A few months back we went next door to our neighbour, Stu, for dinner. Stu is a dashing, 70-year-old confirmed bachelor with a mop of red hair and a racy red Porsche. His best friend is another handsome bachelor called Mauro, and when Mauro has volunteered to cook and we are lucky enough to crack the nod we are happy folk indeed. Because Mauro is an Italian man like they made them in the old days. He hunts kudu on his farm in Robertson, felling the animal with one expert shot and hanging it for ten days in its own skin. This, he explains in his accented English, makes all the difference to the meat. The kudu fillet he serves off the coals, rare, with a side of hand-rolled gnocchi and a smokey Shiraz melts in your mouth, and has none of that metallic, gamey taste you find in store-bought venison. But wait, there’s more.
Mauro had also made kudu biltong which he traded for crayfish with a guy at the gym and then he’d gone to Atlas trading in Bo Kaap and asked the owner to mix him up the perfect blend of spices for a crayfish curry. If anyone knows how to make the perfect blend of spices for a crayfish curry it’s the owner of Atlas trading. While we threw back delicous wine and partook of this feast, one of the dinner guests entertained us with an extraordinary tale of how, being the wrong colour for the time, he had fled South Africa in the sixties at the age of 15 and sailed alone on a ship to Paris. With barely a penny to his name, some kindly working women took him in and for a time he lived in a brothel, though, in his youthful innocence, he had no idea that the nice ladies who fed and housed him were prostitutes. He assumed all French women wore bright red lipstick and walked around in their underwear.
Around 11pm, tummies full and spirits high, we went back home to our children and climbed into our cosy beds and fell asleep with the November south-easterly wind roaring about the city. The wind made such a ruccus that night that we didn’t hear the man in the grey hoodie break open our sliding door with a crowbar and for the next half hour move around inside our home stealing whatever he could find. We slept through it all. We were unharmed. But the what if scenarios as we sat on the couch early next morning looking at each other in disbelief wouldn’t stop running through our minds. We know very well what could have happened. Our children were sleeping metres away from where he prowled around.
And this is everyone’s greatest fear. Exactly this. Because in that moment you are utterly defenceless. Worse, you can’t protect your family. You are at the mercy of someone who would likely kill you for a cigarette. I looked out the window and accepted, for the first time, that our security situation was pretty lacking. We didn’t like the idea of electric fencing and the large, custom-made Trellidor we needed was going to be expensive. But I made a few calls, and in true South African style, within 24 hours we were electrified and Trellidoored to within an inch of our lives. Welcome to South Africa.
The next day I was due to attend the launch of Grand Constance, the wine Groot Constantia made for Napoleon when he was living on St Helena. We both felt a bit weird and shell-shocked after what had happened, but we gathered ourselves and went anyway. Groot Constantia wine estate is breathtakingly beautiful, its undulating vineyards and gentle vistas making you feel like you’ve arrived in another century. In a way, you have. There is something comfortingly timeless about these old manor houses scattered about the Western Cape. The grand rooms resonate with the history of this country. If you listen hard you can almost hear ghostly voices echoing through their corridors, and you feel the traces of a bygone era held fast in the thick, cold walls.
We ate oysters and drank champagne under ancient oak trees before being take on a tour of the homestead. I learned that Emperors and Kings such as Frederick the Great of Prussia and King Louis Phillipe of France bought ‘Constantia Wyn’ at auctions across Europe, so marvelous was the stuff we produced. And continue to. Visit any wine shop in Scandinavia, for example, and South African wines dominate the shelves. This country’s oldest wine farm is so renowned that it appears in Jane Austin’s ‘Sense and Sensibility’ as a cure for a broken heart and is drunk to lift the character’s spirit in Charles Dickens’ novel, ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood.’
In truth, we were rather broken hearted that day. As I sipped on the amber, honeycomb-flavoured deliciousness of the 2007 Grand Constance (if it’s good enough for Napoleon…), I pondered the situation of being in love with a country that doesn’t love me back. It’s not that unrequited love is a foreign notion for me. I’ve known it since Sub A when my heart was crushed by a 6-year-old boy called Matthew who spurned my timid advances. It’s just that, well, one can’t help feeling rather down in the dumps nonetheless.
Still, after a fair amount of ‘tasting’ (I noticed I was the only one quaffing it down, oh dear), my spirits did lift and I felt rather grateful to old Simon Van Der Stel for leaving Holland in 1679 with his knowledge of viticulture and starting this whole business. It can’t have been easy, with 3000 children in tow and no wife because she’d basically kicked him out and sent him to the farthest place on earth from Holland at that time, that being the Cape. But clearly he pulled himself towards himself, and I’m sure having all that wine and brandy at his disposal would have helped enormously when someone took off in the night with some of his favourite things. I think we would have understood one another, Simon and I. Not many people know that Governor Simon van der Stel’s mother was the daughter of a freed slave which means that, according to the apartheid government, he would have been called a ‘Coloured’ and relocated to Grassy Park. And lord knows what that would have meant for our current wine situation.
I also learnt that in 1714 Groot Constantia was owned by a woman of colour, the daughter of a freed slave, Anna de Koningh. Anna was an extremely wealthy woman and fantastically beautiful, to boot. History narrates that she swanned about that homestead in a marvelous array of jewellery and kept no less than 27 slaves, clearly feeling feathers for social reform. Why should a girl iron her own pantaloons? A German traveller by the name of Peter Kolbe wrote a book where he recalls the time Anna saved the life of her friend, Maria de Haese, who tried to drown herself by jumping in the fountain behind the house. The reason for her death wish was the bitter lament that her life had become ‘one of terror on account of the many scandalous acts she daily had to hear and witness.’ Which does rather remind us that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
There can’t be a South African alive who hasn’t, at some point, wanted to drown themselves by jumping in a fountain. I get the impression that the early inhabitants of that magnificent estate would have agreed that life round these parts can be very wonderful and very terrible. I suppose it’s difficult to have one without the other. Maybe it’s a sort of a package deal: champagne and oysters, tsotsis and guns. We moved back because we love it: the beauty, the lifestyle, the friendliness, the contrasts. The good food, the good wine, the way the light hits Signal Hill at certain times of the afternoon. The noon gun, the call to prayer, Sea Point Main Road in all its grubby glory. And, of course, sitting under the ancient oaks at Jonkershuis contemplating all of life and the choices one makes and then lives with. There’s no such thing as a perfect deal. You find the place your soul has peace and you live with it, good and bad. For all the fountain-drowning moments I’ve never seriously contemplated leaving. Many do, and I get it. But for me… I dunno. It’s just where my heart resides.