Camphors: Exceptional journey of discovery on the plate and palate
By Bianca Coleman
Vergelegen Estate in Somerset West is a truly beautiful place to visit and its Camphors restaurant – named after five giant camphor trees in front of the historic homestead and surrounded by large gardens – serves exceptional fine dining that is suitably gorgeous to see and taste.
Executive chef Michael Cooke took over in 2014 and not surprisingly, the restaurant was included in the 2015 list of top 20 restaurants in South Africa, as well as achieving the highest status of three stars in the annual independent Rossouw’s Restaurant Guide, and was one of only a few restaurants in South Africa to achieve “Plate” status in the recently launched JHP Gourmet Guide.
The 3000-hectare farm, which is more than 300 years old, supplies not only the wines which will accompany your meal, but many of the ingredients as well. The menu is hyper-seasonal and farm ingredients range from beetroot and green almonds to honey and fennel pollen. Pine needles might be sourced near the state-of-the-art hilltop winery, with its 360° views of False Bay, Table Mountain, Cape Town and the Helderberg and Hottentots Holland ranges; or nasturtiums could be picked on the banks of the Lourens River, the country’s only river that is a Protected Natural Environment.
“A menu is not only a story of where we source our produce, but also a journey of discovery in the techniques used in the development of a dish and making the food taste appealing. Sometimes the journey of a dish is just as important as the dish itself,” says Cooke.
After a pleasant stroll through the gardens where we admired the almond trees in spring blossom and marvelled at the massive camphor trees believed to have been planted in 1700 by Willem Adriaan van der Stel and declared National Monuments in 1942; the other camphor trees on the estate are all seedlings from these five magnificent specimens; we began our culinary experience in the surprisingly calm kitchen where Cooke served us something that is simply called “cheese and wine” on the menu. It was so much more than that, however, with so many tiny intricate elements on the plate, providing a variety of flavours and textures.
The second course was green sunflower, sunchoke, butternut, and quince – a work of golden and green art that merely hinted at how much technique was involved in its creation. ..such as replacing rice with a sunflower seed risotto, and using all parts of the sunflower.
Our third course too, was served in the kitchen: again, the simple description of seafood potjie doesn’t even come close to the heavenly dish of ocean gems in a sauce so divine we all gave up with spoons and drank it straight from the little pot. A fine compliment to the chef, I think.
From there we adjourned to the elegant main dining room for our main courses and dessert. The “Forest Floor” is served in a wooden bowl with a pine-needle infused kombu broth poured at the table, anointing the exotic mushrooms, duck and guinea fowl with acorn pasta. Cooke’s foraging is clearly apparent in this dish.
Main course number two was lamb with sweetbreads and harissa, and the dessert, oh the dessert: a perfect globe of apricot with basil, popping candy, pecan nuts, and the humble tonka bean. A perfect end to a magnificent meal.
Camphors serves only wines made on the estate, offering varied expressions of terroir. To encourage guests to experiment and explore various food and wine flavour combinations, there is a novel offering of multiple wine combinations – called flights – as part of the wine list.
Every flight consists of three 75ml servings of wine, selected to complement varied ingredients and flavours. By playing with this range of grape varietals, guests can test which pairs best with their choice of food flavours. The aim is to engage, have fun, experiment and discuss what tickles the taste buds.
Vergelegen is on Lourensford Road in Somerset West. Camphors is open Wednesdays to Sundays 12-3pm. A themed dinner highlighting estate produce takes place on the last Friday of the month (6.30-9pm) June – September. Open on Friday and Saturday evenings in season (October – May).
Call 021 8472131 or email firstname.lastname@example.org