Monthly Archives: May 2010

An Inspiring Detour into Kayamandi Township

During
my nearly four months in South Africa I met a lot of people, drank a lot of
wine, ate a lot of food, and saw some amazing things, but the absolute
highlight of my trip was a visit to Kayamandi township two days before my
departure. Though I’ve been to Jamestown, the small township across the fence
from Blaauwklippen, I jumped at the opportunity to check out Stellenbosch’s
largest township (over 29,000 residents, nearly all Xhosa) with a local
activist named Selwyn Davidowitz who’s deeply involved in several community
projects there.

 

Thanks
to Selwyn’s involvement in Kayamandi, I got an insider’s look at the life of a
township resident. For those not familiar with the term, a township is a
neighborhood that was restricted to either black or coloured citizens during
apartheid. Though institutionalized apartheid ended fifteen years ago, not much
has changed for the majority of township residents. Poverty is extreme: residents are often crammed into tiny makeshift shacks with no running water or electricity and communal toilet and bathing facilities. Social violence is a sad reality and HIV/AIDS infection rates are unacceptably high. Worst of all, the townships
have a stigma of danger and depressing images that discourages many whites from
ever visiting them.

 
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 Car tires get a new life as garden beds, a fine example of Kayamandi ingenuity

This
is a mistake. Despite extreme poverty, there is more joy and hope in Kayamandi
than I’ve experienced anywhere in South Africa. The sense of community is incredible:
unlike in the sterile white suburbs, neighbors actually visit each other daily,
take care of each other’s kids, help each other out. No one exemplifies this
incredible spirit of triumph over adversity better than Lily Ngewexana.

 

Lily
is a bit of a celebrity in Kayamandi: owner and founder of Once Upon a Stove
homestay, which receives visitors from all over the world, Lily has put
Kayamandi on the map as a destination for travelers interested in learning
about Xhosa culture firsthand. Because of Selwyn’s personal friendship with
Lily, I was able to not only meet her, but try some of her amazing cooking.
Visitors to Once Upon a Stove have the option of taking cooking classes with
Lily as a hands-on way of learning the Xhosa way of life; she explains, “this
is who I am – I want to share my culture through food.” For lunch Lily had laid
out an incredible meal: side dishes made of cooked pumpkin, mealies (corn), and
potatoes, a marvelous chicken curry, and pap, a cornmeal dish similar to grits
which has become one of my new favorites. Totally bland on its own, pap is
meant to be picked up with the fingers, shaped into a ball, and dipped in a
saucy entrée so it becomes edible cutlery. It’s a fun way to eat, and the pap
absorbs the flavors of the food to make a tasty combination of textures. Washed
down with Lily’s homemade ginger beer, a Xhosa specialty, it was a meal to
remember.

 
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 Lily shows off her house, the world-famous Once Upon a Stove homestay

With
this lovely hostel and excellent cooking, Lily is the picture of success in
Kayamandi. But she wasn’t always on top of the world: as a young girl she was
sexually assaulted and became pregnant, and had to fend for herself with a baby
in tow, selling used clothing to put food on the table. A few years later she
suffered even greater misery when her husband began abusing her viciously – to
this day her arms are covered with angry scars, painful evidence of her ability
to withstand hardship. Determined to survive, and now with two young girls in
tow and a third on the way, Lily fled her husband’s tyranny and began selling
whatever she could – clothes, household items, food – to support her family.
Eventually she heard of a bank that was hiring collection agents, and she
showed up without an appointment seeking an interview. “They asked me all these
questions I couldn’t answer, like ‘where is your C.V.?” she recalls. “I didn’t
even know what a C.V. is!” Nor could she provide references, having always
worked for herself. Finally the interviewer asked Lily how she dealt with
robberies, a common occurrence, while selling clothes. She replied, “I know
people. I know how to collect my money. I have never once been robbed.” Though
she had no resume, her work experience won over the interviewer, and the next
day she was hired.

 

After
moving up in the bank and educating her older children, Lily moved back to her
hometown of Kayamandi. Having repossessed a small stove during her work with
the bank which she then purchased, Lily’s cooking career began with a scone
business which funded the building of her house. The finished house became a homestay,
and Once Upon a Stove was born – a B&B where travelers can experience
Kayamandi, volunteering in the community or taking cooking lessons from Lily.
Showing us around her lovely house, Lily’s pride is evident: “Every brick of
this house I built myself!” Her brilliant business skills, truly indomitable
spirit, and hospitality have elevated Once Upon a Stove to international
success: it was featured in the American TV special “1000 Things to Do Before
You Die” and represented at the Food Exhibition in Toronto.

 
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 A delightful room at Once Upon a Stove

Lily
is also a tireless community activist. She’s involved in programs in Kayamandi
for education for children, counseling for domestic abuse victims, and other
projects; it’s clear she is a mother to the whole township as well as her four
well-educated daughters. From unimaginable obstacles to international
recognition, Lily has had a truly remarkable life, and spending the afternoon
with her was the most rewarding experience of my trip.

For
more about Lily and Once Upon a Stove, check out the website:
http://www.once-upon-a-stove.co.uk/

 

Kayamandi
has no shortage of grassroots social projects; Selwyn introduced us to a few of
his own special programs, from a trash cleanup effort to a dance club for
youngsters that includes all types of dance styles – including ballroom
dancing! We had a most wonderful surprise when we stumbled upon an adult choir
practicing in the community center: this untrained group sounded like a
professional gospel choir. It was the most uplifting music I’ve ever heard.
Selwyn told the choir that if they could learn how to record a CD and put all
the steps together, he’d produce it for them. “You give me a good product, and
I’ll take it the rest of the way,” he told the choir leader. It was so exciting
to witness the beginning of a project that could take this amazingly talented
choir to the next level.  It’s a
perfect example of the can-do spirit and sense of hope that exist in Kayamandi
in abundance – let’s hope this attitude, rather than the doubt and cynicism
that so often taint conversations in South Africa, carry this turbulent but
amazing country into the future.

 
CIMG0752
 The kids are cleaning up the neighborhood but not too busy to pose for the camera!

NOTE:
Thanks to the great response I’ve had to this site, and because I’m planning to
return to South Africa next year to do another harvest and some teaching in Kayamandi, I will be keeping
Stellenbauchery updated from my home in the Niagara Escarpment wine region of New York
State. I’ll be reviewing any cool South African wines I drink, covering SA
wine-related events and news, and as usual throwing my little dash of
wine-related politics and social commentary into the mix. Thanks for reading so
far, and stay tuned for more!
 Cheers!

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Cape Town’s Backyard: Wine in Constantia

The sunny winelands of Stellenbosch, Paarl and
Franschhoek get the lion's share of wine-loving tourists in South Africa. But
as a New Yorker I tend to seek out cool-climate wines whenever possible, and
though Germans might scoff at what South Africa considers to be
"cool-climate," many of the producers in these cooler regions are
garnering critical accolades. I spent an afternoon exploring cloudy Constantia,
which is turning out some top-quality wines just 20 minutes from Cape Town
proper.

Groot
Constantia was an obvious place to start: it's South Africa's first wine farm.
Lovely inside and out, with Dutch colonial architecture and colorful artwork on
the walls, the farm has a wonderful sense of history: it fueled Napoleon
Bonaparte with the nectar of the gods during his exile on St. Helena. Sauvignon
blanc is the shining star in Constantia, and Groot Constantia's version is
ghostly pale with lovely flinty characteristics and just a whisper of lime
peel. It’s a refreshing departure from the limey, resiny warmer-weather
sauvignon blanc examples I’ve been drinking in Stellenbosch.

 
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I
couldn’t make a trip to Constantia without stopping at Buitenverwachting, both
a darling of critics and well-known in South Africa for its outstanding
commitment to housing and education for its workers. Offering elementary-level
schooling for children of workers and some housing is standard practice for
South African wine farms, but at Buitenverwachting, employees live in beautiful
homes (rather than tiny huts or dorm-style buildings) and their children attend
top schools at the expense of the company.

 
P5020027
  Buitenverwachting's lovely tasting room

This
approach is working – the only thing that doesn’t go down smooth about
Buitenverwachting’s lovely wines is the name. (For the curious, it’s pronounced
“buy-ten-fear-vock-tin,” with a nice rolled “r” if you want to sound
intimidating.) Look for the farm in the excellent film Blood Diamond – several
scenes were shot on the estate.

 

Buitenverwachting
offers two 2009 sauvignon blancs: a more fruity style with lovely perfumey
notes of lychee and raspberry, and a single-vineyard version called Hussey’s
Vlei. The latter was outstanding, with beautiful acidity and a delicate nose of
pebbles and shale.

 

Sauvignon
Blanc isn’t the only cultivar that excels here; I tasted some wonderful reds
including a 2006 cab franc with supremely franc-y lead pencil and pepper notes
and their obligatory Bordeaux-style blend, 2006 Christine. A surprising
highlight was the 2006 Rough Diamond, a blend of 60% petit verdot and 40%
malbec: it had the fruity, warm spice nose of a typical malbec but also flavors
of sardines and cured meat and grainy tannins which led to an elegant finish.
Having never tried a petit verdot/malbec combo before I was impressed: it seems
that serious, deep, no-nonsense petit verdot can force giggly, laid-back malbec
to grow up, get a haircut and take some responsibility for its life.

 

We
capped off our tasting at Steenberg with dinner at its renowned Bistro 1652 in
mind, but the tasting experience was enough to make me forget about my rumbling
stomach. Steenberg offers the best sauvignon blanc that I have tasted in South
Africa, with only Buitenverwachting a close second. Our excellent server, who
was unusually knowledgeable about vineyard practices and technical information,
poured us a large flight which included three sauvignon blanc examples, and the
range of flavors was amazing. The 2008 had fascinating flavors of bamboo
sprouts and sesame paste – an ideal pairing for pad thai or sushi. The 2009, an
entry-level sauv blanc, offered more of a fruity personality, and the stunning
2009 Reserve boasted a delicate pebbly nose, gorgeous mouthfeel, and layers of
simply sensuous acidity.

 
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 Vineyards at Steenberg under a typical Constantia sky

Of
Steenberg’s excellent reds, my favorite was the 2005 merlot. Truly in a class
by itself, this merlot had an Italian-style nose of soppressata and herbs, with
a hint of wild blueberry and some lovely menthol notes. I also enjoyed the
powerful Catharina blend. I was thrilled to see nebbiolo on the list, but this
one, a 2007, clearly needs a few years before it develops a distinctive
character.

 

A
fantastic meal of tapas and Steenberg MCC at the bistro capped off the day; I
went home completely sold on Constantia as a region to watch in South Africa.
“Cool-climate” may be a problematic term for this region; rather, I’d say this
is some of the best of South Africa – maybe some of the other regions are just
too hot! 

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