When people gather together in South Africa, the defining meal is a braai – essentially a barbecue. Meat is at the forefront of most meals although, despite having seen thousands of ostriches, I haven’t noticed much ostrich meat, either in supermarkets or on restaurant menus.
Many chefs, especially from Britain and Australia, have moved here where, once the gruelling visa applications have been satisfied, it is much easier and much cheaper to open a restaurant. All this talent is reflected in menus everywhere which bear a definite resemblance to those of contemporary restaurants in the US. Many star chefs make an appearance such as Gordon Ramsay and Nobu Matsuhisa, mainly for the delight of the international crowd.
I had many lovely meals and the common denominator among all the establishments around Cape Town and the surrounding areas we visited is the cleanliness of design. Whether having breakfast in a cafe or dinner at a nice restaurant, the decor is invariably flawless, simple and inviting with many of the indigenous raw material present. There is not a room where I haven’t felt at ease and I wished many a restaurateur from our shores would take these cues – pleasantly uncluttered spaces and acceptable noise levels. Bright colours mix with wood and bamboo, decorative African elements paired with clean lines reminiscent of contemporary London. It’s been a delight for the eyes and the senses.
In a couple of restaurants, the kitchens clearly where trying too hard and ended up with messy dishes that felt like a hybrid between some experimental uninspired chef and second-rate food magazines. But, mostly, it has been good. No, great. Like the open face chicken sandwich, with the chicken strips perfectly pan-fried and dusted with paprika, the mushrooms sweated with herbs to bring out the flavour and a sturdy rye bread to sustain the greens. The tuna salad at a chain of upscale bakeries was simply adorned with olive tapenade and shone in the homemade, slightly sweet dressing. The butterfish eaten at a pub in Nature’s Valley was so spectacularly tender, with a crunchy crust that it didn’t matter the vegetables were boringly steamed.
The snack of choice is biltong, strips of dried beef sold everywhere in small packs, that can be hard and leathery or slightly moist on the inside, depending on the area where it’s made. What will definitely be in my suitcase are the rolls of pressed dried fruit that unfurl, all sticky in your hands, and make for the best plane snack ever. And if I lick my fingers, I can skip the trip down the aisle to wash my hands in the crammed toilets..