A visit to the picturesque town of Franschhoek in the Cape winelands, a 40-minute drive from Cape Town, quickly makes clear the influence that the French Huguenots had on the development of the wine industry in South Africa.
In 1685, Louis XIV of France issued an edict (the Edict of Fontainebleau) that essentially put an end to religious tolerance in France. Hundreds of thousands of Huguenots, who were Protestant in Catholic France, sought refuge in neighbouring countries. Roughly 200 of those who fled to the Netherlands took the Dutch up on their offer of free passage to the Cape colony between 1688 and 1689.
Although the French Huguenots had very few possessions — and could bring even less with them on the voyage — they did possess skills. More specifically, they were skilled in wine farming, and wine was one of the items that ships passing the Cape needed. In addition to free passage, the Huguenots were also promised land, seed and equipment. Although 200 may seem like a small number, at the time it made up a sixth of the white settler population of the Cape colony.
Most of the Huguenots settled in an area that is now known as Franschhoek (Dutch for “French corner”). At the time, however, it was known as Olifantshoek Vallei “Elephant’s-corner Valley”) because of the herds of elephants that roamed the area. The Huguenots named their farms after the areas in France from which they had come.
Because the Dutch East India Company had a strict language policy that ensured Dutch was the only language spoken in schools and used for official correspondence, it wasn’t long before the Huguenots were assimilated into Dutch culture. By the middle of the 18th century, French had disappeared as a home language.
However, the French influence can still be seen in the surnames of many white South African families and in the names of the wine farms in Franschhoek — La Motte, La Cotte, Cabriere, Provence, Chamonix and Dieu Donne.
In Franschhoek you will find the Huguenot Monument and the accompanying Huguenot Memorial Museum, which recognises the role that these early settlers played in shaping the Cape. The monument is made up of three arches, which symbolise the Holy Trinity, and a central female figure who personifies religious freedom — in her one hand she carries a bible, in the other a broken chain.
Of course, if you really want to immerse yourself in the heritage of the French Huguenots, you should spend the rest of the day tasting wine in the region!
Foraging for wild ingredients is on-trend in kitchens across the world, and one acclaimed chef is bringing a taste of the wild to his Franschhoek restaurant in the heart of the Cape winelands.
Franschhoek has long been one of the culinary hotspots of the Cape Winelands, the wine-growing region an hour’s drive from Cape Town’s city centre. With its long French heritage many of the restaurants here tend to be inspired by France and classical continental cooking.
Chris Erasmus, chef of Foliage restaurant, finds his inspiration a little closer to home: in the hills around the quaint winelands town of Franschhoek. Erasmus has a strong ‘field-to-fork’ philosophy that informs the food at Foliage restaurant. His meat and fish are sourced from ethical and sustainable farms and producers, while the backbone of the menu comes from the ingredients growing wild.
“At Foliage, anything goes and we build the menu around what’s growing now, what’s available, and we play with that,” says Erasmus.
That could mean wild mushrooms in Cape Town’s Autumn (March to April), flour made from hand-collected acorns, or an incredible Waldorf salad using fiddlehead ferns collected from the high slopes of a nearby Cape wine estate.
While the ingredients at Foliage are sometimes unconventional, the food isn’t. Foliage is a bistro at heart and although the menu changes almost daily you’ll always find comfort food with bold flavours on offer at this restaurant: think risotto of wild mushrooms and lardons of local bacon; perhaps steak tartare given a lift by Cape Malay spices, the traditional flavours brought over by the slaves in the early years of Cape Town’s history; don’t miss the pan-fried yellowtail, a firm-textured local fish, served with a pesto of dandelion and pumpkin seeds alongside local waterblommetjies, a flower that grows wild in farm ponds.
The cooking techniques and ingredients at this Cape winelands restaurant are accomplished and innovative, but there’s a welcome lack of pretension on the plate. The open kitchen lets you glimpse the top chef and his crew at work, and Erasmus is always on hand to explain the menu if needed.
Is this the most famous restaurant in Franschhoek? Not yet. Is it one of the best? Absolutely.