I have liked many places, even loved them. But seldom have I felt a sense of belonging.
This is simply the way I am wired – an outsider looking in. But I feel that I belong at Babylonstoren, perhaps because I feel that Babylonstoren belongs to me.
But how does a private 200-hectare Franschhoek farm dating back to 1692, a farm with an impeccably preserved yard in the Cape Dutch tradition and a manor house built in 1777, a farm owned by business magnate Koos Bekker and his accomplished and exceptionally stylish wife Karen Roos, appear to belong to me? Why do I feel a sense of connection to my late mom while wandering past a custard apple tree? Why do I hear her voice when I see the figs ripening? Why do I feel possessive when others chance upon the Delft-inspired plate underneath the persimmon tree around which my young son once laughingly ran, or when others discover the meditative quietude of the white-walled mulberry garden where I once cried? Why do I want to steer people into the spekboom maze where a fountain of water arcs when you happen to step on secret stones, so that they too can step and duck and wipe the water from their faces before idly picking a small leaf to nibble on, the way my husband did one warm afternoon?
To visit Babylonstoren is an intensely personal experience. Every visitor there is both confronted and comforted by some recollection of their past – because we all have memories of a garden; because the Earth is in our DNA. Because a garden is the Earth’s kitchen and the most natural place in which to enjoy its offerings. Because a mulberry plucked from the tree tastes sweeter than from a bowl, and because few things give as much pleasure as eating a sun-ripened tomato you have just picked from its vine.
There is magic here. You sense it. You see it. You smell it. You taste it. And in walking through the garden you are reminded of history – the world’s history as well as your own. There is a small apple tree grown from a cutting of the tree reputed to have dropped the apple that inspired Isaac Newton’s theory of gravitation – a treasured bit of plant history that now grows here on the southern tip of Africa. But there are also guava trees that remind me of being six years old and eating sun-warmed fruit in my great aunt’s humble suburban back yard. For Koos (and yes, first-name terms are a thing at Babylonstoren) the prickly pear maze is close to his heart. For Karen, it’s citrus. ‘The garden has different rooms,’ she says. ‘My favourite is the citrus one with limes, lemons, kumquats and oranges. We are now laying a mosaic installation to celebrate DJ Opperman’s beautiful Afrikaans poem “My Nooi is in ’n Naartjie”,’ she adds; the poem speaks of how the scent of a naartjie evokes in the poet thoughts of his girlfriend.
The Bekkers are proud of their Afrikaans heritage, and this garden tribute is proof of that. As is the inclusion of several Afrikaans books, both mainstream and rare, that are to be found among the selection in each guest cottage – books that were personally selected by Koos. When it was time to name Babylonstoren’s much-anticipated méthode cap classique, released at the end of 2015, the blanc de blanc was simply named Sprankel – the Afrikaans word for sparkle. There is great joy to be had from drinking a world-class sparkling wine in my mother tongue. There is even more joy to being able to claim Babylonstoren as part of my heritage, part of my memory bank – even if it is only because I love it so.
Visit Babylonstoren at R45, Simondium; babylonstoren.com.
where to go and what to eat
You’ll want to spend at least a night at Babylonstoren. Check into one of its Cape Dutch cottages, each of which holds a fully equipped kitchen in a glass-cube extension. From here you can walk through the garden at midday to see what it offers and plan your own dinner from there. Alternatively, the Farmhouse – with nine suites and a loft – has just been completed, and is as breathtaking as the rest of Babylonstoren.
The garden is open from 9am to 5pm every day, with complimentary tours setting off from the Farm Shop at 10am. The entrance fee is R10 per person, payable at the gate.
An old cowshed was turned into this inspiring restaurant with Cape Dutch architecture and contemporary glass walls. It’s a celebratory place that was recently enlarged to accommodate the ever-increasing demand of visitors wanting to eat seasonal, artistically plated produce. The food philosophy of Babel is ‘from the garden to the table’, and while the dishes are often daring they all honour their ingredients. Think tomato gazpacho with avocado and goat’s cheese ice cream or miso-marinated baby chicken with kale and Granny Smith apple kimchi. Reservations are essential; booking opens two months in advance.
This glass-and-steel conservatory serves beautiful picnic-style meals. Pristine salads and beautifully golden hand-cut chips are served in glass containers, while boerewors rolls are wrapped in Babylonstoren’s iconic blue-and-white paper and white cotton napkins.
the wine-tasting centre
The latest addition to Babylonstoren is a glass-and-steel structure nestled comfortably between the Cape Dutch-style wings of the wine cellar on either side. The four floor-to-ceiling glass walls offer incredible views over the surrounding vineyards, while a bright-green tiled centre counter grounds the space. When asked what her inspiration was when conceptualising the tasting centre, Karen had this to say: ‘The straight lines of the vineyards and the green of the leaves at a specific season. I rather like it at sunset. Here the Cartesian rigour of our garden architect, Patrice Taravella, combines with the local design by Edwin Swanepoel. The beautiful interior was created by the Tonic design team.’
In this harmonious and comforting space – cool in summer and warmed by a fire in winter – wine lovers can avail themselves of the individually priced tastings and order a variety of snack platters. Try the Winemaker’s Platter, which includes duck liver pâté, biltong, droëwors, boerenkaas, marinated baby tomato salad, terrine of biltong and a light blue cheese. Fish and vegetarian options are also available.
The wine-tasting centre is open daily from 10am to 6pm (or 5pm in winter). Cellar tours – which take place on the hour between 11am and 3pm – cost R50 per person, which includes a tasting session. Reservations are highly recommended.
It’s not like anyone actually needs an excuse to book some quality time at the gorgeous Garden Spa at Babylonstoren – but in addition to enjoying the wonderfully indulgent treatments and access to a dam swimming pool that harks back to childhood, visitors to the spa can order from a specially created menu. Fresh fruit juices, interesting healthy salads and comforting bowls of lentil or soba noodles are on offer.
grow ’em and eat ’em
Artist Gundula Deutschlander, a gardener and storyteller at Babylonstoren, says she loves gardening because ‘it’s a live current channelled to feed body, mind and soul’. Her advice for growing edibles? Start with herbs – they’re easy and consistently rewarding. Use pots so you can move them to sun or shade as required. Remember: because you’re expecting them to feed you, they need much more food themselves than other plants, so give them compost and a suitable organic fertiliser. Once they’ve given their crop it’s time to say goodbye to most – it does take some maintenance to keep things glorious all year.