The unflagging inventiveness of the good people of Spier wine estate and hotel has continued this year with a raft of intriguing projects. Besides the annual Infecting the City public arts festival, the burgeoning Spier arts academy, and the recent addition to the permanent art collection of Marco Cianfanelli’s Dying Slave mosaic (with a quarter of a million mosaic pieces), there are on-going educational, business and ecological projects. Then there was the Secret Festival of food and wine, and slated for November is the interactive stage adaptation of The Great Gatsby with “live jazz, dancing and unbridled hedonism” on the estate lawns.
The Spier label has been given a boost with its new fair trade wines and international accolades at such events as the Concours Mondial des Bruxelles (which doesn’t always take place in Bruxelles, but in host cities).
The restaurants have also undergone facelifts in the past two years with an emphasis on the current trends to be organic, seasonal and locovore.
In the spirit of its African renaissance, Spier has put together a journey into the painful history of the Cape. Taking the 21 Gables audio walk before or after lunch is a novel way to round out the day’s excursion.
One is given a headset and an audio device, such as one uses in art galleries and museums, with numbered stations along the Spier pathways.
The impetus for the project came from the realisation that the Spier farm has more surviving Cape Dutch gables (21 in total) than any other farm, reflecting virtually the full spectrum of architectural styles.
Resident theatre-maker Brett Bailey researched the history of the farm and sets his tale in 1836. An imaginative evocation of the period, the story is told in 12 short chapters narrated by Sannie de Goede (sensitively portrayed by the expressive Jill Levenberg), the ghost of a fictional slave on the eve of her freedom. Emancipated in 1834, slaves still had to work a four-year apprenticeship for their freedom to be finally granted on December 1, 1838.
“Ring your bell meneer, ring it loud, for soon it will be quiet,” she says.
Sannie invites you to visualise the past taking your cues from the remnants still at hand – the old buildings, the slave bell, an outcrop of rocks, the trees and the Eerste River. Far more than a tale of suffering, punishment and oppression, there is rebellion, the heartbreak of love, romance, dagga-smoking and happiness too. We also gain insight into the early days of wine-making in the Cape, and an appreciation for the artisanal abilities of the slaves.
It is a meditative experience that leaves one refreshed and with a deeper sense of place and time; a more meaningful connection with the past surrounding us gradually made visible.
A good idea is to book a picnic basket beforehand and in the aftermath of Bailey’s audio theatre continue to enjoy the beauty of the farm. Picnics which include a bottle of 21 Gables Chenin blanc or 21 Gables Pinotage can be collected at Eight To Go, located next to Eight restaurant.
Eight is a comfortable space with feng shui touches. The number eight is considered auspicious and tied in Chinese philosophy to the element earth and to Spier’s “closed-loop approach” to nature and business.
On display is art from the Spier Art Academy and the ceiling is covered in 14 000 flowers made by artist Heath Nash from recycled plastic bottles. A framed diagram on the wall shows one step by step how they are made.
The restaurant has as its mantra “farm-to-table”, extending one’s appreciation for history and the land through the ingredients produced by Spier’s biodynamic farm practice. 300 hectares allows the farm to pasture raise cattle, sheep and genuinely free-ranging chickens.
Chef Lolli Heyns writes up her blackboard menu daily depending on the morning’s harvest. The dishes are fresh and wholesome, living up to the rhetoric. The roasted vegetable salad includes a much greater variety of ingredients than one usually gets, with cauliflower, green beans, broccoli, mangetouts, pumpkin, butternut, rocket and more.
I’m familiar with Rhode Island “clams casino” (clams baked on the half shell with a bacon topping), but mussels and pancetta pie was new to me; a curious but successful combination with intense flavours that might not be to everybody’s taste. The pie is deconstructed – four cigars of pastry placed atop the bowl of “filling” – and served with a side salad.
The presentation of the dishes is charming and shows flair without being either too fussy or too rustic and plain.
One dish taking us back to the origins of the slaves is the Malay lentil curry with sambals, but here served unusually with quinoa.
For dessert try the luxurious, warm bread pudding.
For us patrons many of the good things in life come together effortlessly at Spier – heritage, art, food, good wine, nature and thought. And then there is an appreciation for the blood, sweat and toil of the past.
Eight, restaurant at Spier, Baden Powell Drive (R310), Stellenbosch. Tel: 021 809 1188.
First published in the Mail & Guardian October 2012.