Sunday, October 04, 2009

Return to the Cape, Day 5, Elgin Valley

After another great breakfast we headed out over the pass again toward Franschhoek, dropping off two of our inn’s colored workers (trust me, horrible as it sounds to an American ear, this is a perfectly acceptable and correct phrase) in town along the way. The drive was once again stunning, with the views of the mountain in full wildflower bloom coming one after the other in languid succession, and each more beautiful than the last. We were surprised to see dozens of people biking along this very mountainous road, which gave us the idea to try to attract mountain bikers to Porcupine Hill, perhaps driving them out to the Franschhoek side so they could then bike back to our place. Could be a good business.

Once in Franschhoek we headed to the Franschhoek Health Center to check out the fitness options here. This place is much nicer than the facility in Hermanus that we visited a few days ago, with nicer machines, towels provided, and a more pleasant atmosphere. When we arrived, the girl at the reception desk said that Mario (one of the two guys whom we saw last night) had been by earlier and told her we might be coming around, so she let us right in without a hitch.

After our workout we began to hit the wineries, starting out with Graham Beck toward the far end of town. Graham Beck’s sparkling wines are remarkable for the fact that they were served at Nelson Mandela’s inauguration in 1994, and also at Barack Obama’s this year (and it’s a rather sore point that Jacob Zuma did not serve it at his inauguration, preferring to serve French champagne, for which he earns much scorn from the Franschhoek vintners). We did not care for it enough to want to buy any, but we did like their syrah very much and their muscadel dessert wine, so three of those are in our box to go back to Beijing. We also stopped at L’Ormarins, a very old winery not far from Graham Beck where they are now trying to grow Italian grape varieties like Sangiovese and Pinot Grigio. The wines were OK, but nothing really special to our tastes, and the nuisance factor was significant--to get to the tasting area you first have to park your car at the main entrance and then take a little shuttle bus sort of like those that they use at Disney to take you from the parking to the gates. This means you have to wait for the shuttle to return to your car after your tasting, which seems to take forever.

By this point we were hungry (and a bit tipsy) so we headed to Grand Provence for lunch at their restaurant, as recommended by our host Michael over breakfast. Just as he told us, the meal was exceptional, with very creative dishes and an almost whimsical approach (their menu is not divided into starters, mains, desserts, etc, and they encourage to eat the three, four or five courses that you select in any order you like). My “starter” of seared scallop and roast quail was extremely tasty and beautifully presented, as was my “main” course of braised lamb neck with roast baby vegetables. And my “dessert” of a traditional cheese selection included several very nice and contrasting cheeses. J2 meanwhile had a terrine of game meats for a starter that was just delicious, and a dish of roast blesbok with springbok sauce that we both liked a lot. Unfortunately his coconut sorbet dessert was a let down.

We had originally thought we’d continue our wine tasting after lunch, but we were both finding ourselves rather sleepy and on the verge of having too much alcohol, so we instead decided to return over to “our” side of the pass to check out the town of Villiersdorp, which is the next town to the north of Porcupine Hill, the town of Grabouw, which is the south-east of PH, and the surrounding areas. Villiersdorp is a basic little town with a main street of shops and a few dining establishments, most of which did not appeal to us. I stopped into the local outlet of the Spar grocery chain to see whether they would have things I would need on a regular basis (yes, for the most part) and into a Chinese-run “bodega” (at least that’s what I’d have called it if it were in NYC) to see if they had any Chinese groceries. Since none was initially visible, I decided to blow the owners’ minds by asking them in Chinese about the availability of Chinese produce. I tried first in English with one of the kids working in the back, but he clearly spoke no English, so I switched to Chinese, which took him a second to realize was a language he also understands. Unfortunately, he’s not very smart, so he told me to talk to the boss up front. There were two Chinese people up front, though, so I could not tell who was the boss, so I asked, in Chinese, “who’s the boss?” which again took them some time to process. Eventually the woman said it was she and I asked whether she has tofu, Sichuan peppers, etc for sale. Turns out that they buy all their Chinese goods in Cape Town’s Chinatown, which we plan to visit on Monday. But when I told her we might move to the area she got very excited, since she said I could help them learn English. Perhaps another business opportunity.

We also stopped in at the Theewaterskloof Golf Club, which is on the shores of the Theewaterskloof Dam (aka reservoir) which figures prominently in the local topography. The club is very nice, and includes an expensive-looking housing community, but the clubs’ services are only available to residents, other than golf, which is of no interest to us. Maybe our guests would be interested in it, though.

Grabouw is a much more promising town for our purposes than Villiersdorp. It’s got a SuperSpar to start with, with much more selection and nicer ambience than Villiersdorp’s Spar, and a little shopping mall with a cafe, pizza parlor, bike shop, etc, as well as Nicole’s real estate agency. There’s also a nice farm stand that we later learned is quite a destination in its own right, and a country store that has been a fixture on the Cape Town to Hermanus route for decades.

After our little excursion we returned to our inn to play with the dogs and have a rest before dinner. Around 6pm or so, Michael and Liz started to work on dinner, so we went into the main house to chat with them and enjoy a glass of wine or two. Michael is quite the amateur chef, with a collection of cookbooks that rivals my own. He also subscribes to the New Zealand cooking magazine Cuisine, of which several copies were lying around. It’s a very nice magazine, nicer than most of the US cooking magazines, and our dinner, a pork and spinach paella, was to come from a recent issue. Liz is also an amateur chef, and we learned that she often caters the weddings that take place at their inn. (She told us that the chef Jamie Oliver and Sir Richard Branson were recently guests at a wedding she catered.) I peppered her with questions about how you go from being a home chef to a caterer, and she happily offered her assistance to get me off the ground doing the same sort of thing, since she believes it’s all about organization and planning, the cooking needs no formal training, so I should be in good shape. Another business plan develops.

Nicole, Liz’s son Andrew and Andrew’s girlfriend joined us for dinner, which was a raucous affair. The food and wine were excellent, and the conversation was tremendous. Mike and Liz are wonderful people, and I imagine we’d see as much of them as we can when we become fixtures in the community. Nicole brought along a 1987 bottle of dessert wine that she was given in 1987, and while it had gone a bit flat and lost some of its edge, it was a lovely gesture, and went pretty well with the dessert Liz had made, a hazelnut meringue roll with apricot and cream filling. Truly exquisite.