Master chef: Reuben Riffel is one of the champions of better local ingredients, which are behind the top quality of South Africa's cuisine
It used to be the case that the European and American press syndicated “lifestyle” stories to South Africa, but browse a magazine stall now and it is clear this country is overflowing with local talent.
The Western Cape – and Cape Town in particular – is home to a number of these homegrown tastemakers. Here are the best of them, all with initiatives either in Cape Town or within an hour’s drive of the city.
Karen Roos, former editor of South Africa’s Elle Decoration magazine, exchanged one tastemaker’s role for a slower-paced alternative when she quit publishing to open Babylonstoren, a hotel on a working farm in the Drankenstein Valley, not far from Franschhoek and an hour’s drive from Cape Town.
Flocks of geese amble across the lawns, chickens scratch in the yard, and there are also productive vineyards and an eight-acre fruit and vegetable garden, all of which speak to the rural childhood of Roos’s husband, Koos Bekker, the South African media owner.
Soft-spoken Roos is petite, wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat that makes her seem a picture of understated style. This belies the rigorous modernity of her approach to interiors. On entering the manor house, one might expect an exercise in historic restoration. Dating from 1690, this werf (Cape Dutch farmyard) is one of the best preserved of its kind. Yet instead of the region’s familiar country house aesthetic, one is faced with raw, stripped-back walls combined with standout modern pieces by the likes of Philippe Starck, the flamboyant French designer, mixed in with one or two exquisite period antiques, etchings and, in the kitchen, serried ranks of copper pans.
The main house is where the owner’s family stays; when they are not in residence, others can take over the five-bedroom manor.
In addition, there are 12 standalone suites – whitewashed cottages with wood fires and Scandinavian-pale interiors, five of them with modern glass-box kitchen extensions. They look out over the walled garden, its prickly-pear maze, guava avenue and citrus orchard.
While the garden is very beautiful, designed by Frenchman Patrice Taravella, the point is that everything is edible, from thyme lawns to the rows of colourful vegetables. This seasonal produce can be harvested freely by guests, if they want to cook for themselves. The rest of the bounty finds its way into Babel, the restaurant presided over by Maranda Engelbrecht. And while many a hotel keeps it own kitchen garden, Babylonstoren is more total in its vision, thus giving the farm-to-table trend even greater momentum.
To my mind, it is a cycle of sustainability that inspires and allows guests to be engaged, and it is this that makes Roos a maverick in her trade – along with the old farm silo converted into the most original of infinity pools.
South Africa’s homegrown cuisine has been finding the courage of its convictions in recent years, largely driven by better local ingredients, according to Franschhoek-born chef, Reuben Riffel. Brought up in relatively humble circumstances, 36-year-old Riffel argues that simplicity is the key to ensuring great food does not lose the identity of its ingredients.
When I meet him at his latest restaurant – Reuben’s at the One&Only Cape Town – he is extolling the virtues of an enterprising South African buffalo farmer who has finally put an end to the less-than-fresh imports Riffel relied on in the past. I listen to him describe cheese perfection, but in truth I am rather more interested in the fact that One&Only, a huge South African company with resorts all over the world, has put a native son in the kitchen. Indeed, when Riffel arrived in November 2010 it was to replace the Maze restaurant of Gordon Ramsay, the UK celebrity chef.
Cape cuisine is playing a high game. Conspicuous among the chefs are Bertus Basson and Craig Cormack at Overture, close to Stellenbosch, and David Higgs at nearby Rust en Vrede (who recently moved on to a new venture in Johannesburg).
At The Tasting Room at Le Quartier Français in Franschhoek, chef Margot Janse continues to impress, using a range of local ingredients from Cape kingklip to abalone and springbok.
But of all these gastronomic tastemakers, Riffel maintains a certain edge without losing the relaxed, bistro style of his original venture: his award-winning restaurant in the gastronomic centre of Franschhoek, which first opened in 2004 and has since been joined by a deli next door. What is attractive about Riffel’s cooking, and what makes it stand out, are the full flavours combined with a genuine lack of pretension. “Above all, I want to avoid anything intimidating,” he explains.
With exotic ingredients to hand, the palette is always surprised by the likes of ostrich fillet – a moist, gamey cut – served with polenta, stewed tomato compote, butternut and pinotage sauce; or peppered venison (warthog loin) with celeriac honey creme, spaetzle and roasted walnut crunch.
Riffel twists snoek (pronounced “snook”), a fish in the perch family from South Africa’s temperate waters, into an original dish by combining it in a double-baked cauliflower soufflé with Dijon mustard and apricot emulsion. Indeed, if you only eat snoek once in your life, then Riffel’s version is the one to try.
Hanneli Rupert, born in Cape Town, owns one of the most exquisite shops in Africa, Merchants on Long, occupying a double-storey Art Nouveau building in the Mother City’s downtown area.
Taking inspiration from concept stores such as London’s Dover Street Market by Rei Kawakubo, Comme des Garçons’ designer, and 10 Corso Como in Milan by Carla Sozzani, this is the mini version of the multibrand shopping experience. Everything is by African designers or sourced from Africa, from fashion to one-off homewares.
“I wanted to bring all the great African brands under one roof,” says Rupert. All the products have a strong community-focused, ethical bent. Aged 26, she should know what she is doing in retail – she is the daughter of Johann Rupert, chief executive of Richemont, the company behind brands including Cartier and Montblanc.
The curation of the range is where Rupert shows her talent. The ever-changing mix, sourced from Addis Ababa to Swaziland, includes jewellery, bags and bikinis, all of which look just as right on the sands of Camps Bay as they would on Miami’s South Beach.
Bright bowls woven from old telephone wire are among the more affordable homewares. More expensive are Rupert’s own designs sold under the Okapi label, featuring springbok handbags displayed in exquisite pistachio-coloured, leather-backed glass boxes.
Of particular note among the take-home gifts under £100 are the compact scents by Frazer Parfum. South African nose Tammy Frazer has created nine “chapters” – number seven is among the bestsellers, featuring rose and tuberose – available in solid form in elegant black wood vessels.
Contemporary jewellery by Kirsten Goss – handmade with silver and gold plating and semi-precious stones – is relatively new to the store, but the long dangly earrings are flying out the door.
Rupert is not simply interested in sales; she opened the store with the hope that it could become a destination that prompt new ideas about Africa and fair trade. Hence the inclusion of a small coffee bar, and the design of the store that allows for the easy replacement of product displays with a podium for live talks.
While still in its early stages, Rupert is not just interested in clothes and baubles, but also in exploring the notion of “retail activism” infused with Cape Town style.