4 of the best food experiences in South Africa's Western Cape

Dramatic mountain passes, desert towns, lofty vineyards and indigenous ingredients are all on the menu in this scenic corner of South Africa.

This article was produced by National Geographic Traveller (UK).

1. Pizza night

Kalmoesfontein Farm

At Kalmoesfontein Farm, in the town of Malmesbury, Charl Badenhorst is tending to the pizza oven and hand-stretching dough. His wife, Semma, hands me a glass of Caperitif — an amber-coloured vermouth made on the farm and infused with local fynbos (a local evergreen) — mixed with tonic. As I sip, she explains the origins of the farm’s legendary pizza night. 

It began during the 2020 lockdown as a pop-up, with neighbours driving over to collect wood-fired pizzas to order. Then, as restrictions lifted, people began hanging around for a glass of wine, until eventually Semma and Charl started laying the tables. Now the Thursday pizza night is buzzing. Bookings are made via WhatsApp — Charl’s number is on the website. The menu, which I stain with olive oil as I dip some fresh bread, is simple: the classics, but with a Badenhorst twist. 

South Africa’s Winelands region is known for its stunning natural beauty, and as I move on to a glass of AA Badenhorst Secateurs Red (half shiraz with grenache and cinsaut), I savour the taste of the Swartland bush vines. Then the pizza arrives — melted mozzarella, hot honey and ’nduja. The pillowy crust, which has gained flavour during its long, 48-hour ferment, has been wood-fired to perfection. “It’s not about being complicated,” says Charl, “it’s just about quality ingredients.”

A long table in the courtyard is set aside for the regulars and local winemakers. Pizzas are shared between guests and a convivial mood prevails. As it grows late, I’m reluctant to leave, as many of the others seem to be just settling in, but my bed is too near to be resisted. It’s in The Silo room, one of the farm’s five accommodation options; it’s round and high, like a little white Rapunzel tower, with a separate glasshouse reading room outside and a plunge pool. 

In the morning, coffee and eggs are followed by a snoop around the wine cellars. Harvest is in full swing and interns from Italy and Japan are helping bring in pallets of grapes for this year’s vintage, while a record player blasts out classics. We leave them crushing grapes to the sound of an old Bob Dylan song.

2. Mountain retreat

Red Cederberg

On the mantelpiece of the former wagon room, among what seems like a thousand curiosities and trinkets, stands a little old clock, its arms frozen at 10 past eight. How fitting, I think, for here in the red mountains of the Cederberg region, time seems to have stopped. At the restored Keurbosfontein farmhouse, a group of adventurous food-lovers has gathered for a long weekend of cooking over fire and communal dining — in short, a whole lot of smoky food, washed down with crisp chenin blanc.

Our host is Justin Bonello, a prominent figure in South Africa’s food scene for the past two decades who’s known for his TV shows Cooked in Africa and The Ultimate Braai Master. His aim with Red Cederberg is to remind guests of the simple pleasures of good food, conversation and connecting, free of modern distractions. “I want people to remember what it’s like to break bread and what the stillness of the mountains can do for our spirits,” he says.

The smell of burning wood gently permeates the space, whether from the open fireplace in the dining room or the smoker and braai in the garden. It’s early afternoon and tonight’s chicken is already cooking. “In a restaurant, you never smell your food while it’s cooking,” says Justin. “When you smell fresh bread in the oven or fat dripping on the fire, it’s really an experience that your body and mind is hungry for.”

For the duration of the stay, Justin cooks breakfast, lunch and dinner with help from his assistant, Cory, plus anyone else willing to get involved. The food he serves is made entirely from local ingredients: lamb shoulder rubbed with wild rosemary and herbs, a light omelette with soft-whipped goat’s cheese and garden greens, smoked ribs, marrow bones, and flatbreads to share. Meanwhile, the enamel tins on the table containing cutlery are largely ignored. 

It’s not all about feasting, however. We also visit Cederberg Wines to taste reds and whites grown at high altitude and swim in a pristine mountain rock pool. One morning, we rise before dawn to join a guided hike to the majestic Wolfberg Arch rock formation. When we return, Emmy, who lives on the farm and helps in the kitchen, makes a sweet sourdough loaf. Hungry from the hike, I butter a toasted slice then reach for a warm vetkoek, a ball of deep-fried bread dough that we’re encouraged to stuff with minced meat and ripe avocado, or sprinkle with cinnamon and brown sugar.

On the last evening, Justin passes me a honeyed brandy on ice and I look up at the sickle moon, set against a sky dotted with a thousand stars. Then we slip off to bed in our candlelit rooms, soothed by the utter darkness and quiet of the wild. 

3. Miso & meditation

Sexy Food

“We’ll start in this one,” says James Kuiper. “It’s my first fermentation cave.” He opens the door of a clay outhouse, one of two in his garden built in the style of a rondavel (a traditional African hut). Inside are trays of wheat, preparing to begin their journey to becoming fermented loaves.

“Fermenting is a meditative process,” James explains, as he shows us how to break up warm clumps of fuzzy wheat kernels; clusters that show the presence of a desirable mould called koji. “It requires a certain level of focus and patience. There are lots of repetitive tasks — chopping, mixing and monitoring — that calm the mind and teach discipline.”

Here at his home in Scarborough, James offers one-day foundation workshops and four-day immersive retreats, during which he teaches the ancient practice of fermentation. There’s also time for yoga, taught by his partner, Christina, plus wildlife walks, foraging and cold-water immersions — the beach is just a five-minute walk, and the sea is icy blue.

When it comes to fermentation, James has spent years studying traditional Eastern and African methods. He introduces us to the living foods in his fermentation caves and we taste, stir and sip the various misos, kefirs, koji and pickled vegetables. The flavours are deep with umami, salty and intense.

As I sip on a shake made from banana and fermented milk, James explains how kefir grains ‘eat’ natural fruit sugars and give the drink its distinctive tangy taste and gut-healing properties. As well as enjoying the hands-on demonstrations, we’re also given the opportunity to begin fermentation projects of our own, with James helping us start a process that harnesses wild bacteria in the environment to preserve vegetables.

Together, we make the sourdough that will be served for lunch with the miso potjie pot. Then, while the bread bakes, we learn more about how ancient civilisations used fermentation to preserve and enrich food. We also discuss the healing properties of prebiotics and probiotics, something James has personal experience with. At 17, he was diagnosed with lymph cancer, and after intensive chemotherapy and years of feeling jaded, he believes probiotic-rich foods helped him bounce back. “I still see getting cancer as a blessing,” he explains. “It made me re-evaluate everything.”

After a day with James, I feel energised and inspired. I leave with my pickling vegetables, a bottle of lightly fermented spring water — “better than champagne” — and a couple of jars of James’s two-year-old miso, which he calls ‘misomite’. The savoury paste is set to be the base of soups, marinades, and sauces in my kitchen for a while. 

4. Dairy in the desert

Gay’s Guernsey Dairy

On the edge of the arid Karoo region, at the end of the Swartberg Pass, sits the town of Prince Albert — a traveller’s oasis with cafes, museums, galleries and B&Bs. It’s also home to Gay’s Guernsey Dairy. There, I’m shown around by Gay’s daughter-in-law, Claudia van Hasselt, who tells me how Gay started with just three cows back in 1990, when the town was just a dirt road with a school and church. He started off selling milk to the school and made yoghurt and cheese in the holidays with the surplus.

From the counter in the little deli shop, which also stocks artisanal products from surrounding farms, you can see through to racks that hold the precious wheels of cheese. All the products sold here are made from unpasteurised, full-cream Guernsey milk. “We believe in being in touch with the animals that make our beautiful products,” says Claudia. “We have cows 35 now, who we know by name.”

Claudia takes us to see the day’s cheese being made in vats that help separate out the whey. She then shows us where the golden rounds are turned daily while they mature into gouda, cheddar and parmesan.

Gay’s cheeses have won awards in South Africa and Europe, and the farm has evolved into a meeting place and events space — in May, it hosts part of Prince Albert’s Journey to Jazz festival. Visitors can also stop by in the afternoon to see the cows being milked, while travellers passing through can taste the cheeses over the counter.

I try the gouda, which has a sweet, nutty flavour. Next, the Queen Vic mature gruyère and finally the Parma Prince, a two-and-half-year-old parmesan with an earthy, fruity taste and a subtle saltiness. It crumbles gently between my teeth; these cheeses were well worth the journey. 

Published in Issue 20 (summer 2023) of Food by National Geographic Traveller (UK).

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