A GREAT OKE
At Eike, Bertus Basson’s newest restaurant, the chef takes diners on a nostalgic journey into South African food memory.
While South African cities offer everything from tacos and noodles to sushi and Hawaiian poké, restaurants that celebrate local flavour are a rarity. Chef Bertus Basson makes a powerful case for why this should change at Eike, his newest restaurant
Basson is a busy man. Together with his wife Mareli, he runs an award-winning fine-dining restaurant (Overture), a cult-favourite burger joint (De Vrije Burger), a fast-casual spot with possibly the best views of any such restaurant (The Deck at Overture), another winefarm eatery (Bertus Basson at Spice Route), and a stellar small plates and wine bar (Spek & Bone). He’s hosted multiple television shows, produced a cookbook, with a second in the works, and is also father to a toddler, Theodore, Spek the pig, three dogs and seven chickens. But all this, apparently, is not enough to fill his days. Because, on 1 August, Bertus opened a sixth restaurant: Eike, a stone’s throw from Spek & Bone, on Stellenbosch’s iconic Dorp Street.
Named for the university town’s other moniker, Eikestad, it’s a gorgeous space with a colour scheme that takes its cue from the changing colours of the town’s oak trees; from the rich emerald of summer to the fresh tones of new spring growth. What is it that drives the man, who manages to make each new offering so different from the last?
IT’S A GREY SPRING MORNING WHEN we meet the Bassons in their vegetable garden at home in Jamestown, on the outskirts of Stellenbosch, for a glimpse into Bertus’s vision of Eden. They bought the house here after they married in 2014 and have always had a small veggie patch, but when they noticed a “For Sale” sign on the plot behind it, they jumped at the chance to expand. Now, the space is home to an abundant 400m2 vegetable garden.
“This used to be an agricultural community,” Bertus explains. “As families grew, they subdivided the land and it became more suburban.” Now the couple has their own semisuburban farm. “We grow enough produce for Overture, Eike and Spek & Bone,” says Bertus as we walk through the neat rows of kale, tomatoes, radishes, turnips, broccoli, sorrel, wild rocket and tomatoes. There are also chickens that do their bit to keep the garden free of snails. “They’re surprisingly vicious,” says Bertus. Spek, his famous pig, also spends his days out here (by night, he sleeps inside). He’s a beloved family member – and very smart. After Bertus came home one day to find a thoroughly uprooted veggie patch and Spek trying to conceal his 130 kg bulk behind a lemon sapling, the fences around the garden had to have their deadbolts refitted out of snout’s reach.
Eike chef Kyle du Plooy is here to pick produce for service. “We pick fresh produce every day. Either I or one of the other chefs comes here every morning.” He loads up with kohlrabi, radishes and broccoli flowers, while gardener Joseph Kumbukani tends the garden. “I say I have a garden, but actually Joseph has a garden,” quips Bertus.
We chat about what food means in the local community. Overture staff aim to serve the residents of Mountain View, a disadvantaged community nearby, saving their kitchen scraps and making a hearty soup for them on Fridays. And Bertus’s mind buzzes with ways to bring
“WE ARE PART OF A MOVEMENT TO FIND OUT WHAT SOUTH AFRICAN FOOD CULTURE REALLY MEANS” – BERTUS BASSON
more opportunities to Jamestown. Accessibility is another thing that concerns him. “One of the biggest mistakes we made in the South African wine industry was making it exclusive, rather than inclusive,” he says.
This is something Bertus thinks about a lot: how to avoid being too exclusive with food and restaurants. Part of the solution, surely, is about choosing food that is recognisable and doesn’t intimidate.
BY NIGHT, THE EMERALD GREENS OF EIKE glow all the richer, and touches of gold sparkle. Tables are set with a view of the open kitchen, and guests are here to watch the show.
(One group asks for a selfie with the chef.) Local music by Laurika Rauch, Tumi & The Volume, and Hugh Masekela creates an upbeat atmosphere.
First out of the kitchen are some delicious snacks. The first of the garden’s broad beans are ready and come crisp in featherlight tempura. There’s a delicious game “taco”, and a modern take on a prawn cocktail, with crispy fried prawn heads. Next up is something really special: served on beautiful custom-made Diana Ferreira crockery, it’s a dish that looks like any starter at a fine-dining restaurant – a mousse, with a crumble, a jus, an artfully placed flower petal. But spoon the creamy concoction into your mouth and it fills with a familiar pairing: rich Cheddar, bacon and pastry. It’s unmistakably – to my rather English palate – quiche Lorraine, or if you’ve got Afrikaans souttert. blood – Then there’s the bread service: mosbolletjiebrood, the kind of densely crumbed white sourdough ( suurdeeg)
padstalle, that’s sold in roadside and Bertus’s famous beef tallow candle. Dubbed the opsitkers, this is a dish he has also served at Overture. It’s inspired by the candle that was given to courting couples in the times before electricity, to limit the length of time they could stay up, chatting. (“If the dad liked you, you’d get a long candle. If he didn’t you’d get the tiny end of a burnt out one,” explains Bertus.) The key is to wait until a good amount of the candle has melted, then dunk the sourdough into the melted beef dripping. If you didn’t grow up with dripping on toast,
“THE EIKE JOURNEY,
FOR A SOUTH AFRICAN PALATE, IS A SERIES OF ‘AHA’ MOMENTS, THE THRILL
OF RECOGNISING FLAVOURS IS A LITTLE LIKE A TREASURE
it’ll make you wish you had.
The next dish, though called bobotie, looks nothing like the custard-topped curried mince we know. Luminous, lime-green oil is drizzled onto the plate and ruby-red lamb tartare lies beneath perfectly circular pockets of sweet potato. But bite into the tartare and a powerful distilled flavour of curry, chutney and coriander hits. The pockets burst to reveal the egg custard that traditionally tops a bobotie. The tangy chutney flavour comes from dehydrated spiced onions, which are turned into a kind of fruit leather. It’s what bobotie would taste like if the rigour of cordon bleu cookery was applied to its creation: punchy and – for those who grew up eating yellow rice and bobotie – deeply nostalgic.
“We had people in here the other night – one couple from Germany who were thrilled because it was the first time they had experienced the flavour of bobotie, and another local couple who were emotional about tasting the flavours of their grannies’ bobotie,” says Bertus. For him, both of those responses are important. “There’s a lack of pride in South African cuisine,” he says, which is preventing us from properly exploring our food heritage.
For dessert, there’s a spectacular apple sorbet which, combined with the buttery crumb beneath it, recreates the flavour of apple crumble. It comes with a glossy red apple – similar to a toffee apple – dubbed “What happened in the Garden of Eden?” With a tap of a spoon, the chocolate casing cracks open to reveal a mousse that captures the flavour of Cremora tart. It’s a Heston Blumenthal-style piece of theatre made from the humblest of South African bring-and-braai recipes.
THESE ARE JUST A FEW OF THE THINGS that’ll pass your lips on an evening dining here. The journey as a whole, for a South African palate, is a series of “aha” moments, the thrill of recognising flavours is a little like a treasure hunt. It’s an inclusive feeling, for those who grew up with similar flavours – a far cry from the menus laced with foreign words and references that might intimidate rather than welcome.
“We have to take responsibility for South African flavour,” says Bertus. “Kyle and I will sit down and talk about dishes and that’s great too because we come from different backgrounds.”
Of course, South Africa has many different food cultures to explore.
While Bertus and Kyle ably break down some ribs, we talk about other chefs – exploring the flavours of umqombothi and mleqwa (see our interview with chef Nti on page 34). Bertus’s eyes light up. “It’s so great,” he says. “The more people who explore local flavour, the better.” Bertus and Eike form just a small part of that.
Perhaps the key lies in exploring smaller pockets of our nation’s culture, rather than trying to define South African food in one fell swoop. In a video shot by photographer Claire Gunn, Bertus speaks about the importance of focusing on regionality: “We all think that we have to fly to Europe and eat our way through a mountain of French cheese and
foie gras, or loads of fresh scallops. We always think that the great regional cuisines of the world are in France – Burgundy, Provence, Champagne.
But in South Africa it’s the same.
And we should start celebrating it.”
Perhaps Eike is just that: Bertus’s space to celebrate just one of South Africa’s incredible culinary regions: Eikestad, with a little of Bertus’s and Mareli’s Nelspruit upbringing and Kyle’s Cape Town’s southern suburbs heritage stirred in. “South African food is an ever-evolving thing. We haven’t found our way just yet, but we are on our way, and that’s the cool part: we are part of a movement to find out what South African food culture really means.”
Clockwise from above: Rib-eye is smoked over the grill before cooking; the wildebeest “taco” served on a giraffe bone; Bertus’s take on bobotie. Opposite: The bone theme is inspired by both Bertus and Mareli’s upbringing in Nelspruit.
Bread is served with an opsitkers, lamb biltong, kohlrabi salad and a cucumber presse with olive brine and labneh. The couple’s seven chickens help keep the garden free of snails,and supply delicious eggs.