Visit any one of the great wine regions in the world and you’ll usually find stunning food to accompany those varietals. Wine and great food are inextricably intertwined, the two dependent on each other to help balance flavors, smells and the overall experience. Stellenbosch, one of the premier wine regions in South Africa, is no exception and during my visit to this beautiful area I enjoyed many meals and many different styles of culinary expertise. Some of my favorite food experiences though fall into a few distinct categories.
If it’s creative and delicious food served in an atmosphere of quiet elegance, you are spoiled for choice in Stellenbosch. Many of the wine estates have cafes or full restaurants on site, pairing their famous wines with expertly crafted cuisine. While many fine dining experiences were enjoyable, two in particular stand out for me personally.
Perched on a cliff high above the surrounding valley is , the modern foodie showcase for Waterfloof Wines. Enclosed by a wall of glass, the views are worth the trip alone, but so is the culinary magic that Chef Gregory Czarnecki creates in his open kitchen. A world traveler at heart, Chef Czarnecki uses his experience with foreign cultures to create a fine but not pretentious dining experience. Over the course of a long lunch my friends and I enjoyed around 8 courses or so, each seemingly more amazing than the ones previous. While most guests opt for a more manageable meal, everything is prepared with care and attention to detail; and of course with the succulent Waterkloof wines in mind.
Another stand out wine estate in terms of food is with its fine dining restaurant led by the Zen master of South Africa cuisine, Chef Richard Carstens. Just like Waterkloof, the views are amazing; this time of vineyards and mountains instead of valleys and the sea. Known as South Africa’s greatest proponent of molecular gastronomy, Chef Carstens prefers not to be pigeonholed, saying his style is always changing and evolving. The food lived up to the chef’s vaunted reputation, from delicate starters to a mushroom encrusted steak that had us begging for more. Again, the rich combination of views, great food and amazing wines makes this one of the top dining experiences in the region.
While I enjoy the expertise required to craft an amazing fine dining experience, my travel heart lies with locally prepared comfort foods. Every region in the world has their version of foods that speak to the soul, whether it’s BBQ in the U.S. or mango and sticky rice in Southeast Asia, the experiences are important to really understand the local culture. That is of course also true in South Africa and in Stellenbosch I expanded my South African comfort food vocabulary with a few delicious meals.
Snacks in South African are plentiful and in the winelands these tasty nibbles are naturally elevated, but only slightly. If the country has a national snack food, it has to be biltong. A cured meat that we Americans might liken to jerky, but which is actually in a category all of its own. At the , wine pros match this traditional snack along some of their lighter varietals, like the crisp Sauvingon Blanc. The folks who manage the on their estate combine cured meats along with locally made cheeses and jams for the perfect Stellenbosch charcuterie plate to accompany their tasty wines and fabulous views of the surrounding valleys.
Comfort food is more than snack food though, it’s also the rich and hearty meals found around Stellenbosch. There’s nothing better than a traditional South African braai, a meal every visitor must be exposed to at least once. More than just an African version of grilling, it’s about the companionship as well. Sure, there are roasting meats on the open grill, along with sides and other delicious morsels, but a proper braai is also teeming with friends and family creating a social event.
Local Food Experiences
One of my favorite travel experiences is to learn as much as I can about local food cultures, either through a tour or hands on cooking lessons. I got both in Stellenbosch when I joined the fine folks at not once, but twice. I love the concept behind this company; their mission is to help unlock the secrets behind local food culture with the help of their expert guides. They offer a variety of experiences, including Cape Malay Cooking and the Xhosa lunch in Kayamandi township experience.
I experienced Cape Malay food on my first visit to Cape Town when I learned how to cook this unusual style of food at the feet of a local master. This experience is very similar, taking guests into a local home where you learn about the history of this unique-to-South-Africa cuisine and even how to make it yourself. Beautiful rotis, curries and a host of other treats I couldn’t identify but absolutely enjoyed were all on offer. This is a great way to learn about this important food style, and walk away with the tools to recreate it in your own home.
A very special and specific to Stellenbosch food experience was a walk I joined through the Kayamandi township when I learned about Xhosa food by a local resident. Mama Lily has led a fascinating life, from bill collector to purveyor of freshly made pastries and breads. Today she and the Bites and Sites Food Tour folks have joined efforts to share more about her traditional, family recipes and to show newcomers what life in Kayamandi is really like. I knew it would be a special experience, but was shocked at how moved I was by the lunch and walk. It’s a special moment when someone invites you into their home, their kitchen with open arms and a bright smile. This tour is one of those ‘must-do’ experiences for all visitors to Stellenbosch.
Without question, my favorite meal is always breakfast. There’s just so much comfort from these foods, they’re hard not to love. If Stellenbosch does anything well, it’s certainly breakfast. For a weekend brunch, there’s no better place to go than . A beautiful hotel, Majeka has an undeniably French influence seen throughout the property, even on its menus. For brunch the huge spread includes delicately prepared Bordeaux-style canelés. One of my favorite treats, this small cake comes out of the kitchen fresh and hot. Truly nothing better; except maybe for Majeka’s homemade energy juices guaranteed to help with everything from low energy to stress.
In the town of Stellenbosch, the local favorite is the newish where master baker Fritz Schoon and his family have created a remarkable culinary experience that highlights his doughy creations but in a way you’ve never before seen. If you’re after more than bread, be sure to visit their all-day restaurant which shines especially in the mornings. Well prepared and hearty breakfasts featuring everything from Croque Monsieurs to a traditional bacon and egg sandwich are guaranteed to please just about any palate.
Stellenbosch is a remarkable place to visit for many reasons, from the landscapes to the wines of course. But food is also an important draw and an entire trip could be easily consumed with exploring the rich culinary culture in this beautiful part of South Africa.
Which one of these foods do you want to try first?
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