South Africa’s oldest wine farm is streaked in gold and sepia,its roses and vine winding up and across hills. Farmhands on tractors chug by and stir around the entrances of centuries-old cellars. Groot Constantia is an estate made for postcard vistas; the culmination of colonial dreams and pastoral adventure.
That, and it’s a bloody good spot for a beer festival.
Last night was the official media launch for the Hop and Vine Festival, a winter beer and wine celebration to be held here on the 20th and 21st of July. More specifically, it will be hosted by Simon’s @ Groot Constantia, a gorgeous bar and restaurant tucked round the back of the estate. Here, media, brewers and other Cape beeries mingled and chatted while the chefs of Simon’s exhibited their food and beer pairing expertise and the various organisers of the festival outlined what attendees can expect.
And what can you expect? Simply put: a beer experience unlike nothing South Africa’s yet seen.
"Beer and wine have long been far apart," said organiser Greg Casey, "but we want to bring them closer. A lot of beer people have never been wine drinkers, and because of that they’ve missed out on a lot. The reverse goes for wine people, although it’s also because we only had lager in this country for a lot of years."
"Really, they’re very similar," he continued, "and this venue presents an opportunity to bring those two worlds together and to celebrate both."
Along with the liquid wares from seven Cape-based breweries (the festival proper will more than double that number), the food was exceptionally good. Highlights included cumin boerekaas and pungent gruyere from Constantia Cheesery, and the lip-smackingly confluent beer-and-food pairings of the chefs at Simon’s, the best of which being the peppery punch of the grilled swordfish, accompanied by Valley Brewery’s London Ale, and the classic pseudo-sophistication of local oysters washed down by Triggerfish Empowered Stout. Salty-sweet goodness.
But do you know what the best bit is? You can experience all of this – the setting, the beer and the food – at the Hop and Vine Festival. With live music and food exhibitors in tow, it’s likely to be the classiest beer experience, in the finest possible surrounds, that you’ll get for a while. (That said, the scheduled reggae band and black IPA from Valley of the Skulls should get things quite appropriately shook up.)
Get your tickets right now from Quicket.
It’s not strictly beer-related, but it should go hand-in-hand: support your local market. Respect for local produce, artisanship and small-batch craft is the foundation of craft beer. Without it, we wouldn’t have amazing things to eat or drink.
Starlings Café, a favourite spot of mine on Belvedere Road in Rondebosch East, has a tiny but useful market in their back garden every Wednesday. I went and bought some inexpensive and delicious angelfish from Ocean Jewels, a SASSI-approved dealer, and browsed through preserves, organic meat, eggs and butter, and a handful of other delicious-looking things (as well as interacting with a lemonade saleswoman who seemed very suspicious of my claims to being a beer writer. Thanks for the sip of lemonade, if you ever read this, suspicious lady.)
It’s not as expensive as you think. It only requires a little effort, but the rewards of browsing at markets, large or small, are endless: they’re inspiring, fun and, hell, you’ll probably even get a good meal out of it.
Selfridges is an urbanite’s food paradise. Under the swarming floors of designer goods, Chanel-toting Japanese women and faux-fur coats is a food hall devoted to oddities and foodie indulgences. A store in which the very forefront of consumer and luxury goods have made their names for 102 years - not to mention the shop floor on which Louis Blériot displayed his Channel-crossing plane after his famous 1909 flight – its food hall is where new brands on the London food scene meet their first popular critical tests. Do well here, and you might just make it.
While you can buy pork crackling crisps, Marmite flavoured dark chocolate and a £15 000 bottle of whiskey, it’s beer selection has seen better days. Although you used to be able to pick up any number of brilliant beers, both local and international, the selection has been pared back a bit, and seems to be mostly geared towards people physically eating in the food hall and not those shopping for ingredients.
But it’s not as if it’s bad: I picked up a couple BrewDogs, a trio of beers from Meantime, a London brewery about whom I will be doing a Tasting Notes post later this week, as well as a house ale brewed in the oldest inhabited house in Scotland called Traqauir. Besides, the sheer amount of niche and specialty products rubbing shoulders with each other in one space can be overawing on your first visit, especially if department stores are a novelty to you.
I’ll be writing about all my purchases later this week, but until then, I hope you find these few photos titillating to your foodie and design senses.
There are few things as nice as walking out of this hundred year-old store with a luminous yellow bag in your sweaty, sweaty grasp.
The Cock House is one of Grahamstown’s best known bed and breakfasts, not only for its country charm and it being Nelson Mandela’s favourite place to stay in town, but also because it has the word “cock” in its name and, well, Grahamstown’s a student town. But looking past its very worthy associations with both Madiba and male appendages, the Cock House is also probably one of the City of Saints’ few culinary pearls.
Once owned by esteemed writer André Brink during the 1970s (and he was just one among a long line of rather illustrious previous owners and benefactors) the Cock House was declared a National Monument in the 1990s while under foreign ownership. Although it’s been subject to many renovations and restorations over the decades - well, more accurately centuries, I suppose - its remains an irresistibly charming example of 19th century settler architecture: all fitted teak, french doors, satisfyingly squeaky floorboards and slathered in beautiful old paintings and photographs. Although I can’t speak much for the bed and breakfast portion of the establishment, it’s by far and away the most beautiful bar and restaurant in Grahamstown.
And it’s probably the best place to eat here, too. Although there are some firm favourites – the steak with Madagascar green peppercorn sauce and pork belly (with some cracking crackling) come to mind – the fashionably small menu (literally only a dozen or so items shared between three courses) changes regularly, offering at least one fish dish and one vegetarian dish. Grahamstown is notorious for bad fish, but the linefish here is always fresh and cooked superbly.
The deserts are where it’s at, though. Over the half-dozen or so times I’ve been to the Cock House, I’ve enjoyed such decadences as dark chocolate and ginger souffle, duo creme brulées and – the best so far – hot apple crumble floating in a pond of the most moreish vanilla custard imaginable.
The beer selection is also the best for miles. In addition to a good range of beers from SAB, the Cock House also stocks three beers from Gilroy’s Brewery in Roodepoort, Gauteng. I generally have all three when I go to dinner here: the Traditional is an Irish Ruby Ale, which is delightfully soft-bodied and laced with sour fruit; the Favourite is an amber, fruity and almost biscuity Pale Ale; and the Serious is a superbly satisfying Strong Ale with a whack of acidity, roasted malt and light nuttiness. All three are delicious and complement the produce of the Cock House’s kitchen perfectly. For this part of the Eastern Cape, it’s a remarkably refreshing thing. It almost makes you feel like you’re not in this old pokey university town.
But, you know, it’s still Grahamstown outside, and there’s no escaping that. Thankfully, the Cock House remains unpretentious, warm, genial and relatively unrefined, which is the way it should be around here. Grahamstown is full of places that strive to be big city-style institutions, but there’s no use pretending. And that’s why the Cock House is perfect the way it is: it retains a perfect balance of kitsch, homeliness and just a touch of modernity.
And the good beer list helps, too.
The Cock House
10 Market Street, Grahamstown