In South Africa recently, we stayed at the 12 Apostles Hotel and Spa in Cape Town. Finding ourselves in a mild state of inebriation after numerous drinks at the Leopard Bar, we were in the mood for anything. Fortunately, the casual mention of a gin-making class prompted us to book a session with Angus van Aarde, the resident mixologist.
It turned out that he was free that afternoon; and this class on the first day of our stay ended up being one of our most enjoyable experiences in South Africa. Moreover, we became gin lovers forever.
FORAGING AT 12 APOSTLES
Angus van Aarde, officially bar manager but in reality part chemist and part entertainer, met us at the bar. We had just enough time to change clothes. So from seasoned flyer wearing yoga pants and a black shirt on an overnight Singapore Airlines flight, I’d metamorphosed into fashionable traveler in a slinky dress. I was ready for sunset cocktails on the terrace of of one of the best bars in Cape Town.
“I hope those shoes are comfortable for walking,” Angus said, by way of greeting, glancing at my sandals. I’d brought these precisely because they seemed perfect for a stylish summer in South Africa.
HOW TO MAKE GIN
“Aren’t we making gin?” I asked, confused. He nodded and said, “But first we must gather the ingredients for the gin, and they’re all on the mountain.”
Backtracking out of the bar, we climbed the walking trail winding around the base of the 12 Apostles mountain range. “We’re going to pick some of these fine bush plants to flavor your gin,” Angus said, identifying the edibles and clipping the branches of random plants as we walked along.
DANCE LIKE NO ONE’S WATCHING IN CAPE TOWN
Foraging is surprisingly satisfying. Yes, paradise can be a rocky terrain of edible foliage. After 30 minutes I was skipping up and down the mountain in my cocktail outfit. There is something about picking one’s own food that fuels creativity because I’d suddenly found my zone.
While we were on the mountain, the Leopard Bar team created a scene out of Architectural Digest for the next part of our private master class.
The center table facing the outdoor terrace featured glasses, bottles of gin, and plates of dried fruits and leaves displayed like art, along with our freshly harvested herbs. To top things off, the sun was setting at exactly that time and a local band was playing feel-good songs; it made me think of the colorful houses of the Bo-Kap neighborhood on a summer weekend.
Then we were off to botanical nirvana, right there in the Leopard Bar. To start us off, Angus pointed to several ingredients and said: “We usually put these in our gin. But actually you can create new flavors for yourself.” We spent a good hour engrossed in experimenting with flavors; I wanted to capture the feeling of this perfect day in a bottle to take back home.
FLAVORS OF SOUTH AFRICA
Our original gin mixes completed, we headed to the Azure restaurant for a gastronomic dinner cooked by Chef Christo Pretorius and his team. The restaurant is known for its inventive cuisine of local ingredients and stylish plating and we were not disappointed.
We began with a platter of Saldanha Bay oysters and yellowfin tuna tartare. The chef partnered these with intriguing side dishes such as spaghetti of pickled sea lettuce and edamame beans. The Azure sommelier was ready too with glasses of Bouchard Finlayson sauvignon blanc reserve 2018 to wash down our seafood.
Then we had ostrich smoked in rooibos tea and drizzled with buchu herb oil and blackberry vinaigrette. Next came a duck that was served three ways: crispy duck breast, duck leg confit, and roast duck broth accompanied by slow roasted tomatoes and broccoli.
LAMB FROM THE KAROO REGION
The finale was a superb lamb loin inspired by the arid Karoo region, with harissa barbecue glaze and turmeric couscous on the side.
“We had a wonderful dinner,” I said to the maitre’d as we walked out of the restaurant at the end. “This can easily become a hard habit to break.”
The maitre’d smiled and replied: “Well, please make sure to join us for breakfast then. The weekend breakfast at 12 Apostles is a beloved Cape Town tradition.”
WEEKEND BRUNCH AT AZURE RESTAURTANT
Intrigued, we heeded his suggestion and started our Saturday just like well-heeled locals in the know. When we reached the Azure restaurant, the terrace was already full save for a table in the shade because a local’s life here is meant to be lived under the sun. Fortunately, coming from bright lights and a big city, any table with a view was fine with us.
Table secured, we inspected the buffet, impressed by the feast that awaited us, including oysters in champagne buckets, plates of fresh berries, and sparkling wine to start. We had triples of everything and then we ordered Eggs Benedict with smoked salmon — our own beloved tradition for breakfast in every city we visit.
“We could make a tradition out of this, you know,” I said to my companion, without going into details because all at once I meant everything and anything, including the wonderful breakfasts, the movie nights at the hotel’s cozy theatre room, floating in the salt bath of the spa, and afternoons spent reading books by the pool. And until our next visit, we have our bottles of gin to remind us of this hotel by the sea in Cape Town.