Cape Town offers much produce to be picked by visitors, as well as good seafood and wine

Sample what the South African city has to offer with produce picked with your own hands, as well as enjoy stellar seafood and wine

Through a gap in the bushes I see nasturtium leaves rising like tiny, terrestrial lily-pads in the thicket.I am about to pick them when my guide stops me, pointing to a 1m-wide web hanging over my head.

"But there's no spider there," I say, confused.

"Exactly," she replies. The spider can be anywhere.

Potentially dangerous South African wildlife is the reason Ms Amari de Jager, sous chef of Camissa Brasserie in The Table Bay hotel, and I do not venture far off the path as we forage along the base of Table Mountain in Cape Town. We are scouring the ground for edible treats such as wild sorrel and sweet peas to use in our lunch later.

From nearby bushes, we have already picked dozens of num-nums, a red, sour plum-like fruit named for the slightly numbing effect of its white sap. Stewed with star anise, cinnamon sticks and cloves, they make a tangy-sweet compote, perfect with beef or pork fillets.

 
 

Now, we are picking delicately peppery nasturtiums to be used in a carpaccio of kudu - a wild antelope known for its lean, lightly venison-flavoured meat.

In truth, the pleasant warmth of the sun and the exoticism of foraging on Table Mountain have lulled me into a sense of well-being. Though this is South Africa, the dangers of the wilderness have not occurred to me.

But a few steps to the right, Ms Amari shows me a crumpled, grapefruit-sized bundle of dried leaves hanging from a branch. It is a spider's nest.

"Soon there will be thousands of baby spiders crawling out from there," she says as we walk back to the car.

Our next stop, the tidal pools of Mouille Point, is a half-hour drive away. There, we step into the crystal clear shallows, flowing with vegetal bounty. We are in search of two types of seaweed, sea lettuce and spaghetti, which Ms Amari will saute with lobster ravioli.

Across the water I can see Robben Island, where the late South African president and anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years.

We have missed the low tide and have to forfeit much of the spaghetti seaweed which is now lodgedtoo deep in the water. With bags full of bright emerald sea lettuce, we make one last stop, pulling over by the Radisson Blu Waterfront hotel to pick what looks like weeds creeping up a barbed wire fence.

This, Ms Amari explains, is dune spinach, a succulent which grows along sandy shores. Covered in minuscule white hairs, the fleshy leaves sparkle in the sunlight and have a crisp, slightly salty taste.

An hour later, I am sitting on the Camissa Brasserie's patio on the edge of the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, enjoying the fruits of our foraging labour, with a glass of South African rose and a perfect view of Table Mountain. The flat-topped mountain rises majestically from the bay and defines the Cape Town landscape.

My meal includes kudu carpaccio with nasturtium leaves, sweet pea flowers, wild sorrel and sliced clementines; and also grilled and fried baby squid salad with cucumbers, chili, fennel and confetti bush - a floral plant which resembles tiny pine needles. It is one of the best meals of my three-day trip.

The Table Bay Hotel, where I am staying, has offered these foraging tours since October last year. Rooms at the five-star hotel start at R3,124 (S$348) per night.

Under the guidance of local urban forager Charles Standing (theurbanhuntergatherer.com), the tours are typically led by the hotel's executive chef Jocelyn Myers-Adams. There are two foraging itineraries: one takes visitors around the city; the other focuses on Cape Point, south of Cape Town.

The packages include a guided foraging tour, cooking with the chef, a three-course lunch or dinner made with foraged goods and wine or soft drinks. The cost is R5,800 for four people around Cape Town and R7,000 for a minimum of six persons to Cape Point.

Foraging is a fantastic experience, not only to try some new, unique flavours, but because the great diversity and freshness of produce is what stands out about Cape Town cuisine.

Seafood is stellar on the Western Cape and there are plenty of places to savour it. In the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront area, Den Anker Belgian restaurant (www.denanker.co.za) is the ideal place for a seafood lunch with clear views of Table Mountain. But I prefer the food at Harbour House (www.harbourhouse.co.za), where, for dinner one night, I enjoy masala-dusted calamari salad and a bowl of creamy, fresh mussels.

One of the best ways to end a day of touring the cape is by heading to the southern suburb of Camps Bay for cocktails and dinner. This is the place to people-watch hot young Capetonians. The Cod Father Seafood and Sushi Restaurant (www.codfather.co.za) is an area institution, known for an array of sushi (I have a memorable roll of avocado, prawn tempura and spicy sauce, topped with fresh mango slices). Instead of a menu, customers go up to refrigerated display cases stocked with the area's freshest fish, including lobster, crayfish, flounder, snapper, yellow tail and monkfish.

After selecting the fish, the kitchen will cook it to each diner's specifications. It is an immensely popular restaurant, so The Cod Father can feel chaotic.

For a more relaxed meal and better views of Camps Bay's main strip and beachfront, go to Blues Restaurant (www.blues.co.za). Try to snag a patio table for a vantage point of children splashing in the man-made seawater pool and the sun setting over the South Atlantic.

To sample the region's produce and diverse cuisine in one place, head to Neighbourgoods Market (www.neighbourgoodsmarket.co.za/cape-town). Held every Saturday at The Old Biscuit Mill in the up-and- coming Woodstock neighbourhood, the market highlights award-winning ceramics, leather goods, clothing and jewellery, produce and more.

Bunches of pink protea blossoms - South Africa's national flower - and also deep purple figs and cartons of multi-coloured mushrooms catch my attention. I cannot resist the fresh shitake, oyster and portabello mushrooms grilled on skewers with just a sprinkling of olive oil and herbs for R35.

Come early and come hungry, because the market fills up by 10am as locals and tourists gather to sample food from dozens of stalls selling home-made tarts, dried sausage, artisanal chocolates and biltong - a spiced, cured meat. Fresh oysters can also be savoured there with juice or mimosas.

The Old Biscuit Mill is also home to The Test Kitchen (www.thetestkitchen.co.za), voted Africa's best restaurant in the 2014 edition of The World's 50 Best Restaurants, the only restaurant in Africa to make the list. Getting a reservation is not easy. When I called in February, there was no available seat till August.

Indeed, Cape Town's best restaurants are booked months in advance, particularly during peak season from December through early March, when South Africans and international tourists descend on Cape Town to enjoy its luscious food and Mediterranean climate.

This trickles down to other top and mid-tier restaurants in the city and the Stellenbosh winelands, about an hour's drive east of the city. This is home to five of South Africa's top 10 restaurants - The Tasting Room, Jordan, Overture, Rust en Vrede and Terroir .

Getting a last-minute reservation at one of these restaurants can require a force of nature. In my case, a nearby forest fire has funnelled smoke into the valley, causing a couple of diners to cancel their reservations at Terroir (www.kleinezalze.co.za), an alfresco restaurant in the Kleine Zalze vineyard.

Fortunately, by the time of my 6.30pm dinner reservation, the wind has turned, allowing me to enjoy a wonderful meal beneath ancient oak trees, with a view of the verdant valley, blue skies and mountain peaks.

Terroir is known for its slow cooked, intensely flavoured and modern takes on traditional dishes which capitalise on the freshest local produce, such as my starter of cured and smoked trout with horseradish cream, asparagus and green apple.

My three-course meal with a bottle of wine proves to be the priciest of the trip, but at less than $200 for two people, it is a steal compared with what a Top 10 Singapore restaurant may charge.

Even if you cannot secure a reservation at one of these restaurants, there is plenty to enjoy in the Cape Winelands. I book a full-day wine tour through The Table Bay Hotel (R3,400 for two guests). Its drivers are also knowledgeable tour guides, well versed in the history, culture, food and wine of the region.

My guide for the day is Mr Nabeel Sayed, who was born in Cape Town. As we drive the 45 minutes from the hotel to the Stellenbosch region, he gives me a detailed account of the area's natural and colonial history, his background - though he looks North Indian, he is of mixed Turkish, Burmese and Indonesian descent - and his experiences of apartheid.

Our first stop in the Stellenbosch region is Vrede en Lust (www.vnl.co.za), one of the oldest wine farms, circa 1688. These days, it is best known for its award-winning wines and chief winemaker Susan Erasmus, who won the 2007 Woman Winemaker of the Year. It costs R25 for a tasting of six wines, roughly the astonishingly low rate for tastings at most vineyards in the region.

Down the road is Solms Delta (www.solms-delta.co.za), a wine farm with more than 300 years of history, now owned and run by Mr Mark Solms, a renowned neuroscientist.

The farm produces the full-flavoured flagship Africana, made with Shiraz vines desiccated on the vine. Wines are also available for tasting at the vineyard's Fyndraai Restaurant, which blends the European, Asian and African cuisines of the cape in one menu - though anyone wishing to sample true Cape Malay cuisine should head to Bo-Kaap, the brightly coloured township at the base of Signal Hill.

This is home to the Cape Malay minority group, descendants of the predominantly Indonesian and South Indian people who were brought to South Africa as slaves by the Dutch.

With time for one last stop, we drive back toward Cape Town to Constantia, the oldest wine region in South Africa. White grapes thrive there and produce spectacular sauvignon blancs thanks to the cold ocean air which blows over the mountain - warm in the morning, cool in the evening - and the sunlight.

We make our way to Groot Constantia, the oldest vineyard in South Africa, which opened in 1685. Its most famous wine is The Grand Constance, a blend of white and red Muscat grapes and a favourite of Napoleon Bonaparte. The vineyard also offers cellar tour and wine tasting.

I take a walk to see the grapes, which are full and dark on the vine, ready for a harvest. The sun is beginning to set behind Table Mountain. It is hard to reconcile the natural splendour with the oppression which haunted the land, though now I understand why generations have refused to leave it.

vlydia@sph.com.sg

The writer's trip was sponsored by Sun International and Singapore Airlines.

  • A version of this story first appeared in the June 2015 issue of The Life e-magazine in The Straits Times Star E-books app, with the headline "Hunting with a view".