Cape Town - What has the Biblical Tower of Babel got to do with the Simonsberg wine region in the Western Cape? If you visit this under-sung piece of real estate hiding in the lee of the great mountain range, you’ll soon find out.
Let’s start with the name Babylonstoren, which you will find on the Klapmuts Simondium Road in Franschhoek, just off the R44.
Don’t expect neat rows of vines and a state-of-the-art tasting venue that breathes new world sophistication, because that is not the emphasis – or certainly not noticeably so.
Nor does it need to be. A legacy dating back 400 years has forged such a natural and magical ambience that you would think you had been dropped off there by horse and cart.
History virtually bubbles out wherever you go in these parts.
Anyway, this particular slice of history dates to Governor Simon van der Stel who granted a free burgher, Pieter van der Byl, a small piece of land at the foot of a conical hill, which the farmers thought looked like the Tower of Babel.
Dozens of good and bad things have happened since lucky Piet got his land, but amazingly through a myriad of changes and upheavals, the original whitewashed farmhouse withstood it all.
And if you want a real farmyard – like the ones children used to play with, with tin figures, milking stools and plump chickens, this is it.
Still in use is the ornate fowl house, where a family of Australorp chickens rule the roost.
Also in evidence is the old koornhuis (granary for storing wheat and hay) and even the old slave bell, which harks back to some not-so-good times.
A good place to start your visit is the bakery, if just to whet your appetite for a picnic-style lunch at the end of a stroll.
There are home-made cheeses, bottled preserves of figs, baby oranges, peaches and olives, and a charcuterie for fresh poultry and meat. Add to that yoghurt, fresh milk and cream, and soft cheese.
I loved the reasons the current owner, farmer, chef and lover of organic food and nature Miranda Engelbrecht gives for why she bought it.
“The first time I saw Babel it was a run-down cattle kraal surrounded by weeds and few rusty farm implements. I thought this was the opportunity of a lifetime to create honest food with an edge.”
She says the one thing she didn’t want to do in her culinary journey at Babylonstoren was to “slash fruit and vegetables into small pieces. This place has changed the way I think about food”.
You can see that when you take the garden route around her property where fruit and vegetables grow with natural energy in sync with the environment, climate and conditions.
What she says she loves most is that the ideas for the dishes served in the farm’s restaurants evolve as the garden directs and not the other way round.
We didn’t eat at the fancier restaurant, where I am told you have to book at weeks in advance, but found the greenhouse charming.
It’s not the sort that Beatrix Potter and farmer McGregor knew, but a wonderfully domed glass building that wouldn’t go amiss in Kew Gardens, filled with exotic foliage and not hot as you might have expected.
The dishes here cater more for family tastes and are kinder to the bank balance. Patés, an assortment of cheese and home-made bread, fresh salads… what more could you ask for on a warm sunny day in the Cape, sipping a glass of crisp Chenin Blanc?
Apart from the abundance of fresh produce that grows seemingly at will, it’s a must-visit place for anyone who likes to paint.
Everywhere you look there is another living canvas to capture on camera – roosters that look as though they’ve just emerged from a Gainsborough painting, families of whiter-than-snow ducks (apparently they eat the snails, so there’s no need for pesticides) and ripe fruit that could be part of a still life oil painting.
An abundance of blue and white old Cape Dutch china designs fashioned into “carpets” surrounds some of the older trees like giant plates.
At the entrance you’ll see where that vision comes from. In a long glass-topped trough are hundreds of fragments of old china, dug up when the farm was being developed and lovingly rescued and remembered.
There has to be a shop to support all that goes on here. My favourite was Miranda Engelbrecht’s coffee table book Babel, which sets out the history of the place and some astounding recipes, using “just the simple things that grow in our garden”.
At R480 or so, it’s expensive, but well worth it.
If you spoil yourself, try her baked artichokes with Buffalo Mozzarella, prosciutto and tomato concasse, You’ll want to move to the Cape.
More about Babylonstoren
Babylonstoren garden has various blocks, one of which is devoted to select vines for producing four white and eight red wines.
The objective, says farm manager Hannes Aucamp is a harvest that will reach the cellar needing little more than the cellar master’s patience and skill.
Orchards complete the patchwork, with olives, citrus and 15 varieties of plums.
The formal design of the kitchen garden was inspired by the Dutch East India's garden created in 1650.
Babylonstoren is on the warmer, north-facing slopes of the Simonsberg. Cooling winds result in an optimal ripening period for grapes that yield concentrated fruit.
The natural vegetation of the farm is fynbos, one of the smallest and richest of Earth’s six floral kingdoms.
The R10 entrance fee goes to the Babylonstoren School Centre, which now has a choir and netball and soccer teams. - Sunday Tribune