I remember the piercing cold, those dreadful early Monday mornings getting ready for school and the weekends, huddled up in front of a fireplace playing Rummikub all weekend long...
On those cold Monday mornings, my mom used to warm our clothes on the light green AGA stove in the kitchen, and we’d get dressed right there in the kitchen in front of it. We’d eat toasted bread with farm butter melted right there on that stove as we got dressed.
All of my winter memories on the farm, and all of my best food memories, actually, pivot around that green AGA stove. And the food that it produced was never anything fancy.
Bread with butter, warm krummelpap, lamb stew, and fruits and vegetables pickled and preserved from summer months – winter staples.
Food in the Karoo hasn’t changed much over the last few decades, but it has certainly become a very valuable and even fashionable commodity. And rightfully so.
Karoo lamb is and has always been free-range, hormone free and organic. The preserved jams and vegetables have also always been home-grown, and so too majority of the food you’ll find on a plate from real Karoo kitchen.
A foodie-driven road trip to the Cape Midlands Karoo is the best thing you can do this winter. Here’s where to go and what to eat.
Willowmore is a small town in Sarah Baartman District Municipality in the Eastern Cape, 117km south-west of Aberdeen.
It’s dry, and cold, and prime lamb farming country. So naturally, you should have lamb.
Kapoet Farmstall is a good place to start. Grab a hot lamb pie from the oven or, if you’re there on a Sunday, settle in for Sunday lunch. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch the owner of Kapoet, Hennie Lotter, on site. He’ll be able to tell you where the lamb is farmed, and how those insanely delicious and hearty lamb pies are made.
If you’re after cake and tea, settle in at Sophie’s Choice – a typical Karoo shop with everything your heart desires. From furniture to food to tea cloths and toys, and the ins and outs of local news.
Graaff-Reinet is an established antique haven as well as food hub in the Karoo, so foodies need to make arrangements and go prepared.
You need to spend at least one day wandering through the streets of GR, browsing through the antique shops for bargains and taking photos of that magnificent Grotekerk. Better yet, visit the church on a Sunday to see its beautiful inside.
Also, look out for – and book – masterclasses hosted by chef Gordon Wright, the From Veld to Fork author and Karoo Food custodian.
Gordon hosts hands-on classes in the area from time to time. There are weekend-long classes on making your own charcuterie, or quick one-day classes in smoking your own meats. You can contact him for more information.
Alternatively, check into the Drostdy Hotel’s De Camdeboo restaurant for a gourmet Karoo Food experience with an impeccable wine selection.
Or if you’re looking to hang out with the locals, Polka Café is a great place to start the day with breakfast, and finish it with dinner and wine.
Start off at The Brewery and Two Goats Deli. According to Nieu-Bethesda local Elbé van Heerden from Lekkeslaap, this unsuspecting little brewery was the inspiration behind the massive Darling Brew in the Western Cape.
The Brewery in Nieu-Bethesda is still small-scale but makes kick-ass beer. Owner André also makes his own goat’s milk cheese, and he roasts his own coffee.
The Ibis Lounge is also a hit, and despite being a whole while from Durban, produces the best Bunny Chow in the Cape Midlands (understandably, though, the Karoo lamb is impeccable…).
These are established hang-outs, but Nieu-Bethesda’s food scene has blossomed. New joints and other popular places include Piekel en Pie, Karoo Manna as well as the Bethesda Art Centre.
If you’re after a good joint to quench your thirst, Die Ramstal is the place to go. It’s also the only pub in town, and serves ‘lekker’ Karoo lamb ‘potjie’ everyday.
Auntie Evelyn’s township restaurant, says Elbé, is one of her favourite places in Nieu-Bethesta. So head to Pienaarsig if you’re after the real thing…
This is my favourite Cape Midlands Karoo destination… but it’s also my hometown, so I might be a bit biased.
Cradock is home to the iconic Victoria Manor and Die Tuishuise guesthouses. These stunning little cottages are all lined up on one street, and are restored to their former glory – complete with horse carriages and ox wagon wheels on the stoeps.
Your foodie experience in Cradock should also start in the Victoria Manor, with their traditional Karoo dinner served in the hotel’s beautiful dining room, Albert Restaurant, with its old school bar.
You can also organise a masterclass experience with famous foodie locals in town. Formidable cooks like Heila Meyer, Elsje Taljaard and my own Ouma Delene Lombard are headline acts during the annual Karoo Food Festival, teaching eager learners how to make traditional milktarts and other Karoo food classics.
The next Karoo Food Festival will only take place at the beginning of April next year, but the Schreiner Karoo Writers Festival from 21 to 24 July 2016 is also a highlight on the winter calendar in Cradock. Apart from books and literature, there will be an abundance of Karoo Food on offer during this festival.
My absolute favourite place for a foodie experience in Cradock is as close to home as it comes – my family’s restaurant on the main road - True Living. Sitting in the courtyard, eating our family recipe homemade pies from that same green AGA I used to warm myself on (and seeing other people enjoy them as much as I do), is just the best feeling in the world…
Other activities in the area –
The Fish River
It is winter, I know. But the Fish River is the life-giving artery of Cradock and its farming communities. And come spring, the Fish River Canoe Marathon will draw thousands of travellers to the area. During winter, you don’t have to dive in… but at least take a drive along the Great Fish to appreciate it’s importance in this arid part of SA.
The Valley of Desolation in the Camdeboo
This structure of piled dolerite column was formed over a period of 200 million years. From the Toposcope in Camdeboo National Park, you have an aerial view of the historic town of Graaff-Reinet and can see Karoo mountain flora and fauna, with the opportunity of spotting the black eagle at close range.
Camdeboo National Park offers two 4x4 routes for the adventure seeker. The Koedoeskloof 4x4 trail provides approximately 9 kilometres of rugged roads and scenic views. The trail can only be done in a 4x4 vehicle (no 2x4’s with diff lock) and a round trip can be completed in about 4 hours.
Another popular 4x4 trail in the Park is Driekoppe which takes you to the top of Hangklip with its panoramic view or down to Wolfkloof and its beautiful waterfall. The rocky hill provides a 360 degree view of the landscape. 4x4 Trails are also offered on some of the guest farms in the Camdeboo Conservancy and near Nieu Bethesda.
The Park has become a popular bird-watching spot which has led to a Birding Weekend being added to the Park’s annual calendar.
Mountain Zebra National Park
There are also great 4x4 trails in the MZNP, but a guided walk with a qualified and knowledgeable guide provides the ideal opportunity to get to know the park up close and personal. There are also two short walking trails within the fenced rest camp that can be self-hiked. The Black Eagle Trail (2.5km) is a more challenging climb to the top of the rocky outcrop with spectacular views over the Park while the Imbila Trail (1km) is an easy, flat trail.
Mountain Zebra National Park also provides the unique opportunity of tracking a wild cheetah with the chance to observe these cats in their natural habitat.
The area is also great for extreme mountain biking. If you're interested in joining a group of local bikers, check out the Swaershoek MTB group.
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