30 May Dinner in the Karoo
On the 23rd of May, MD Johan Erasmus and Executive Chef Johan Stander travelled to Graaff Reinet to present a bespoke wine dinner – a kickstart to the Karoo Wine Club’s annual Stoep Tasting festivities.
Tony Jackson, was there and gives us a little insight as to what went down when the locals were dressed in tuxedos and the food and wine a perfect match to a jolly night in the Karoo.
A Bespoke Dinner with Glen Carlou, unrecognisable Gordon and forgetful Heidi
When you’re hosting your own dinner party at home, you get to choose your company, but that invitation to a fancy dinner with a bunch of strangers – that can go anywhere. You could have to sit through four hours of the Itching To Go Home Blues on a loop. Or you could meet a fascinating group and have a fine old time.
It’s the Karoo Wine Club’s annual Stoep Tasting Weekend in beautiful Graaff-Reinet, a jewel among the country’s oldest towns. And this year there’s been an innovation. Organisers Rose and Gordon Wright dreamed up a Bespoke Dinner with Glen Carlou, the wine estate near Paarl where, in the 1980s, Walter Finlayson turned his new acquisition into an estate that became famed for its brilliant wines, not least their fine Chardonnays, Cabernets and red blends.
This was, as I’m writing, last night, and it was a black tie affair. Never my favourite thing. The old tuxedo, bought round about the time Finlayson was planting his first vines, was located, dusted off and sent off to a somewhat disdainful dry cleaner. Way beyond my black denim jacket comfort zone.
So up I pitch, wearing the tux for the first time since a dinner at a hotel in Park Lane, London, where the front pages of a West Sussex newspaper I edited in 2003 had been nominated for a national design award. The room was packed with middle-aged men who had got the tux out, had it dry-cleaned, climbed into a white shirt, slapped on a black dicky-bow, and gathered at a table of 10, each for a different newspaper. I can confirm that the male staff of The Times, the Observer, the Daily Mirror, to a man (the only woman I spotted was West Sussex Gazette reporter Jeannie Knight at our own table), don’t have a speck of sartorial individuality between them. My royal blue shirt even got a raised eyebrow from the emcee, the impressionist Rory Bremner, as he brushed past our table.
Anyway, here I am at the Coldstream, a super-colonial and most probably undecolonisable venue in Graaff-Reinet where a great room with massive fireplaces at each end has been turned into a stylish venue which had been set up with beautifully decked tables for the fare produced by Glen Carlou.
Arriving and sauntering past a welcome table where hovered a trio of penguin-suited men, I thought I’d neatly skirted any awkward introductions, but the penguin-in-chief was having none of it. He was Johan Erasmus, MD of Glen Carlou, and I was to be at his table, he told me, and charming as he was, I admit to having wondered quite where the night was headed. I find that it’s often more entertaining to be seated with the bikers and drunk journos.
Glass of sauvignon blanc in hand, I stepped inside to find Rose Wright with a man called Sam and an American-South African woman called Heidi. At some point Rose wandered off to see to other guests, while Heidi, Sam and I fell into a lively and very funny conversation. One of those moments when you hope you’ll be at the same table. And this came to pass: Sam was there with MD Johan, Heidi was Johan’s sister, visiting from San Jose, California. Not everyone at the event knew that.
Gordon, Rose had mentioned earlier, had been in the bar (I’d guessed) but at some point he’d sauntered over to us loitering with our drinks, whereupon Sam introduced himself to Gordon, as did Heidi with a cheery, “Hi Gordon. I’m Heidi.”
Gordon leaned forward. “Heidi, it’s Gordon – from last night.”
Oops. Turned out that she and Johan had had dinner with Rose, Gordon and one of their sons just the night before. The poor woman had to try to live that down for the next four hours, which she did with grace, taking all the ribbing that came her way from all quarters. Her brother Johan even worked her faux pas into his chats about the wine and food. It was his tux that, evidently, had rendered Gordon entirely unrecognisable. Come to think of it, I know people who would have walked straight past me in my own get-up of Eighties’ tux, pale gold shirt and maroon bow-tie.
Shortly after I’d joined Sam and forgetful Heidi, a middle-aged gay couple had walked in. Must be Graaff-Reinet locals, I thought. Anyway, I ended up sitting between MD Johan and sister Heidi, and two couples who were venture capitalists from KwaZulu-Natal. They turned out to be the ‘local gay dudes’ whose wives had now joined them. Never presume, I remind myself. Clearly someone’s gaydar needs to go in for a service.
You know you’ve lucked out with the best table in the room when, come 11.30 or so, the other four tables have been vacant for a while and you’re all still there and opening more wine. Johan Erasmus is a charming and entertaining host, and unlike his delightful sister remembers everything about the wines he has to talk about all over the world as de facto ambassador for Glen Carlou wines. And the suddenly non-gay venture capitalists were no less entertaining.
This was, effectively, a Glen Carlou pop-up restaurant. Dishes from the actual restaurant had been chosen and the ingredients brought to Graaff-Reinet, along with a team including head chef Johan Stander himself. They’d thought of taking an adventurous route – lambs’ tongues were considered (I wish they’d kept with that, but not everyone’s as adventurous as I am). Be that as it may, in five courses the chef and his team did not take a single misstep.
Canapés came out – nibbles from pork belly to green apple and green pea soup; spring onion, green fig and Karoo blue tartlet, and duck liver parfait. There were homemade breads – a ciabatta flavoured with kaiings (roughly what the English call pork scratchings or crackling) and rosemary, with home churned butter – an amuse bouche of a little springbok shank croquette, with pomegranate and beetroot chutney, matched with the estate’s splendid wooded Chardonnay (the equally splendid unwooded one had come out with the canapés).
While we were told all about Benedict and Florentine – the 2.5 tonne ‘eggs’ at Glen Carlou in which some of their wines are made, and which hold 1,200 litres, and which Johan had considered naming Fried and Scrambled, and which is something to do with the egg shape keeping the lees in suspension (I think) – Gordon raved about the wooded Chardonnay and Johan and I reminisced about the old boys of the wine industry. As memory serves from an interview I did with Frans Malan at Simonsig in the Eighties, he was among those who smuggled Chardonnay rootstock on to a plane in their socks, in France, got them through SA customs illegally, and the South African Chardonnay story had begun.
The starter was a wonderfully meaty affair – buchu-flavoured lamb loin, with slow-roasted quince which was just sublime, Malay crème and sultanas. Such a different and imaginative way to deal with lamb, and utterly wonderful.
“Bittersweet” was the name given the palate-cleanser of grapefruit sorbet with bitters, vanilla and orange.
The main course was kudu loin (so we’ve moved from springbok to lamb to kudu here) which was pinkly divine, with a vinegar gastrique (vinegar and sugar reduction), celeriac purée, fig and green apple sambal, and little roasted heirloom carrots. A great dish deserves a great wine, and it came in the form of Glen Carlou’s magnificent Cabernet Sauvignon.
The dessert was, thankfully, light and refreshing: naartjie malva pudding with orange blossom dried apricot and vanilla pod gelato.
This all done with a local Karoo team to put such a grand menu to effect under the guidance of a chef very far from home. That takes some doing, and Rose and Gordon Wright’s first ever Thursday night bespoke dinner at the start of their splendid festival sure got off to a fabulous start. It’s on until Sunday, and I hope Glen Carlou and the organisers do it again in 2o2o.
Read the article on Daily Maverick here.