Ground-Breaking Cuisine At Historic Cape Estate

Monday, 28 October, 2013
Andrew Beatty
An advance guard of South African chefs are dusting off unfashionable cooking techniques used by 18th-century Dutch settlers – such as pickling, salting and smoking – to create a modern "sustainable" cuisine.
At the upscale restaurant he runs on the La Motte estate in the Cape wine lands, Chris Erasmus is in the vanguard of the movement. The techniques he is honing have not been in vogue, or even required, since fridges were first introduced more than a century ago. But the former chemical engineering student is determined, with the help of a little scientific know-how, to resurrect a centuries-old way of approaching food.

La Motte's Pierneef restaurant is located in the Franschhoek Valley, beneath the steep granite slopes that dot South Africa's Western Cape.

Some of Erasmus's preparation methods – once essential to keep local produce edible through the winter – can take weeks, months or even a year to complete. But they make the most of ingredients that do not need to be flown in from around the world.

"We are using old techniques with modern science," he says, toying with a puffed-up vacuum pack of salted raspberries.

Inside the plastic pouch, the blood-red berries are being pickled using heterolactic fermentation, a chemical process that converts glucose into lactic acid, preserving the fruit.

To this age-old technique Erasmus adds salt and low oxygen levels, helping the process move along and preventing the build-up of bacteria now known to be harmful.

Once the fermentation is complete, the berries can be dehydrated, stored and reconstituted with water whenever needed. The end result is an ingredient that has little in common with the vinegar-tinged tastes commonly associated with pickling.

"It's got a beautifully savory raspberry smell and it's got 10 times the flavor because of the fermentation," Erasmus says.
The groundwork for this new/old cuisine may have come from the likes of Topsi Venter – a now-retired female chef who went from working at the South African Dried Fruit Board to opening restaurants that dug deep into the terroir to redefine local food.

But Erasmus – along with other like-minded South African chefs such as Margot Janse and Richard Carstens – stands at the confluence of many food movements that have grown over the last decade around the world.

They dip into the use-it-all ethic of head-to-tail butchering, the scientific adventurism of molecular gastronomy, and the locavore drive for seasonal food sourced from nearby farms.

For this reason, Erasmus's menus at the Pierneef restaurant are often short on specifics.

"It will say Karoo lamb, it won't say what cut," explains Erasmus. "We'll first use the neck, then the shoulders, then the ribs, then the legs, until there is nothing left."

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