When Absolute Travel’s Daniela Bonanno plays with her food, she plays with it gourmet style, baby! Anyone that knows Daniela also knows that she prides herself on living life on the cutting–edge, and last week that meant learning to cook like a South African at African Relish, the region’s most sought-after culinary experience (even for one of their hippest locals). Dig in…
Living in South Africa means I can embark on impromptu explorations – just like my most recent adventure through the Garden Route and Little Karoo. My day began with a quick stop in Swellendam followed by lunch in Mossel Bay (where people watching actually means surfer watching — we didn’t mind!). With full tummies we continued to Plettenberg Bay’s Hunter’s Country House, and oh, what a house! This Relais & Châteaux property is an idyllic stop along the Garden Route to soak up the sun and explore Plettenberg Bay’s fantastic beaches, in style of course. But I must say, nothing (even this ridiculously elegant property) could get my mind off the anticipation for our next stop: African Relish.
I wasn’t expecting getting there to be an integral part of the experience, but our two-hour drive involved climbing zig-zag roads over the Swartberg Pass, which delivered us to a cliff 1583 meters above sea level. (Translate: we could have been on a helicopter tour we were so high!) After holding my breath for way too long, I surrendered to the dramatic views enveloping me in one of the most spectacular passes on the planet. I had no idea what I was in for; and actually, if I had known, I would never have taken that road and would have sadly missed one of the most invigorating drives of my life!
As we arrived at African Relish, chef Vanie Padayachee welcomed us with a smile as warm as the homemade goodies she had prepping on the stove inside. Set in the quiet town of Prince Albert in the Little Karoo, this recreational cooking school not only offers exquisite culinary experiences, but the quaintest cottages to rest one’s head, suggestive of the understated historic homes of the area. From the moment we arrived to the moment we departed (she bribed us with warm homemade focaccia to get us out the door) we felt at home and taken care of.
When we put down our spatulas, our days were packed with a Ghost Village walk with a historian and story teller, a visit to the local dairy where the milk literally went from the cow to the bottle (talk about fresh!), and a lovely botanical excursion. Glorious! But the highlight was our vegetarian cooking class with chef Vanie herself. She led the class from a stylish and functional kitchen, complete with a gorgeous chandelier made out of glass and pieces of broken local ceramic found on the site. After a knife demonstration, we dove straight into it, and with a glass of local rosé in hand, we got down to business! Our menu included focaccia bread, buttered vegetable curry with lemongrass steamed rice, stuffed cabbage with spicy tomato sauce, and sweet pastry with strawberries… yum!
After many laughs, many mistakes, and many nibbles of our works in progress, our class ended with a beautifully packed basket packed with the fruits of our labor to bring back to our cottage. What a fantastic way to learn and appreciate the local cuisine! The class cemented my thoughts that South Africa has a fascinating culinary heritage that goes way beyond what we are accustomed to seeing on the menus of the top restaurants in the country.
Along with teaching me how to make a damn good strawberry pastry, Vanie demystified cooking and showed me how to enjoy it rather than stress about it. And maybe my meals aren’t cooked to perfection, but I can say that these days I find myself marinating in the moment, which is more than any cook book could ever teach me.