De Doorns is a small town 140 km from Cape Town on the N1. It is flanked by the Kwadouw mountains to the south and the Hex River mountains on the northern side. At 2 249 meters, double the height of Table Mountain, the Matroosberg the highest point in the Western Cape.
The Hex River Valley is a lush, narrow band of cultivated land that extends for about 25 km between these two mountain ranges, and the town of De Doorns in the centre of it.
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This valley is the biggest producer of table grapes in the country with 128 estates providing a green vista of seemingly endless vineyards.
But, it's one of the last places you would expect a chef who has worked with celeb chefs setting up shop.
A ginger cat sleeps on a chair, wooden shelves display rusks, preserves, and the usual tasty goodies you expect in a country “Padstal”. Antiques, old furniture, crockery, cutlery, silverware and artworks are for sale, but the highlight is the shaded verandah where Chef Jacques Le Roux serves his outstanding food.
Jacques was born and raised in Piketberg.
After a gap year in the UK he studied at ICA at Spier and had the privilege of working with and learning from great chefs like Matthew Gordon in Franschhoek, and at Petrus in London under Marcus Wareing and Gordon Ramsay.
Jacques says he comes from a rich line of cooking and was inspired by his father, an enthusiastic home cook who loved preparing Sunday lunch.
He loves Mediterranean flavours and deconstructing original dishes.
“My cooking is very seasonal, and even though our Padstal menu is simple, it changes three to four times a year. The drought, seasonal changes, availability of products, local produce and sustainability all play a part in putting ideas and dishes together. I dream of markets and tables overflowing with fresh, local produce, fish that came in this morning, veg that was just harvested with the soil still on them. Unfortunately, we are not so spoiled for choice where we are, but we do get some interesting gems from time to time and I like to use what we do have on offer and available,” says Le Roux.
When asked what his signature dish is there was no hesitation, “the lamb shank” which we ordered for lunch and it was cooked to perfection.
The desserts all look tempting and Jacques tells us “the cheesecake is a firm favourite amongst locals and travellers. Personally, I enjoy working with good quality dark chocolate, in different ways, the options and flavours are endless.” We think it is worth visiting again just to work our way through the dessert menu.
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On healthy eating, Jacques has simple, but good advice. He says “If you need to read a label for the ingredients of the product you are buying, leave it. Whole foods should be on the top of your list. Go for quality over quantity.”
Seeing as this is grape country, we asked him for creative ideas with this berry and his answers are inspiring enough to make you want to try it at home. “Grapes are beautiful when roasted. Roast them on their own and top a slice of ciabatta with goats’ cheese, roasted grapes and some toasted nuts. Grapes are great with chicken in salads, with strong cheese or frozen as ice cubes in your wine (and it won’t dilute your wine like ice do). They also go well with fresh herbs such as basil or rosemary.
Another snack idea is to combine some creamy blue cheese and cream cheese, a touch of black pepper and chopped parsley. Cover grape in cheese mix, roll in some chopped pistachios, leave as is or put in on a skewer and you have a beautiful snack.”
We wanted to know what he thinks is the best newcomer ingredient in the food scene?
“In the light of Wolfgat becoming the no.1 restaurant in the world, and their use of ‘veldkos’ being the highlight of their dishes, that might be an avenue to explore. South Africa is so diverse, every region will have their own type of ‘veld’ food to bring to the table. In our area we can look into different types of fynbos, wild flowers and succulents to cook with or use raw in dishes. Similar to what we would normally do with herbs and fruit leaves, but with a whole new dimension, visually and taste wise. A whole new umami.”
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Jacques is totally content in the Karoo where he appreciates the relaxed, platteland lifestyle and having a lot of time for with his kids and his wife who he says is his best friend, biggest fan and critic. He explains “her honesty is what makes my dishes real.”
He says “I love cooking at home, I can really go wild there. Fish and seafood are a firm favourite and I can really push the boundaries with this at home and be a bit daring.”
Jacques passion for this area are evident “I love waking up each day in this beautiful valley, knowing that this is exactly where I am supposed to be! I do a lot of functions from birthdays to weddings and I’m constantly working on new and exciting menus for these events, playing around with combinations and flavours. Some old classics and favourites get requested often, but the more adventurous options seem to be becoming more popular.”
The only thing he is not wild about is being in front of a hot stove when the temperature reaches 40 degrees Celsius and higher. The day we visited, the temperature gauge at the state of the art Hexkoel Cooling Plant showed an unbelievable reading of 55 degrees outside at midday. It certainly was hot.
Foodies, it is certainly worth a drive out to the scenic De Doorns for a meal at the Veldskoen. Open most days between 8:30 and 4pm. For more information call 023 356 2619.
Consider spending a few days in this stunning valley and go grape picking, visit a mushroom farm, explore the old railway station, walk in the vineyards or hike in the mountains.
The Pines Manor House is a beautiful Cape Dutch self-catering house complete with a swimming pool, floodlit tennis courts, vineyards and exquisite views.
Towards Touws River the Karoo Village is a farm with a winery, cottages, a restaurant, a wedding chapel, a pool and loads of wide open space for relaxing times or a big event.
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