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A slave to lovely stories and wine

Ballotine of guinea fowl wrapped in smoked pork

In days when people lived entire lives either having a slave or being one, when slavery was as normal at the Cape as not buying The Big Issue or ignoring beggars at traffic lights is today, a baby girl was born in the Castle of Good Hope to a Guinean slave and a German soldier employed by the Dutch East India Company.

The baby was named Ansela van de Caab, in the tradition of the time – the mid-17th Century, only a few years after Van Riebeeck’s fleet had changed the history of the Cape, and the country, forever – when infant slaves were given only first names followed by the Dutch for “of the Cape”. You find the name all over the Cape Winelands on the oldest farms and in the remaining Cape Dutch houses in the centre of Cape Town.

In the venerable Koopmans de Wet House in Strand Street, as early as the beginning of the 19th Century, when the house was owned by the widow Margaretha Jacoba Smuts, the slaves ‘owned’ by the occupant included Jonas van de Caab, a cooper, a cook named Kitie van Mosambique, and a ‘houseboy’ called only ‘July’. His month of birth, perhaps. These were not so much people to their owners as slaves ‘from somewhere’, and if we live at the Cape, that is a murky part of our heritage.

But many decades before Kitie and July were born, Ansela van de Caab was to rise from her ignominious start in the miserable confines of the Castle’s spartan slave quarters to a life far removed from the lot of almost every other slave of her time.

Her dashing beau was Laurens Campher, whose trysts with his girlfriend in some dank Castle cellar they kept a secret. They were poor then, but Laurens’s fortunes turned when, in 1685, Governor Simon van der Stel granted him a farm in the lee of the Simonsberg. This is how the stories of so many Cape wine farms started. Campher would trek 64km over three days to visit her, for 14 years, and when finally in 1699 she was emancipated she joined Laurens on the farm where she planted an oak in honour of their union. It still stands.

Here was a woman of dusky hue, and a slave to boot, who would become a name still associated with that farm, Muratie, today, her name gracing one of the estate’s finest wines, in honour of the love two brave souls had for each other and maintained over their lifetimes, despite the deeply entrenched racism of their times.

Shrimp and chorizo orzo

How rare to encounter a Cape wine farm even today where a story such as this is not hidden like slaves once were in dark places, but brought out of the wings and celebrated. Current owner Rijk Melck, son of the legendary Ronnie Melck, glows with pride in the tale and in being a latterday part of the Muratie story.

My own tiny association with Muratie began in 1975 when, as a 20-year-old, my friend Tim Sanders and I met an American girl, Margie, with waist-length thick braided hair the colour of a Tamboerskloof ginger tom, and took her on a day trip to the Winelands in a growling old blue Beetle. We went to Spier, Delheim and Muratie, and it was my first ever Winelands trip. I fell in love with the culture and tradition of Cape wines during that visit to Muratie, so jumped the other day at the chance of a wine and food pairing dinner with Muratie wines.

Arriving at the Vineyard Hotel in Newlands for a pre-dinner tasting six weeks before the event, I was introduced to a shaggy-haired man who stuck out a hand and said, firmly, ‘Rijk’. And I thought, yes, this is rich. This will be fun.
Sadly I had not allowed enough time. Typically of a journalist, I had thought it would all be over in an  hour, but and an hour-and-a-half later we had made notes about possible dishes to go with only three dishes. About half-way through. So the rest of the pairing session had to go on without me.

Rijk, the 22nd owner of Muratie, is, like so many true wine people, a humble and thoughtful man who you could imagine playing lead guitar in a rock band, not at all the stereotypical patchwork shirt-wearing wine oke whose world is his bakkie and his braai.

These wine-and-food pairing events can, quite frankly, be a giant bore, especially when the organisers drag the poor guy to his feet between each of five or seven courses to explain exactly how the wine matches the soup, the fish, the paté, the fowl, the meat, the dessert, so that no conversation started in the room  that evening ever gets ended. Stories are left hanging, jokes left sans punchline. Everything is the wine, how magical and perfect it is, as if that is why we drink wine.

That is not why we drink wine. We drink wine to savour it while we’re doing the best thing in life -talking to someone, getting to know them or know them better. And that’s what this event turned out to be like.

Instead of having Rijk do a jack-in-a-box act and hate every minute of the evening, the speeches were succinct and despatched with while having aperitifs in the foyer before we filed in to the hotel’s The Square restaurant to dine. Thereafter, the only time you heard Rijk’s thoughts on any of his wines, and how they matched the five courses, was when you stopped at his table, or he at yours, for some one-on-one reflections on wine, food and life.

At the pre-tasting six weeks earlier, I had gone on a bit (too much) about blue cheese, deciding that this would go with pretty much every wine that came out. Fortunately they took no notice of me (I’d put blue cheese in ice cream), and the executive chef Alex Docherty (who had been away on the day of the tasting, so that the pleasant chef-like chap who had been there turned out not to be the chef at all, all rather puzzling until it was explained to me) started us off with shrimp and chorizo orzo, which was to turn out to be one of the evening’s two best dishes. Essentially, he treated this Greek ‘pasta’ as you would a risotto, and it holds its shape so much better than arborio rice does. It was matched with Muratie’s Laurens Campher blended white 2011, a worthy tribute to that man of passion and fortitude who once stood his ground to be with his beloved.

The second course, ballotine of guinea fowl wrapped in smoked pork, had exquisite texture and was quite intriguing on the palate with its combination of wild poultry and smoked pork in the same mouthful. This came with a beautiful pinot noir, the George Paul Canitz 2010.

Next was homemade gnocchi with oven-dried tomato, bocconcini and basil pesto, which was not a match for the meaty Alberta Annemarie merlot, named after Canitz’s daughter who became one of the Cape’s first woman wine farm owners.

The main course was roasted sirloin, although I could have believed it was springbok, so densely-packed was the meat. It came with goat’s cheese bread and butter pudding, so the menu said, although the slightly doughy accompaniment was more like a lightly fried dumpling than a bread and butter pudding. The wine here was the Ansela van de Caab Bordeaux blend, the flagship wine correctly taking pride of place, a richly nuanced wine seemingly steeped in the love story behind it. You’d drink this at the smoky fireplace well into the night, with jazz tinkling and thoughts of slave bells and castle walls.

The dessert was no tribute to the slave girl who lived a long life of freedom in the shadow of the Simonsberg. A traditional malva pudding, it was stodgy and dry, although the brandy tuiles had a lovely snap to them.

Now let’s see them introduce a Muratie Rijk Melck to honour the present incumbent on the farm, a smooth, rich shiraz-merlot blend with a hint of rock and roll.

First published in Weekend Argus July 2012


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