd make a delicious roast. Pleasant as it was to be marinating in my barrel bath after the body scrub, I was eager to shower and be on my way.

We'd kicked off our tour the night before with a toast at Planet Champagne Bar, a clubby lounge inside Cape Town's Mount Nelson Hotel, where locals and visitors sat sipping bubbly cocktails at a glowing, underlit onyx bar. "A few years ago, the city couldn't have sustained a place like this," Barak had told me as we drank cocktails made with Champagne, brandy and Angostura bitters. After drinks at Planet, Barak and Dylan had ushered me off to dinner at the Africa Café, a raucous celebration of pan-African food and culture. Drummers roamed through the exuberantly painted multistory house. We didn't order so much as submit to the torrent of dishes representing the traditional cuisines of Ethiopia, Kenya and, of course, South Africa. I'd filled up on juicy Cape mussels with Malay curry, spicy Ethiopian zambossa (minced meat in pastry) and Botswanan ostrich.

The next morning, Barak and Dylan picked me up early for our drive to the cluster of towns known collectively as the Winelands. Barak sat in the back seat, talking fast and delivering running commentary on both the swiftly passing countryside and the state of South African cookery. Dylan was behind the wheel, driving fast and interrupting Barak to brief me on South African wines. My metabolism and I tried to keep up.

The drive from Cape Town takes less than an hour. Leaving behind Table Mountain and the coast, you pass into a region of orchards and farms with old white houses in the gabled Cape Dutch style. After our stop at the Santé Wellness Centre, we headed to Clos Malverne, one of South Africa's top wineries; here, Dylan wanted me to taste specimens of what has become known as a Cape Blend, which includes a certain percent of the indigenous Pinotage grape, a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsaut. Calling a wine like Clos Malverne Auret a Cape Blend is meant to emphasize its South Africanness. There has been some controversy about whether it's necessary for every wine labeled a Cape Blend to include Pinotage, a debate that's easy to ignore when one is preoccupied with a glass of the stuff, especially Clos Malverne's 2001 Limited Release and the award-sweeping, utterly satisfying 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot Limited Release.

It's easy to get slowed down tasting wine, and we were a little late for lunch at Le Quartier Français, a Relais & Châteaux inn known for its mountain views and its amiable, talented young Dutch-born chef, Margot Janse. The price we paid for being late was not being able to linger as long as we would have liked over the six-course meal. The first taste of cured quail with wispy bits of zucchini and Parmesan confirmed that we should have come earlier and stayed through dinner, and maybe breakfast. Barak and Margot talked about the importance of South African ingredients. "South Africa has always been a huge exporter—seafood to Europe, porcini mushrooms to the U.S., tuna for canning to Mexico and Australia—but for years everything was shipped out of the country, too expensive to use here," Barak said. Now that the rand has stabilized somewhat and tourism has increased, restaurants are finding an appreciative audience.

After the quail dish, Margot brought out a loin of springbok—a hopping antelope and the national emblem—wrapped in bacon and served with fried asparagus. Springbok has the kind of texture I imagine you'd get if you mated a tuna with a lamb. It makes you wonder why we Americans put up with so much boring purple venison. Margot paired the springbok with a 2001 Kevin Arnold Shiraz, which had the kind of fine, smooth-spicy balance that makes you want to shake the winemaker's hand.

As it turned out, Barak and Dylan had arranged for Kevin Arnold to meet us for lunch. Arnold's winery, Waterford, opened six years ago and has been making a name for itself with its Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and a none-too-oaky Chardonnay. (Oprah Winfrey served his Shiraz at her 50th-birthday party earlier this year.) Now, Arnold said, is the time for South Africa to produce a truly great wine: "I want to make something that will be for us like Grange is for Australia."

After a dessert of cappuccino cheesecake, we got back in the car, and Dylan explained to me why South Africa is poised to start making world-class wines. "Our soils and our coastal influences have all aided the reds—like Pinotage and Shiraz—which have come into their own over the last few years," he said. "Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc from Europe and New Zealand develop unique personalities here. They're more masculine. The fruit comes through powerfully, and wine farmers here have learned not to kill the fruit with overoaking." Dylan explained that Afrikaners used to like their wine sticky sweet, so decades ago, farmers replaced most of their vines with ones that produce Chenin Blanc and Sémillon grapes, which are used to make sweet wines. This created a stagnant, one-dimensional wine industry. Everywhere around us was evidence of its resurgence.

In the early evening, we pulled in to La Residence, an exquisitely turned out five-room inn in Franschhoek. Built around a courtyard pool, the house is Mediterranean in inspiration, but its mixed-heritage design is distinctly South African. The rooms have marble baths, French furniture and perfect views of Franschhoek Valley. Drinking Cape Classique (South Africa's answer to méthode champenoise) from nearby Cabrière Estate, we stared at the gorgeous, backlit mountain peaks.

The three holiest words in South Africa's culinary tradition are biltong, sundowner and braai. Respectively, these refer to air-dried meat; a sunset cocktail; and an outdoor barbecue, the preferred form of social communion. Biltong and beef jerky are both salt-cured meat snacks just as Champagne and Schlitz are both refreshing carbonated beverages. But you wouldn't want to say that to a Frenchman or a South African.

To experience a true Afrikaner braai, we drove west to the Atlantic coast to Yzerfontein, a dusty, dinky dorp (Afrikaans for country village). At Strandkombuis restaurant, we found braai central—a complex of BBQ pit, stone ovens and picnic tables set at one end of a magnificent 16-mile beach. Afrikaners traditionally begin every festive meal with bread and jam. With this bread (cooked in one of the wood-burning ovens) and these syrupy jams (fig, apricot, grape), I would too. Next, we had a delicious roasted Cape lobster and snoek, a hot-smoked fish eaten on the doughy bread and jam. Dylan asked for some bokkoms—salted mullets, dried in the sun. From the amused looks at the tables around us, I got the feeling bokkoms might not be a delicacy dear to younger generations of Afrikaners.

In the interest of rounding out my education, Barak and Dylan had signed me up for a class at the Institute of Culinary Arts just outside Stellenbosch. Here I was issued an apron, a glass of home-fermented ginger beer and instruction in the art of the bobotie. A cross between meat loaf and shepherd's pie but with a custardy topping, bobotie is one of South Africa's national dishes, displaying a blend of Dutch and Cape Malay influences. Since this was adult education and not vocational training, I sat back with the beer as a student chef pulled a finished, fragrant bobotie from the oven.

Having soaked in wine and experienced a seaside braai, learned to bake a bobotie and eaten smoked snoek, there was nothing left but to leave the Cape in search of the perfect sundowner. Any South African will agree that the ideal evening cocktail is one enjoyed deep in the African bush after a long day of tracking big game. We flew to Johannesburg, then stopped for a lunch of African breads and more bobotie at Moyo, a cavernous, popular African-themed restaurant.

From Jo'burg we drove five hours to the tip of Kruger National Park, eating biltong all the way. Two hours outside the first game reserve, we came across a baboon standing in a tree. It occurred to me then that I hadn't fully prepared my city-boy self for what was to come: cheetahs and rhinos, delicate sepia-tinted zebras and massive, imbecilic Cape buffalo. Our first camp was Royal Malewane, a beautiful, ritzy place where the elephants sometimes drink out of the suites' private pools. We fell into the rhythm of the typical safari camp—a 5 a.m. rise for a drive, then breakfast, a nap while the big cats slept in the afternoon and then another three-hour drive at night. On one drive we came across a pride of lions devouring what was left of a buck they'd taken down a few hours before. Our day ended in a carnivorous spirit too, with a dinner of barbecued ostrich and kudu (a kind of antelope).

Our finest sundowner came the next day, at the luxurious Ngala Tented Camp, after an afternoon of hide-and-seek with a drowsy leopard. Leopards are notoriously hard to track, and it's rare to see one up close. As the light was fading, our guide heard the warning shouts of monkeys and followed their sound. We found the leopard sitting under a tree; he watched us calmly, yawning to show off his incredible teeth, and then walked to within a foot of our car before sauntering off into grasses too thick and dark for us to follow him. No gin and tonic has ever tasted better than the one that night.

Adam Sachs, a freelance writer based in Manhattan, has been published in GQ and the New York Times Magazine.

Published May 2004
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