Visiting South Africa from the UK has always been odd, like stepping into an alternate reality. As a part-South African child visiting the country of his father’s birth, I was always tickled by the uncanny stuff, like being offered a cooldrink at mealtimes and ordering a Tab or a rock shandy or maybe even a post-prandial Dom Pedro (three unimpeachably perfect beverages, by the way). But in 2018, to visit South Africa from a London replete with charred brassicas is to realise how much our attitude has changed to meat. In this regard, it’s more like stepping into a time machine – one that takes you back to a bad old UK, a UK dependent on prime cuts for its proteins and steak for its signifiers.
After more than a couple of days you may find yourself bingeing soft fruits and leafy greens, or wishing you could
This is a country where meat is both way of life and pastime – where a beer without biltong and a braai without thick coils of boerewors are scarcely worth having in the first place. It’s good meat, for sure. And unsurprisingly they know how to cook it well. It’s just that there’s a lot of it. Bacon and beef sausage at breakfast, steak and kidney or curry mince stuffed into pies and boboties, Chalmar sirloins and fillets and ribeyes served practical-joke rare with the merest wisp of side-garnish. Vast portion sizes, too – perhaps a legacy of hardy Dutch Voortrekker / smallholder days, perhaps a symptom of a US-inspired maximalism conflating quantity and value. A popular local steak chain, Spur, used to advertise its gargantuan meals with a picture of the giant Springbok forward of the day and the simple tagline “COME HUNGRY”. Do, and you won’t be disappointed (or dissatisfied). But after more than a couple of days you may find yourself bingeing soft fruits and leafy greens, or wishing you could.
And lo! Here is Babylonstoren, the closest thing to an honest-to-goodness literal oasis most of us will encounter in our lives. Equal parts 18th century farm and zillionaire’s pet project, it’s like very few other places on earth, Dan Barber’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns erected by fiat and chequebook in a matter of years on a sprawling wineland plot less than an hour from Cape Town. Already they grow almost every fruit and vegetable under the sun on their own soil; the goal is to be entirely self-sufficient within the next few years.
And at the heart of it is Babel, a restaurant whose name suggests a confusing barrage of idioms and ideas but which boasts instead the simplest of farm-to-fork mission statements: “we like to serve food that is seasonal and that reflects our ‘pick, clean and serve’ approach”.
They do this in an admittedly stunning space, part of a wider setting that is basically paradise. A stroll through the gardens – finally vacated by the hordes of daytrippers – and a glass of the estate’s own Chardonnay taken as the sun sets over the lilyponds is about as perfect as aperitifs get; the dining room itself, all whitewash and glass, speaks with quiet confidence.
The first intimation that this confidence is misplaced might be the very Blue Hill style rack of fresh fruit that acts as an aperitif, and the thumbprint-sized discolouration of inedibly bruised flesh that mars a slice of plum. This is perhaps quibbling. Much harder to forgive is the composition of the two salads, named according to their predominant colour palette: yellow and green. Yellow is certainly that: yellow courgette, golden-yellow beetroot, orange-yellow carrot, yellow-yellow carrot, yellow tomato, plus yellowy pineapple, Cape gooseberry, melon, and squid in a batter turmeric-stained (you guessed it) yellow. Visually, it’s gorgeous, though – as the garnish of atrociously bitter marigold blossom reinforces – it is clear much more thought has gone into how it looks than how it eats. The component parts are a dutiful slog on their own, and not much better together; a semblance of coherence is provided by a vinaigrette hidden at the bottom of the pile (and presumably not used to dress it for fear of spoiling appearances). Green has the same issues, although at least the house-made fior di latte tastes as good as it looks.
These salads are also vast – so chock-full of vegetal goodness rich in water content that the prospect of a South African-sized main course occasions actual, sweaty-browed panic. But it indeed comes to pass: a vast cake of stodgy “risotto” on one side of the table, a hefty chunk of red meat on the other, with multiple ancillary side-veggies (beetroot, potatoes, kimchi, carrots) dotted haphazardly in the middle.
It’s a lot, in every sense of it’s-a-lot-ness: too much for us to eat, sure, but also too much in other ways, too. Too many ingredients to treat them with the requisite care (both carrot and beetroot slices are curled and discoloured at the edges). Too many ingredients to compose dishes with real wit and panache and poignancy; too many of the same textures and flavours to create any sort of pleasurable contrast. And perhaps too much, too soon – a restaurant running before it can walk, and perhaps doing itself harm in the process.
There is a small, sad irony in the fact that everywhere else in South Africa we have eaten superb, rich avocados – and that they are nowhere to be seen here. The winelands in particular are blessed with a perfect climate for growing a great many delicious things but there’s no point in growing stuff just because you can – exceptional food means being attuned to what really works and thrives in your landscape. Given its dependency on meat, South Africa definitely needs somewhere that illustrates the beauty and complexity of food that isn’t animal flesh, but just ripping this stuff up and putting it on a plate isn’t enough – it’s got to be grown and served with an attention to detail that makes people sit up and take notice.
A few days before Babel, we went to Rust en Vrede, a ludicrously picturesque wine estate nearby in Stellenbosch. The menu was elementally simple: steak, chips, salad and a glass of Shiraz, or salmon, asparagus, new potatoes and a glass of Chenin Blanc. It was, by some distance, one of the nicest lunches I’ve had in my life – just perfect, the sort of thing that makes you giggle at how uncomplicated good food can be sometimes. But it wasn’t perfect because it was a classic pairing, or because I was eating a great hunk of meat (again). It was perfect because the kitchen knew what it wanted to do, and executed it immaculately. Throwing money at the Babylonstoren project is only part of what will make Babel exceptional. The truly hard work is still to come. C
Babylonstoren, Klapmuts Simondium Road, Simondium, 7670, South Africa
+27 21 863 3852; babylonstoren.com