Tequila slammer

Chris Harvie tries out an eatery whose decor is as fearless as its menu

THE INTRODUCTION:

One of Graaff-Reinet’s many claims to fame, along with its numerous national monuments and its Pierneef Museum, is the fact that, until recently, it was the only place in the world outside Mexico to distil tequila. Of course, being from outside Mexico, it couldn’t be called tequila, and instead was named agave, after the blue agave plant from which the spirit is made.

I say “until recently” because the factory is now closed, but around the time of its closure a year or so ago, this unrelated restaurant of the same name popped up in one of the old town’s oldest buildings.

The said restaurant then promptly burnt down and was rapidly reconstructed. Such is Graaff-Reinet – everything has a complicated history – but now Agave is up and running and acquiring something of a reputation in the surrounding Karoo.

THE PROPOSAL:

Bold is the word. Bold red window frames and doors in a town where everything is heritage green. Bold art on walls, floors and mantelpiece. Bold mirrors. Bold candleholders throwing bold shadows from high above the tables.

There’s a bold menu to match, at breakfast, lunch and dinner, with a rightly strong emphasis on gemsbok and other venison, lamb and roosterkoek, but that’s not to say that Agave is stuck in a Karoo lamb rut (if that’s not vulgar); the dinner menu also features Italian, Malay and even Tandoori dishes and some very fine steaks.

There’s a shady courtyard out back with huge loafing chairs for the daytime coffee-and-cake brigade, but we went for dinner.

THE CONSUMMATION:

I chose roasted veg and pesto spring rolls (R40) followed by the open Karoo lamb pie in a crisp pastry shell topped with minted pea mash (R80). The pie was deliciously rich and gluey and the “mashy peas” a triumph. Around the table, the lamb loin chops (R85) came in for heavy praise but the biggest hit was probably the chicken, cranberry and camembert parcel (R65). I thought parcels were passe but I was firmly corrected by a fellow diner, who tucked into this particular package with gusto.

The desserts on offer were cardamom-infused panna cotta with a berry coulis – admittedly on the trendy side – and a more traditional choice of malva pudding or mango and passion fruit mousse (R25).

From a limited but well priced wine list, we enjoyed a Weltevrede sauvignon blanc and a rather delicious Hermanuspietersfontein 1855 Posmeester. The name is a mouthful and the wine is not very highly rated, but I thought it was a treat for R120.

THE CONSEQUENCES:

Without wine but with dessert, it came in at about R160 a head. Some of us got away with less. While not cheap, there’s no compromise on quality and the smiling service adds value to the red-and-white decor, the red and white wine, and the unusually comfortable chairs.

THE CULPRIT:

Quintinn van Rensburg is through-and-through Karoo – his father was even the town’s postmaster until recently – but he learnt his trade at Spier’s Institute of Culinary Arts and formed his style in some of the country’s top kitchens, including the renowned Samara Private Game Reserve. He is young, ambitious, confident and determined. Definitely a name to watch out for.

WHERE IT HAPPENED:

Agave, corner Somerset and Bourke streets, Graaff-Reinet.

Phone 0498910250 or e-mail quintinnchef@polka.co.za.

Open Monday – Friday 8am to 4.30pm and 6pm to 9pm. Saturday 8am – 2pm; 6pm – 9pm. Closed Sunday.

Neighbourly Love

Despite a few scares on the way to the ablution block, Chris Harvie finds Zimbabwe ready and willing for visitors

Leander Starr Jameson stood on the steps of Bulawayo’s first hotel in 1874 and declared the town open. His speech – his entire speech – went like this:

“It is my job to declare this town open, gentlemen. I don’t think we want any talk about it. I make the declaration now. There is plenty of whisky and soda inside, so come in.”

That was it. And the good news is that, after years of chaos, the whole of Zimbabwe is open for business again and not only is there whisky and soda, there is also fuel at the pumps and food in the shops and restaurants. The electricity is on most of the time and there’s water in the taps. The phoenix has risen from the ashes and is soaring in almost-full flight.

Crossing at the Beitbridge border has never been easy. It’s still uneasy but if you follow the arrows, you won’t need any help from the chancers who will stalk you. The roads are in reasonable nick and the $1 tolls every 200km are obviously being put to good use in patching up the few remaining potholes.

The most surprising aspect of our stay was the outstanding quality of the game viewing. Far from being poached out, the animals and birds seem to have reclaimed their territory from mankind during the past few quieter years and are more visible and relaxed than ever before.

Zimbabwe’s national parks all have their individual appeal and each offers a range of accommodation, from well-equipped chalets to basic camping. It would be wrong to suggest that everything is perfect. Some of the buildings are inevitably a bit run down and the ablution blocks in the campsites are not in a great state of repair, but camping is about roughing it a bit, after all, so it’s no great hardship to push a rock against a shower door where the bolt has broken. The water is hot and the toilets are clean and functional. Surely that’s all you really need?

If you haven’t been to Matopos (officially now known as Matobo), you haven’t understood Zimbabwe. Standing on a giant koppie next to Cecil Rhodes’s grave, you can look out over bright lichen and boulder-strewn peaks, with seemingly endless ridges rolling away towards the hazy horizon.

It is truly a majestic place, which brings home all the contrasts of this disrupted land. Everybody wants a bit of Zimbabwe and the issues and claims are real but despite numerous attempts by the powers-that-be to shift him, Cecil Rhodes still has his World’s View, with Jameson, the whisky-drinker, alongside him.

We tried in vain to visit King Lobengula’s nearby grave but nobody seemed to know exactly where it was, this missing link in history seeming somehow anomalous in a confident land, proud of its heritage and broadly tolerant of its past.

Its views aside, camped on the dam at Matopos at the end of two days filled with rock art and rhinos and looking into an unpolluted star-scattered sky, we reckoned it couldn’t get much better – until we arrived in Hwange the next day.

After checking in at the main camp, we quickly pitched our tent next to the mangled fence. One of my co-voyagers had never been on safari so a quick drive in the late afternoon was called for.

“Oh look, there’s a wild dog,” announced the game virgin, and he was right.

In fact, at Hwange, he was to see three wild dogs and then two lionesses stalking a sable before he saw a kudu or an impala. A leopard brazenly dodged the potholes in the road in front of us and we photographed numerous idyllic borehole scenes with scatterings of antelope, zebra and giraffes. The bird life was equally rewarding, with sightings of crowned crane and frequent crimson-breasted shrikes.

A couple of days later, dragging reluctantly north towards Victoria Falls, I was filled with foreboding. On my previous visit, I had cycled across the bridge from Zambia for lunch at the Victoria Falls Hotel. Successfully fighting my way through the hordes of hawkers, I found myself alone on the hotel verandah, where I was offered a warm Coke and cheese sandwich, “If we can find some cheese.”

This time? Transformed. I had one of the most delicious pieces of salmon I have ever eaten on the same stoep, which boasted a polished refurbishment and dozens of tables filled with revelling tourists.

Camping on the river’s edge at the Zambezi National Park’s Chundu camp, with a long-drop loo and washing in the river, we walked along its banks, startling close-up waterbuck, kudu, baboons and numerous smaller critters. And yes, we saw wild dog on the way in. Eleven of them. Hunting. Wow.

The drive to Mana Pools from Vic Falls requires a stopover and ours was at Binga – rather a sad spot on Kariba, littered with abandoned houseboats. But Mana Pools is one of the most beautiful places on earth (once you’ve reconstructed your shattered skeleton after the road). Nine wild dogs wandered through the Nyameni campsite as we put the tent up. Truly.

By day, we walked freely in the bush, scattering the baboons and walking up close to eland, waterbuck and zebra. The earth-quaking roars of a pride of lion over the river in Zambia kept us awake all night and the hippos pulled up on the banks next to our tent, lying like fat ticks in the sand. The animals are described as “habituated”, which is an interesting term. They are not tame but they are used to human presence, which means a wide berth is still advisable. I had more than a few scares on the way to the ablution block.

Nyameni camp is truly astonishing. Next time, I shall stay for a week. Or maybe two.

Late one afternoon, we hired a kayak from a park official called Lovemore and a fishing rod from another called Trymore. Lovemore took us down the river gurgling with grunting hippos, stopping on an island or two to fish for bream in the pools. A pair of elephant tussled on the bank.

The sun dropped through an orange sky into the river as we headed back upstream with two fish bagged and the hippos erupting loudly around us. Safely ashore, we were greeted, unbelievably, by another member of the staff called Givemore. These names seemed to sum up the new Zimbabwe and all three of these Mores begged us to spread the word and send our friends. We promised we would.

A few last words of advice when visiting Zimbabwe: don’t rush. Be appreciative of the Zimbabweans’ enthusiasm for their new-found stability. Buy your supplies at TM supermarkets countrywide. Pay your fines with a good grace and get a receipt. Beware of wild dog everywhere.

And avoid Jack’s Zimbabwean Whiskey – it tastes like meths, and is slightly purple in colour, so probably is meths. Even Leander Starr Jameson, however enthusiastic he might have felt for highland flavours, would have had to draw the line somewhere well above this tipple were it to fall to him to celebrate the reopening of Zimbabwe with a tot or two, but that reopening is nevertheless worthy of huge celebration.