Franschhoek (or, An Edible Safari in the French Corner)

They say that Tolkien was inspired by his homeland of South Africa when he wrote The Lord of the Rings. How could he not be? We drove through dramatic mountain scenery in lush greens on our way from Knysna to The Cape Winelands.

Are we in New Zealand?

Are we in New Zealand?

looking back towards George on the coast

looking back towards George on the coast

Before getting too far down the road, we stopped in George for brunch with friend & coworker Peter, his wife Mechelle and their son. We met at Mugg & Bean, a cute South African chain where I was happy to find “red cappuccino” on the menu—espresso and milk combined with Rooibus tea, a redbush leaf unique to South Africa. Peter’s son cut his meal short to escort me to a doctor’s office across town before they closed for lunch, where I could get a yellow fever shot and the paperwork necessary to get me back across an international border. The doctor heard my story and asked if I’d like him to just fill out the paperwork, without the shot. A nice offer! I considered it, but in the end decided it didn’t seem right. I got my first shot in 2005, when I worked in South America, and even though it was good for another 4 years, he said it wouldn’t hurt to get another one. (I think he met metaphorically.) So one sore arm and $86 later, I walk out with a new yellow card and a clear conscience.

After visiting with Peter’s family a little longer at their home in George, we hit the road, but not before Peter drove us out to the edge of town to make sure we didn’t get lost. So sweet, these guys! From Josée & Larry to Peter & his family, and everyone else we knew or met along the way, South Africans (even the displaced Ontarians and Americans) are one friendly bunch of folks.

Part of our drive followed the Garden Route, a 130-mile coastal stretch east of Cape Town known for its beauty, especially during the spring months when all the flowers are in bloom. (Though here in May, it is late fall.) We’ll be back along the coast in a few days. Today our route is taking us inland. Heading north to Oudtshoorn and west from there, we spotted ostrich farms, wineries, more dramatic mountains that this time reminded us of Arizona.

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Passing these farms, I had visions of getting out for an ostrich ride like Samantha Brown did when she visited South Africa. Then I had visions of breaking my neck. Or coccyx. Anyway, lucky for me (and the ostrich) we had to keep moving.

Just before dusk we approached the valley of Franschhoek from above. Such an inviting view!

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We zigzagged down the valley and quickly found our boutique hotel for the next three nights, Akademie Street. Beautiful! We had a little cottage with the beguiling and unpronounceable name of Vreugde all to ourselves. Lush gardens, our own pool, the place even came with a friendly black lab. We were impressed to find a small selection of beer, wine and champagne in the room as well as juice and water, all at no extra charge. To us, that’s the ultimate in hospitality. No nickel-and-diming.

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The good people at Akademie Street were super helpful and friendly, and the breakfasts divine, each one starting with a fruit platter that was fit for royalty. Besides the usual suspects like apples, pears, plums, grapefruit and every kind of berry under the sun, there were also kiwis, dragon fruit, star fruit, papaya, passion fruit, cape gooseberry. So many fruits I couldn’t name them all. I regret not capturing a photo of one of these platters, we must have dug in too quickly each time.

As if we hadn’t ingested enough antioxidants with breakfast, we also went out during the day to do what we came to Franschhoek to do: wine tasting! We visited Boekenhoutskloof (tip: if you come across a bottle called The Chocolate Block, buy it), Chamonix, and Graham Beck… followed by a euphoric tipsy high where everything we pointed our cameras at looked like the *most*amazing*something-or-other to us. Good thing someone else was driving.

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Another morning, we decided to detox and visit the monuments around town. Franschhoek was originally settled by Huguenot refugees from France, and still retains many of their French influences. It’s one of the oldest towns in the Republic of South Africa, dating from 1688.

Huguenot Monument

Huguenot Monument

after darkness, light

after darkness, light

In keeping with their French traditions… Franschhoek is also a food-lover’s paradise. There’s something like 40 restaurants or sidewalk cafes inside this small town, most of them within walking distance of our B&B. The biggest surprise was discovering that one of the world’s top 50 restaurants, and the only one in Africa, was right there in Franschhoek. We made a beeline. It’s called The Tasting Room inside Le Quartier Français. We each had the 9-course “African-inspired surprise tasting menu,” with the wine pairings, of course. Holy smokes. (And there literally was smoke involved, both for taste and presentation, in a couple of the dishes.) Since then I’ve heard the Dutch-born chef’s name, Margot Janse, mentioned over and over as one of the finest. To my foodie friends, and you know who you are… this restaurant is worth the airline ticket over here. Get on it.

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There were even little surprise amuse-bouches served in between the courses listed above! The only bummer about a tasting menu like this? It was so complex, so overwhelming, and served with so much wine (!) that now—almost three years later—I cannot recollect much except that everything was delicious. And so, the only solution is to plan another trip. See you there!

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