Fyndraai at Solms-Delta

In stark contrast to Francophile Franschhoek, the Solms-Delta wine estate, 15km from the town and closer to Pniel, intends to celebrate everything Cape and indigenous.

Neuroscientist Mark Solms and philanthropist Richard Astor have since 2001 strived to break with the semi-feudal past of the Boland; its sad history of paternalism, serfdom, tot-systems and foetal alcohol syndrome.

The delta is made up of three farms, one of which is owned by a trust for the 21 families of farmworkers, who also own a third of the company that runs and manages the farms.

As tourists pick their way through some of the most luxurious estates in the world, dine on the finest produce, and sip premium wines, they might pause to consider the social conditions of agricultural workers and how these may be enriched.

Although life has overall dramatically improved on our wine farms in the past two decades, a Human Rights Watch report released last year, Ripe with abuse, shocked many. The fact that owning a wine farm is only slightly more profitable than owning a yacht or a racehorse is beside the point.

How many South Africans who specially buy Fair Trade coffee, won’t eat tuna, boycott Chinese sweatshop footwear and perhaps Israeli gherkins too, have never spared a thought about the wages, housing, education, health and safety of the 121 000 farm labourers and their families in their backyard?

From the moment you arrive at Fyndraai, the Solms-Delta restaurant, you are aware of a very different philosophy at work. The restaurant has glass panelled flooring showing its exposed foundations. On the walls are photographs, some in black and white from the late 19th and early 20th centuries drawn from the Paarl Heemkring’s collection of 26 000 glass-plate negatives. These portraits were taken by generations of the Gribble family of photographers. Interspersed are colour photos of the resident workers, the managers, owners and their children.

Next door is the Museum van de Caab in the original wine cellar (from 1740) which concentrates on the untold stories – the social history of this 320-year-old estate from the days of slavery and the deracination of the indigenous Khoi people. Recently a Later Stone Age settlement has been excavated nearby, and there are many stone implements and artefacts on display. The first colonists to settle on the farm were one Hans Silverbach and his freed-slave wife Ansela van der Caab. 200 stone plaques on the back wall of the tasting room memorialize each life given to the farm through slavery.

When I arrived, the local farm orchestra was performing deft Cape ghoema; one of its members plays a mean trumpet. They went on to a Xhosa song and then Suikerbossie wil jou hê.

You can lunch inside or alfresco on the long stoep with soulful views of the vineyards. (Smokers are welcome to wander on to the lawns under the oak trees for a break.)

The menu is inspired by Dutch-Afrikaner boerekos, Cape Malay and southern Asian influences from the slaves, and ingredients valued by the Khoi.

Local boy, thirty-something Head Chef Shaun Schoeman has a formal European kitchen background apparent in his style of plating. He has done stints at Haute Cabrière Restaurant and two years at fine-dining Aubergine among others.

Julienned bokkom arrives standing in a white cup of mayonnaise emulsion with bruin salie (indigenous brown sage, Salvia africana lutea) and buttered vetkoek – light and fluffy, accompanied by vinkel (fennel) fishcakes with intense, turmeric yellow interiors in a bowl of Cape snoek velouté.

Another starter was a combo of two tempura black tiger prawns, tails curled up, with three large pan fried sea scallops on a lemon flavoured pear purée enhanced with rooibos and citrus balsamic syrup.

Fyndraai uses veldkos produce from the two hectare Dik Delta fynbos culinary garden, a conservation effort to propagate rare Cape flora.

Other ingredients include Kalahari truffles (Kalaharituba pfeilii called !naba by the San), wild garlic which is almost ten times as strong as ‘normal’ garlic, wild olives, salad leaves of spekboom (Portulacaria afra), !Karri (a traditional Khoe beverage made with fermented honey), and katballetjies (tiny bulbs of an indigenous liquorice flavoured plant, Senecio radicans – “string of pearls” in English).

Among the mains the rump steak was of rude proportion, but deliciously prepared and gratinated with wild herbs and local blue cheese, served with chips, broccoli and green beans.

The venison was thinly sliced blesbok, a little chewy, on a bed of flavourful red cabbage, sweet potato and parsnip emulsion, roasted apricots, with green peppercorn and shiraz sauce. The shiraz is from desiccated grapes made on the estate.

With great flair, Schoeman serves pumpkin fritters, fish frikkadelle, bredie, biltong, atjar, amarula, koeksusters and melktert in new guises.

For dessert I fortuitously picked a lavender and buchu flavoured crème brûlée, with chilli and coconut chocolate mousse and lime sorbet.

The Solms-Delta wines are as unique as the fare using less common varietals. The Amalie Rhône style white is a blend of roussanne, viognier, vine-dried grenache blanc; the dry Lekkerwijn rosé has shiraz, Grenache, mourvèdre, and viognier.

There is not much more you could ask for from an experience in the winelands. Fyndraai exceeds expectations on many fronts, and best of all its heart is in the right place.

Fyndraai Restaurant, Solms-Delta, Delta Road, Off the R45, Groot Drakenstein, Franschhoek Valley. Tel: 021 874 3937.

This article first appeared in the Mail & Guardian on 5 April 2012.

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