I remember what it was like to be a student. All the grand plans of how life would turn out; all the late-night studying; all the emotional dramas; all the midnight poetry-writing; and all the penury. If I think back, we were absolutely always on the lookout for ways to save money and no lengths were too great to go to to take advantage of a freebie. Don't get me wrong, we were in no way hard done by! My brother and I lived at home as students and our parents paid our living expenses, but we were always on the lookout for ways to make our allowance go as far as possible. We could spot the word "free" on a poster fromn a hundred yards. We would get whiplash in our haste to spot who had yelled out "comps!" on campus. We would take the car out of gear and freewheel down hills to save fuel. And in this respect, I don't think we were any different to any other students.
Stellenbosch university sits slap bang in the middle of South Africa's oldest winelands and, given my observations about students and freebies mentioned above, I do understand that wine estates in the surrounding areas have to take steps to make a living despite living next door to a horde of horny locusts students. I have heard many a story about groups of students turning up at a tasting room and settling in for the afternoon to get smashed on free wine (with hilarious requests to the tasting staff like "Make mine a double!"…). I have also mentioned before how the cheese tasting room at Fairview eventually had to post a sign saying "this is a tasting, not lunch!". But there is a fine line between curbing this sort of freeloading and annoying bona fide paying customers. When we were in South Africa earlier this year, a relative wanted to take us to Vergelegen wine estate for lunch and a booking was duly made. "Just to make you aware, we charge R10 per adult to visit the estate" said the booking lady. "Oh OK", we said, "presumably we get that refunded against the cost of our lunch though?". Nope. Not a cent. "So you want us to pay R10 for… I don't know what – driving through your gates? To get us warmed up for spending yet more money in your restaurant?? That's outrageous". But in the fine South African tradition of "rules is rules", this conversation got nowhere fast – almost as fast as Vergelegen got permanently scratched off my list as a dining or tasting venue.
Not to worry – instead we meandered through various estates and eventually ended up at Welmoed where the welcome at the Duck Pond restaurant could not have been warmer (and entry was free!). Welmoed is on land oroginally given to Henning Hussing, a German speaking Swiss mercenary, by the Dutch East india Company as a land grant upon completion of his contractual tour of duty in the Cape. He named it Meer Lusthof (German for idyllic farm by the sea – now the farm Meerlust), referring to the pleasure of the cool sea breezes that blew inland from False Bay. Hussing later gave or sold a portion of his enormous farm to Jacobus van der Heyden, also a mercenary and to whom he was related. Van der Heyden's portion later became known as Welmoed, meaning courage (the Welmoed website has an interesting anecdote as to how this name came about). Wine has been made on the farm for centuries and today it produces wine both under its own label, as well as for brands such as Arniston Bay, Versus, Thandi and Kumkani (together with other farms under the Company of Wine People umbrella).
The Duck Pond is named, unsurprisingly, for the large circular duck pond in front of the tasting room at Welmoed. Sadly, the pond had been drained for maintenance and repairs when we were there, so no ducks but plenty of Black-Headed Ibises doing their long-legged supermodel-esque walk around the lawns. Service was efficient and very friendly and the menu is compact, focusing on more casual, country kitchen fare rather than haute cuisine.
To start with, we shared the house salad which was described as having "a little bit of everything" – and they were not lying! I loved the generous lashings of bacon; Nick loved the perfectly ripe half avo; and we all loved all the other crunchy bits in between. For my main course I had the pan-fried line fish – sadly I did not make a note of what it was, but have a vague idea it was Cape Salmon. In any event, it was perfect – not at all greasy, coated in a subtle seasoned flour crust with a perfect barely-cooked consistency. And to my joy, the accompanying vegetables included a gem squash!
The general consensus, though was that the winner dish of the day was the curried lamb potjie. This deliciously fragrant slow-cooked traditional lamb curry was served in a miniature 3-legged cooking pot. I've written before about the South African tradition of potjiekos (literally "pot food") and this was a charming visual reference. The meat was incredibly tender, literally falling off the bones, and the curry flavours were warming and mellow. It's the perfect hearty food to set you up for an afternoon of wine tasting! Although none of us had room for dessert, the menu features such traditional South African classics as tipsy tart.
While we were chatting about the wines (the 2009 Welmoed Chardonnay that we had with our meal was a perfect lunchtime wine) our lovely waitress mentioned in passing that they had started selling some Arniston Bay wines in a new eco-friendly 1.5 litre packaging and very kindly brought one to our table to show us (pictured above left). I love it! From the ergonomically-designed grip with the thumb holes, to the fact that the vacuum pack just grows flatter and flatter as it empties and ends up totally flat and takes up far less space in landfills, to the handy 1.5 litre size. I mean, who wants to drink 3 litres or 5 litres of the same wine (which is usually the case with vac packed wines)? Needless to say, we finished our afternoon in the tasting room, trying their impressive range of wines and chatting to the knowledgeable tasting room staff – an afternoon well spent.
The Duckpond Restaurant (and the Welmoed Winery) is a great place to stop and recharge your batteries on a long day on the wine route, with a reasonably priced and hearty menu, lots of room for youngsters to run around, and friendly staff serving good wines.
The Duck Pond Restaurant
R310 (Baden Powell Drive)
(about 10km from Stellenbosch)
Tel. +27 21 881 3310
This post is (a rather belated!) part of a series called Sundays in South Africa. The series started as a way of providing visitors with some ideas of what and where to eat during and after the FIFA World Cup 2010 which took place in June/July 2010 in my home country of South Africa! Although the tournament is over now, I will still try to post a review of somewhere South African, or a South African recipe, every Sunday as culinary inspiration for visitors. Click here for previous posts in the series.