A year in Slanghoek
What can be more pleasant than a visit to a wine farm, especially when the wine happens to be a special favourite.
The experience generates a feeling – real or imagined - of a better understanding of that favourite, even if all you’ve seen is the vineyard where the grapes grow, met some of the people involved with the wine’s creation and maybe enjoyed a glass over lunch at the farm’s restaurant. Yet this is but a small snapshot of life on the farm; the glamorous side visitors see is far from day to day life, which may involve much else other than wine.
Enter Christine Stevens, who with her husband Mark and two sons, lives on Mountain Oaks, a farm in a beautiful if relatively undiscovered part of the Cape winelands, Slanghoek. The name might not have the resonance of Provence – where Stevens loves to visit for inspiration in both food and wine – but can capture the imagination just as easily.
After reading Stevens’ Harvest Diaries, I’d defy anyone not to want to immediately go and visit – as I do, but that will have to wait like everything else until Platter is finally done and dusted.
As my title suggests, the book is divided into the 12 months of the year, with January leading us into the adventure. ‘Every year, I move my office outside for the month of January, and there it stays. It’s really quite a simple affair. I am content with a simple green metal table under the tall pin oak that towers over the swimming pool.’ This is how the diaries start and this simple but not trivial, descriptive narrative continues throughout. A few pages on, there is a photo of Stevens sitting at the metal table under the pin oak; it is as she describes it. Indeed, Russel Wasserfall’s photos complement the copy in that nothing looks staged, even the food.
Ah, I haven’t mentioned that the sub-title of Harvest Diaries is ‘A year of food and wine on an organic farm.’ Even when looking for a piece of land, the Stevens’ intention was to farm organically, but the method isn’t forced down the readers’ throats as the only way to go; it is introduced as an intention and that’s it.
Organic applies not only to growing and making wine, as well as the large and varied produce, including animals, on the farm, but to the natural cycle of growing according to the seasons. No tasteless, tunnel-grown strawberries available year round here. Everything has its own season and the abundance that can’t be consumed immediately is turned into jam, frozen, dried, turned into oil (lavender) or whatever other method of preservation. It’s an approach I applaud; who wants to have produce the year round, when, out of season, much tastes of nothing. Stevens also bemoans the lack of variety in crops such as potatoes; another of my bugbears.
Happily, she does more than just whet our tastebuds with tales of all vegetables, fruit, chickens, pigs and cattle; at the end of each chapter are recipes featuring ingredients of the particular month. Again, you do not need to be a Marco Pierre White to attempt and succeed with these. Pork chops grilled with lavender and sage? Broad bean purée (garlic, cumin & crème fraiche are involved. Older, less tender beans are recommended)? Sage risotto? Delicious and easy.
Farm life isn’t all roses; we read of lengthy power outages, a dark, rainy night when Stevens was informed by someone knocking at the door that a young bull was wandering along the road; donning rain jacket, she goes out to find and bring it back. I should point out that her husband is often away on business; he doesn’t send her off to do the dirty work! In summer, fire is a constant danger.
I’ve left the wine till last. If I haven’t yet visited Mountain Oaks, I do know the wines, thanks to tasting them for the past three years for Platter. Tasting, drinking and thoroughly enjoying them. Naturally grown and as naturally made as is possible (Stevens' description of the winemaking process is another instance of keeping it straight and simple, explaining processes without dumbing down), they have real personality (not something you can say about many wines from this area) but need time to show at their best. Stevens says that sadly the market wants only young wines, so those that had a few years’ settling before release are, at present, a thing of the past. Don’t let that put you off trying them, preferably on the farm itself.
Oh and did I mention that Christine Stevens is not a trained winemaker, nor a farmer but an English lady, who for 20 years before the family decamped to Mountain Oaks, travelled the globe as a fashion buyer. Her talents for the tasks her new life involve appear to be inherent but encouraged by two friends who sadly died as she finished this book. She dedicates it to them both. We have to thank Ross Gower that Stevens is making wine on Mountain Oaks; as her dedication to him reads, ‘For Ross for sharing your knowledge and giving me the confidence to make wine.’
After having read Harvest Diaries, which I heartily recommend, you might even dream of living on a farm yourself.
Harvest Diaries is published by Sunbird Publishers and is currently available on Kalahari.com for R166.95