With the sun shining brightly and temperatures here in South Africa hovering in the 80’s, Rich and I are feeling incredibly lucky – especially as we read about the snow and frigid temperatures at home. We know we should feel embarrassed for our good fortune – and yet we also know that sometimes sharing it might bring you a bit of pleasure as well. So here goes.
This week we started reaching out beyond our initial contacts. Much of the time was spent on the computer, emailing grove owners, and occasionally calling people. We focused on farmers in nearby Franschhoeck, where we will be next week, and Australia, where we might be mid May if we can work it out. So, with our sights both near and far, we moved back and forth between real and virtual meetings all week long.
Our week’s work might be characterized by three very different “working” lunches. We’ll invite you to share them with us!
Early in the week, we were invited to have a science meeting lunch with Dr. Michael Schmeisser, our dynamic and generous host in the horticultural department at Stellenbosch. He suggested we go to Gino’s – a rustic place, well loved by the locals. We had driven past this gem several times, but never seen it – the simple sign on the main street just said “Gino’s” – nothing else. No restaurant or parking lot is visible from the road, you duck into a driveway and are ushered back behind a few buildings and — there it is! I doubt any tourist would ever be able to find it. Michael was greeted like a lost son and before we opened our menus, three pints of draught beer sere slapped down in front of us. “I’m German! It’s lunchtime!” Michael said in his own defense. Of course, we decided when in Rome …… so we toasted our good fortune and drank up. Soon, we each had delicious pizzas served up with a side bowl of chopped garlic and a bottle of fresh chopped chili peppers in oil to go with our pints and conversation. We talked about the needs Rich and I had for our experiments, how best to get trained and where to get access to the equipment. We heard about other Michael’s other projects and the joys and challenges of working with the students at Stellenbosch. By Friday, both of us had contacts with the instrument people and are getting closer to starting experiments in the lab.
On Thursday, we were invited to share a “lunch” with olive grove owners Birgitta and Arend Hofmeyr of Portion 36 in Stellenbosch. Arend is the retired engineer whom we had met at a local slow food market and his wife Birgitta is chef, educator, artist, and entrepreneurial partner. Our lunch lasted almost seven hours – something only possible when there is a delicious compatibility of food and conversation. Our far flung discussions ranged from irrigation systems for the grove, picking and pressing strategies, the use of plastic barrels with oak staves in wine production, and the Truth and Reconciliation Act that was part of the end of apartheid in South Africa in 1994. As wonderful as the conversation was, it was the incredible food prepared by Birgitta that was the star of the day. She chose to highlight the different olive oils produced on the estate in each course. We started with a creamy butternut soup with a fruity olive oil and a pickled kalamata olive/parsley garnish. We could have stopped there and I would have been happy. But we went on to a lovely green salad, a hearty potato salad, braised fresh garden vegetables and a selection of braai meats (boerwurst and lamb chops marinated in olive oil), and finally a dessert trio that was sublime. This dessert included home made vanilla ice cream, lovely light sweet praline-like cookies, and catawba grapes picked 20 minutes before we ate them. Most remarkably, the ice cream and cookie used only olive oil for the fat content – no cream and not even whole milk. Man that was hard work.
On Friday, we made a temporary move to Franschhoek, the next valley over from Stellenbosch. Like Stellenbosch, Franschhoek is better known for its wines, and most (but not all) olive growers also make wine. Our plan is to visit several olive farms whose oils have won awards or whose owners came highly recommended to us. We expect next week’s post will focus on Franschhoeck, but let me finish by reporting on our first grove visit – to Rupert and Rothschild Vignerons. Busy with their grape harvest, we hoped just to explore the grounds for ourselves, talk with anyone who might be interested about the olive oils, and while we were there, taste some wines. We decided to opt for a food and wine pairing (3 wines matched with a dish for each) and were just blown away by the quality of both. Our 2012 Chardonnay (Baroness de Rotschild) was matched with a small piece of hake filet nestled in a tiny bed of gnocchi with a pea velouté (heavenly), next was a 2012 Classique red (cabernet and merlot) paired with a cube of pork belly with squash foam and braised fennel (delicious!), and our final wine was a special 2011 Baron de Rothschild (mix of 45% cabernet, 50% merlot and 5% cabernet frank) paired with a grass fed beef filet with a root vegetable crème, glazed pearl onions and fried shallot strips (snapped our taste buds into attention!). The price tag?????? 135 R or about $12.00 each. We felt we were almost stealing the food so we left a big tip and bought two bottles to bring home. It was really hard digesting all the foods and thinking up olive questions to ask our waiter, but someone’s gotta do it.
Hopefully, we’ve wetted your appetite for a trip to the tip of Africa. We are hoping our good fortune does not result in a gain of 20 pounds. Once we get back to Stellenbosch and we’re in our own kitchen, we’ve been thinking about starting the Banting diet together. More on that another time.
Meanwhile, enjoy our photo of the week, taken less than a mile from our home in Stellenbosch.