Down Williston way

The Williston Hotel wears its one star proudly, on a plaque outside the door. It wears, equally proudly, a certificate stating that it serves wine by the glass. There are old sewing machines, leather suitcases and hatboxes, wooden kists, old tins and tea-chests. ‘Hotel California’ is playing in the bar. We’d been driving through the Karoo most of the day. We hadn’t checked in yet and already we thought we might never leave.
It was like going back twenty years. None of the political claptrap of twenty years ago, mind you. Just the easy-going hospitality of a South African dorp hotel. Williston is in the middle of the Karoo, in the centre of South Africa. Away from the tourist routes. Away from timeshare and golf resorts, zebra-stripe and sushi.

Like all those old dorp hotels, the Williston Hotel is intriguing. The rooms are basic; the curtains are threadbare, the floors creaking, the mattresses sprung like traps. Sit down too suddenly and you hit the ceiling. There is an old bakelite phone by the bed, but it isn’t connected, and a hospital-style radio marked with sadly obsolete stations – Springbok and the A programme. You expect to press a button and for a pukka-toned voice in the bedhead to say “Good Morning, this is the English Service of the SABC”.

The bathwater takes 10 minutes to run hot, amidst much creaking and cracking, but when it gets to you it’s instantly so hot that you can’t put the bath-plug in. The loo-handle is upside down and has to be yanked but it flushes with the power of the Victoria Falls.
By the time I reached the bar that evening, I knew the definition. Gasvryheid. Hospitality is one thing, but gasvryheid is more. Guest freedom.
Gasvryheid-Provider-in-Chief is Else Grant. She and husband Geoff (who is banished to the kitchen for good reason) bought the hotel a year ago. Else was born in Williston but they had been living in Aliwal-North for many years. They then tried P.E. for a year but hated it. (Could this be further proof that gasvryheid is a step beyond friendliness?).

The bar is filled with friends and locals and Else is buzzing around sympathising with those of us who think that the Karoo night is chilly and showing us how to dress for the climate. Else is hospitality in an anorak.

Geoff came out of the kitchen only once, when she called him to “kom kyk vir hierdie mense van Aliwal-Noord”. He wasn’t to speak to them though. Merely to look at them and remind himself, presumably, how lucky he was to be living in Williston (which 20 years ago would have said it had a population of 300) and not on the N6 just around the corner from a concentration camp in Aliwal North. Much better off here with the quiet, the karakuls and the corbelled houses.

We learned about chiselled tombstones and singing hills, skuinskoek and kossemeer. But more than anything else we learnt what it is to be looked after, in an alien environment, as if you belong.

Geoff’s menu was a shock, as was his dinner. No frozen calamari, no chicken and chips here. I had the snails in blue cheese which bubbled deliciously all over the place like a souffle and then I had the best Madagascar Green Peppercorn steak imaginable to follow. Tender beef, crunchy fresh peppercorns, chopped onions and cream, al dente veggies and a good dose of gasvryheid. The lamb chops were just as good.
We drank too much, but not as much too much as the overwhelmed woman from Cape Town at the next table. She got stuck into the cocktails after dinner and her last words to the locals, as we sidled off to bed, were “Daar’s en special op whisky in Teazers van half agt tot tien”. One wonders what the good burgers of Williston (pop. 300) made of that.

Breakfast held no surprises. It was expectedly excellent and we were greeted with freshly-ground coffee, real toast made from real bread (not government loaf squashed in sandwich-toaster), the perfect fried egg and that almost extinct concept, the edible breakfast sausage.
The Grants have plans to renovate the rooms but I have some advice for them. Change the mattresses and possibly the curtains (but please no pink and green swirly) and connect the phones and the radios if you must, but don’t change anything else. Keep it one star and, Else, keep him in the kitchen.

We were sorry to check out. Never mind The Eagles, we didn’t want to leave. We wanted to stay in the Karoo for the rest of our lives..

Williston Savoury Grilled Lamb Chops

Ingredients

Lamb loin chops cut to 2-2,5cm thickness
Colmans hot English mustard
Colmans mint sauce
Honeyy
Lemon juice
Salt
Black pepper

Method:

1. Heat a small quantity of oil in a thick-based pan. Sear chops on both sides for 30 seconds to seal them.
2. Make a paste of 50% mustard and 50% mint sauce. Spread a layer on one side of the chops. Sprinkle with a little pepper and salt. Make a mix of 60% honey and 40% lemon juice. Pour some over each chop.
3. Place under grill, 15cm below the element. Grill until covering caramelises (approx 3 minutes).
4. Turn chops over and repeat steps 2 and 3.

A farm so fare

FARM FARE
Church Street, Graaff-Reinet,
Tel (049) 892 3212

I scoured the area around Graaff-Reinet for a padstal. There had to be one. I drove in every direction on the roads to Pearston, to Jansenville, to Goliatskloof, all place-names with stories attached (especially Goliatskloof). Graaff-Reinet was, it appeared, a giant of a place, but no padstal.

Of course, there was a reason. The people of the Karoo are a friendly, cooperative bunch and after the 1971 drought, more than forty ladies got together and opened an outlet in the town. Obvious, really, in a place where more than half the vehicles on the road are passing traffic, concentrate your efforts into supplying one shop at the bottom of Church St, the one street that everybody travels.
The result is an absolute delight. A wider, fresher range of biscuits, jams, chutneys, breads, cakes, game meat, quiches and koeksisters than Fortnum and Mason. (I suspect that Fortum’s doesn’t sell koeksisters at all). And you’ve got to love a shop that has a sketch of a dachshund on the notice showing the whereabouts the wors’

Try Koperpennie Wortelslaai or Beetroot Chutney. There are pickles you’d never have thought of, each labelled with suggestions as to what it might accompany. There are even Muffins in a Jar, with contents layered like a Namibian sand-bottle and instructions for converting the dry ingredients to make 12 muffins. And there’s lekker Ginger Beer.

Farm Fare is butcher, baker and condiment-maker. So wherever you are coming from, visit these ladies, and kill many Goliats with one stone.

A little light relief

Graaff-Reinet is gearing itself up for Christmas – so much so that you’d almost notice. The girls in Clicks were wearing Santa hats this morning and I am sure I spotted some tinsel on the shelves in Spar, but so far nothing on the tills, hanging from the ceilings or dangling tantalising over the Karoo lamb cuts in the butchery.

It is such a relief.

Elsewhere in South Africa, the shops have been draped with gaudiness for at least a month already. Panic-buying has set in and the roads are filling up. But in Graaff-Reinet it’s just another lazy, hazy weekend. Hot, dry, dusty days are relieved by the afternoon rush of a south-easter. Nobody is going away. Graaff-Reineters actually like where they live and they are staying put.

Peace will only descend here altogether once the rush-through is over. Convoys of X5s and Fortunas, with their Venters and their woonwas hooked up, snake their constant way through town towards the coast, barely casting an eye around them. Luckily for Graaff-Reinet, very few of these passing pilgrims seem to notice its appeal, which is precisely why it still has so much.

Pleasant evenings whiled away in the Graaff-Reinet Club evoke mystical memories of times gone by, when this little town was the launch-pad for just about every great movement in our country’s history. It was from here that the Voortrekkers trekked, that the pioneers pioneered, that diamond-seekers sought and that great hunters hunted. Under its sleepy surface this town is alive with stories.

Next to the Club is the Coldstream Restaurant named, not after the warm occasional stream that is the Sundays River, but after the regiment, the Coldstream Guards, whose officers’ mess this was during the Anglo-Boer War.

The Coldstream, run by Inge Weich, is also manifestly ignoring Christmas, not out of Scroogish tendencies but rather out of a very sensible realism related to the fact that Christ was only born on one day, not on every day in December and early January.

After an evening at the Club a good breakfast is required and the Coldstream is open from 10 in the morning. What could me more civilised, what could be more Karoo, than a tender kudu steak, no steak knife required, for breakfast, with potato crisps, two eggs, boerewors, grilled tomato and toast?

Eat your heart out Steak, Egg and Chips. Enjoy your Wimpy Double-up Bottoms-up Breakfast all you passing Gautengers. This is The Business, washed down with a fine mug of coffee and a view, through the honeysuckle and past the old-time streetlamp, of That Church, That Icon of the Town, proud replica of Salisbury Cathedral (although it doesn’t look much like it to me) and one of the Karoo’s greatest landmarks.

But there’s more. Inge does lunch, and dinner, and tea and scones. And it’s all great and local and fresh and herby and very tuisnyverheid and yellowwood. The calamari steak salad, the trio of sliced springbok, beef and ostrich fillets, the pan-fried sole and a fine Creme brulee. Good, reasonably-priced wines. Friendly, service with proper titles. “Gentleman, may I bring you a drink?” The Coldstream is what a restaurant should be.

Inge plans, very sensibly, to celebrate Christmas at home on Christmas Day, but in the meantime in a moment of festive colour if not fare, she has offered us what she describes as her Very Lovely Cream of Tomato Soup recipe. Well. it’s red, like the Santa hats in Clicks – and you could bung in a dollop or two of whipped cream to make a bobble and a fluffy white brim, if required.

Coldstream Cream of Tomato Soup

Ingredients

1kg tomatoes
80g leeks
10g onions
40g celery
60g carrots
40g butter
5g chopped garlic
100g tomato paste
70g white flour
2.5l vegetable stock
300ml heavy cream
Chopped basil

Method:

Cut tomatoes into cubes, removing seeds.
Wash and dice the leeks, onions, celery and carrots. Saute in butter with the garlic. Add tomato paste and continue cooking.
When cooked, dust with flour and allow to cool.
Heat vegetable stock, add to vegetable mixture and bring to boil, stirring continuously. Add cubed tomatoes and boil until all ingredients are soft, skimming occasionally.
Puree and strain. Bring to boil again and stir in cream. Season to taste. (If too acidic add sugar or fresh orange juice)
Garnish with finely diced tomatoes and chopped basil.