South Africa is like candy store filled to the brim with tempting treats for tourists and locals alike. As a visitor, you need to decide which experiences seem most appealing. There’s just so much do to that even the most discerning traveller is spoilt for choice.
I slow down a little so that my friend and I can savor the picture-perfect Stellenbosch landscape as it glides past the car’s windows. The tour guides are not wrong: you can’t have everything.
Without trying to sound like a self-appointed Willy Wonka, if I were you and needed to choose only one truly unforgettable South African experience, a traditional braai wins, hands down. ‘Braai’ – Afrikaans for ‘grill’ – is serious business here. There’s art to a good braai, and we’ve perfected outdoor cooking over hot coals through many generations around campfires in the bush, in our back gardens and on our beaches – basically anywhere we can light a fire.
Under no circumstances should a braai ever be confused for a barbecue or grill. You’re not inviting over the neighbours to flip a few burgers. Beware cheap imitations! They abound. The real deal is found here in South African homes and vacation spots, and a few very special places have it perfectly mastered.
“Special places like this…” I say to my friend as we turn into the Middelvlei Wine Estate in Devon Valley, which unfolds like a story book memorized for millennia by the slopes of the surrounding Papegaaiberg.
Middelvlei has been in the nurturing hands of the Momberg family since 1919. Today, brothers Tinnie and Ben continue to uphold nearly a century’s tradition of wine making here. They are known in particular for their Freerun Pinotage, made from the unpressed juice of South Africa’s unique cultivar (a Pinot noir/Cinsault hybrid), and are the only producers of Pinotage to use this method.
Ben’s wife Jeanneret is in charge of marketing and the farm’s kitchen. “If someone is visiting South Africa and they don’t have friends or family here, they miss out on the true South Africa braai experience,” she says. “So we started it, never expecting we’d be as popular with the locals as with visitors from abroad!”
Ben joins our table. His open face beams with sincerity and a mischievous smile hinting at a secret joke or a tease on the tip of his tongue. “The menu is our regular family Sunday lunch, apart from the pampoenkoekies (pumpkin fritters). Jeanneret is too lazy to make them for me on a Sunday,” he says with a naughty wink as she smiles in return. “But we added them here. It’s my grandmother, Ouma Annie’s recipe. She was the wife of the first owner of Middelvlei.”
I sip at my Pinotage, hoping our hosts won’t notice how badly I want to get at the pampoenkoekies before the rest of the food arrives, but I think Jeanneret had me figured out and she quickly ushered me into her farm kitchen. “There are some restaurant braai experiences in South Africa, but I think we’re the only typical home braai experience in the country.”
It’s a home kitchen. No sterile stainless steel units on casors with white plates stacked under a salamander. It’s easy to see why people who come here feel more like guests than clients. She hands me a pampoenkoekie from the hot oven. “People arrive here as clients and leave as new friends… that makes it awkward to let them pay!”
Back at the table in the garden I watch children run from one end of the sprawling lawn to the other, as far as Middelvlei Dam. It’s like an overdue reunion of a huge family that has grown over the years – you know, those ones where distant cousins meet for the first time and an old lady remembers when you were ‘just this tall’. I’m so lost in thought that I don’t notice other guests moving in to sit next to me. “I’ve put you guys on the same team.” says Ben,
“Hope you don’t mind.”
“For the wine blending competition!”
“Ehm. I know a lot about wine. But only the drinking part. Perhaps I should sit this one out – blending competitively seems a bit daunting.”
“Dont be silly,” Jeanneret exclaims. “Drinking is the most important part of winemaking!”
“In front of you are blending components of three single varietals, Pinotage, Merlot and Shiraz. To make it more interesting we also gave you grape concentrate to sweeten the wine to your liking and wood concentrate to add special complexity to your blend.” Ben is smiling at everyone. I’m convinced I’m the only person that looks worried. “The challenge is to make the best possible blend with the components available and afterwards be able to identify your own blend – blindfolded.”
It was the most fun I’d had in years. And it turns out I happen to be just as good at blending a good wine as I am with a braai.
As the table in front of us is set with all the familiar South African braai favorites – lamb loin chops, boerewors (farm sausage), chicken sosaties (skewers) and the obligatory trimmings – braaibroodjies (a braai isn’t a braai without these typical braai sandwiches with tomato, onion and cheese), salad, corn on the cob and of course those pampoenkoekies, I nudge my friend knowingly… “Like I said – you should always, always opt for a braai.”