Self-taught chef Gordon Wright’s passion for the Karoo recipes and ingredients is putting the region’s cuisine on the map.
Thursday evening. Having drunk beers with sheep farmers in the wood-panelled Graaff-Reinet Club, and watched the sun set over the Valley of Desolation’s rocky grandeur, I’m now sitting with Gordon Wright and his wife, Rose, in the quaint courtyard of their restaurant, Veld to Fork. A showcase of the region’s unique cuisine and ingredients, its name clearly spells out Wright’s passion to get people “take ownership of your food; to know where it’s coming from, that it’s been farmed ethically. We’re just trying to change the world one bite at a time,” Wright says.
“Once you come to the Karoo and get the dirt of the Karoo under your fingernails, you never get it out. Graaff-Reinet was always our soul place, always the place we came back to,” he says. The Wrights relocated from Port Elizabeth seven years ago, so that they could give their two boys a slice of the country life – and co-ed schooling at Union High, their alma mater where they had met aged 14.
They fell in love with Andries Stockenström, a guesthouse in a more than 200-year-old building that was for sale. Although Wright had long been a passionate about cooking (an interest ignited as a teen when he wanted to learn how to cook the game he was hunting at weekends on friend’s farms), neither of them had professional experience in hospitality. This didn’t deter them: they bought the guesthouse and its restaurant as a going concern.
Despite a rocky beginning, the restaurant soon became known for “focusing on everything that’s good about the Karoo – the real deal” in a town where most dining options offered foreign cuisine.
Wright describes patrons as “the food and wine UN” – he often hosts foodies from all over the world. There are never more than 20, and there is only one sitting, either inside or outside to create an intimate, communal atmosphere.
The small, unwritten menu – which features two options for each of the three courses – changes every single day. “It’s almost like pot luck club,” he says, because what he makes is dependent both on seasonality and whim. His dishes are inspired by recipes from old Karoo farms – some are handwritten ones passed down through families and workers; others come from books from the 1800s that he discovered (which contain instructions on how to cook puff adder and aardvark – two items he hasn’t put on the menu… yet). He has given each dish own personal take. “I don’t want to do boerekos: we’ve got to give it a modern twist,” he says, to “posh it up a little bit”.
Wright sources all of his ingredients from within 40km of the restaurant, in keeping with Slow Food standards (he was a founding member of the 25-strong Karoo Slow Food convivium in 2010). This approach means he can have a close relationship with his suppliers, and can keep a beady eye on the quality of what they provide. It’s also a boon to the local economy, injecting much-needed cash and opportunity into a district battling with high levels of unemployment.
For starters, I’m treated to a guinea fowl spring roll resting on a raisin and Muscadel sauce. The meat has been slow roasted in white wine, rosemary and garlic for two hours until was falling off the bone, then infused with whisky and wild honey, put into a spring roll, and baked.
“If there’s venison on the menu, I’ve hunted it myself because otherwise I can’t be in complete control and know what the quality is. If there’s any other domesticated meat, I’ve got it from mates that I know personally.”
Each of these farmers have to stick to the Slow Food ethos – “an easy fit for them – they were doing it anyway,” he says: they farm holistically, sharing knowledge, helping each other out. “Their whole view is that they’re custodians of the land for the next generation.” Properly managed, their animals’ impact on the veld is very low, “because they range far and wide”.
Wright believes that veld-reared lamb and beef is a far superior, more flavoursome alternative to feedlot meat (where animals are squashed up together, and often pumped with antibiotics and growth hormones). Veld-reared animals have to “fend for themselves”: dips and doses are kept to a minimum, and they get a lot more exercise – giving them a better meat-to-bone ratio.
“They are what they eat,” he says. From low-lying, pungent ankerkaroo bushes, to the more delicate rooigras and kapokbos in more mountainous areas, the different plants they feed on affects the flavour of the meat.
For mains, I’m served a deboned leg of lamb. Before being roasted in the oven for about ten minutes, it was doused in nothing but olive oil so that the meat’s own subtle herbal flavours could take centre stage.
“The meat is the hero of the dish,” Wright says – all the other elements play a supporting role. Accompanying the lamb is lightly-buttered vegetables picked from the Wrights’ own patch (they also buy fresh produce grown by their staff as a means for them to earn extra income), along with potato slices and a swirl of Madeira wine sauce.
It goes rather wonderfully with the Peter Bayly III we’re drinking: a blend of five red Portuguese varietals grown on a 1.2 ha patch near Calitzdorp. Wright pays as much attention to his wine list as he does to the food, tracking down boutique winemakers (many from the Klein Karoo), and often buying entire batches of their wines.
Most of his foreign guests have visited the Cape a number of times and are familiar with the main wineries. “I want them to experience interesting wines that they wouldn’t know,” to match the new food flavours they’ll be encountering.
The next morning, Wright and I head to Grassdale farm, thirty minutes out of town. Here Jean de la Harpe runs merino and some cattle. Closer to the farmhouse, lolling under a fig tree, is his joint venture with Wright: ten pigs, which will be supplying pork to the restaurant.
Wright studied salumeria – the Italian style of charcuterie or curing meats – at L’universita dei Mestieri in Italy’s Piedmonte region. “I learnt that your animal is of prime importance.” If pigs are fed “junk”, then the quality of the meat is poor. Also, “if you want good charcuterie then you must use the best cuts” and not just the offcuts.
After a steady drive up to the escarpment to look out over the vast Camdeboo plains, we return to the farmhouse, to try out a few of Wright’s meats – including cured kudu and springbok.
He tells me about his plans for a charcuterie school, which will be set up at Grassdale, to remedy “the lack of knowledge of charcuterie in the country” and provide unemployed people with “a proper artisanal skill that they can take anywhere” as well as tips on raising quality animals.
Wright is no stranger to teaching – throughout the winter months, he runs Veld to Fork Cooking School, which offers custom-made courses lasting three to four days for groups of up to 10.
“I always take them to the source,” he says – whether to vegetable gardens, trout fishing, or into the veld where they learn the ethics and field craft of hunting. After cooking demos and menu-planning, the students then have the opportunity to apply their new skills in the kitchen.
Veld to Fork, Wright’s cookbook, was published by Struik Lifestyle in 2013.
An edited version of this article appeared in the July 2015 issue of Business Day WANTED.
POSTSCRIPT (September 2016): Since this article appeared in print, the Wrights have sold the guesthouse to focus on Taste of the Karoo, purveyor of Karoo meat, charcuterie and condiments. Gordon still offers Veld to Fork cooking courses: follow the Facebook page to find out about upcoming classes.