Browsing in the second hand shops of Kalk Bay at the end of last year, I came across a copy of Phillida Brooke Simons’ coffee table book on Meerlust that was published a few years ago. Meerlust is arguably the most famous wine estate and brand in SA, an undisputed Cape first growth. Not that they’d be so gauche as to mention it, leaving self promotion to the Learjeteratti who boast of their intention to make “world class wines” as they shuttle between the Cape and their day jobs in Johannesburg.
If you didn’t know better, you might think Meerlust was an upscale B&B, something you might find in a Portfolio of Country Places. After all, Hannes Myburgh, 8th generation seigneur, is as understated as an elegant dormouse and about as far away as it is possible to get from the snooty chatelaines of Bordeaux or ego maniacs of the Winelands nouveau riche. And eccentric enough to boot, organizing an annual tripe festival which must strain the normal polite relations between guest and host.
The best photos in a lavishly illustrated book, taken by American Arthur Elliot a century ago, have that Alice in Wonderland feel that makes you look for the fairies at the bottom of the garden. They were taken in the days when you could snap pre-pubescent girls without being called a pedophile and show that technical advancement in photography doesn’t automatically translate to better pictures. Although the modern day landscapes and interiors imaged by Alain Proust, are certainly sumptuous enough.
Artists too, have loved to paint the farm with Boonzaaier and Pierneef having several goes at it. Perhaps the most striking images are a pair of aquarelle paintings done by an 18th century German artist called Frederici, which were also chosen for the dust jacket. The rolling fields are done in a fetching shade of blue, as if they have been inundated by False Bay as a result of global warming. One of the farm horses depicted is so concerned, he’s got all four hooves off the ground.
The subtitle of this gorgeous coffee-table book speaks volumes: 300 years of hospitality and they’re not joking – the last section features recipes by such celebrity chefs as Etienne Bonthuys, Harald Bresselschmidt and Jacques Botha. And that’s only the B’s. Of course it’s much more than a little something to put on the yellowwood table next to the “elegant porcelain coffee set” presented by the Lady Anne Barnard when she visited in 1798.
Mrs Barnard, wife of the British Colonial Secretary at the Cape, must have been the guest from hell. Her party arrived several days late and her diary entry is probably the first controversial SA food review: “some bad roast lamb, a worse fowl… fish of the nature of God, pickled in Turmarick, and all sorts of garden Stuff such as they put in the pickle pot in England… it was excellent.” A bit like Sir Terence Conran’s forthright views on Cape cooking, 205 years later. Although in mitigation it should be noted that this was the opinion of a lady who, when she heard pirates were a possibility on the voyage down to the Cape, put on a second pair of underwear, as a precaution.
Her ladyship’s comments on her hosts were equally acerbic: “after dinner, a Child of eighteen months was brought in which no one could lift from the ground it was so heavy.” Another infant “still sucking and eleven months old, but I could not contain it in my arms, it was such a porpoise.” Clearly the Atkins diet was a godsend to the Myburghs, with the current clutch in fine physical fettle.
The trials and tribulations of three centuries of farm life have their lighter side too. On the topic of making wine it is noted that “it is pleasanter if no spiders’ webs nor spiders that are found among the berries get into the press” while paying tax is always a hassle, especially when God visits “with various plagues e.g. locusts in myriads, caterpillars, weevils, rust in the vineyards, honeydew in the corn, storm winds, floods, droughts…” to such an extent that farmers “have to manage with almost no clothing and go about almost naked.”
Hats off to the author for presenting a “warts and all” view, when the temptation to don rose tinted glasses is almost overwhelming. Although this honest approach does gives way to good manners in the present day, when Lady Di’s visit to avoid the international paparazzi is finessed as “nor many years ago, and briefly, a beautiful English princess [sic] was an honoured guest at Meerlust’s bountiful table” while tragic oil billionaire Marino Chiavelli, who tried to buy the farm, doesn’t get a mention at all. But then perhaps some stories will have to keep for the quatrocentenary.