Sunday 26 January 2014

A FRENCH AFFAIR – Dianne Hofmeyr

On New Years Day this year I embarked on a French affair. I drove into a small valley tucked between the mountains in an area known as Franschhoek… French Corner, situated not in France but in the Cape of Good Hope.

The name is derived from the nearly 300-strong group of Huguenots who arrived here during the Huguenot diaspora after Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes (which assured religious freedom) in 1685. They were given land by the Dutch in the Cape in a valley then called Olifantshoek ('Elephant’s Corner'). Where local farmers saw vast herds of marauding elephants, hardships by the bushel and bleak mountains, the Huguenots saw great wine terroir – and set to work.

I discovered no elephants trampling through the immaculate rolling vineyards or lurking behind the low white-washed walls of farms with names like La Motte, (named by Pierre Joubert after his village – La Motte d'Agues) Cabrière, Provence, Chamonix, L’Ormarins, Dieu Donné and La Dauphine ­– reminders of the huge impact the Huguenots had on the Cape. Spread out and given tracts of land amongst Dutch farmers and made to speak Dutch in order be absorbed into the culture as soon as possible, the Huguenots brought with them their French names, their French heritage and their French knowledge of producing fine brandy and wonderful fruit preserves especially figs.

L'Ormarins – Franschhoek
Surnames adopted a Dutch intonation but never lost their French source – names like Blignaut, de Klerk (from Le Clercq), de Villiers, du Plessis, Du Preez (from Des Pres), du Toit, Franck, Fouche, Fourie (from Fleurit), Gervais, Giliomee (from Guilliaume), Gouws (from Gauch), Hugo, Jordaan (from Jourdan), Joubert, Labuschagne (from la Buscagne), le Roux, Lombard, Malan, Malherbe, Maree, Minnaar (from Mesnard), Nortje (Nortier), Pienaar (from Pinard), Retief (Retif), Rossouw (Rousseau) Taljaard (from Taillard), TerBlanche, Theron, Viljoen (from Villion) and Visagie (Visage).

The stamp the Huguenots put on Cape cuisine was to refine it. They changed the way food was served, from laying it out all at once, to serving dishes in a sequence of multiple courses. Today there is a cheese named Huguenot and most famous are the wafer thin brandy snaps known as oblietjies. After baking the walnut-sized ball of dough, delicately flavoured with naartje peel (clementines), cinnamon and brandy, in an iron pan the cook would skilfully roll the oblietjie into a crisp cone. Tradition has it that the name 'oblietjie' was derived form the words 'Hoc oblatum est', spoken by the priest as he raised the fragile unleavened bread of the Host during the Latin Mass which although Protestants, the Huguenots would have been very familiar with.

Today the area attracts gastronomes and sybarites from across the globe. It’s famous for producing hand-turned sparkling wines in the French style, called Cap Classique rather than Champagne. And on the farm of Haute Cabrière. winemaker, Achim von Arnim still practices sabrage, ­ the art of cutting off the top of a champagne bottle with the swoop of a sabre.
Pierre Jourdan Cap Classique from Haute Cabriere – Franschhoek 
The farm Babylonstoren, (Tower of Babylon or Babel which suggests the melting pot of languages) named for the high mountain peak it nestles against, might not be French in name but marries past to present in the formality of its eight acre ‘werf’ (farmyard) garden based on the old Company Garden laid down in Cape Town in the 1650’s. The farm has been recently renovated by its present owner and by the French garden designer, Patrice Taravella from the Prieuré Notre-Dame d’Orsan. Stone-lined channels of ‘leiwater’ (watering furrows), hen coops, geese, even a cactus maze (for prickly pear fruit) and old fashioned fruits like persimmon, quince, tamarillo and mulberry, plump figs and the sweetest reddest plums on earth have all been revived. 
Chickens and the white walls of the 'werf' at Babylonstoren– Franschhoek
The restaurant 'Babel' at Babylonstoren 
Water being pumped into the leiwater furrows 
A thirst quencher of pure plum, beetroot and apple juice for breakfast  
Gates weighted with heavy stones on pulleys to pull closed automatically. 
The quintessential Cape Dutch architecture, so striking as you drive around the valley of Franschhoek can be traced to those early wooden Huguentot homes, built from clay and stone and eventually Dutch-influenced with gables, though always with a slightly softer appearance. Materials changed. Floors originally made of peach pips or compacted earth began to be covered in Robben Island slate and shutters were added to protect windows. Later still, outbuildings began to appear which included a jonkershuis (house for the eldest son), stables, a coach-house, slaves' quarters and a wine cellar. Low white walls with the delicious texture of thickly dolloped meringue still typically encircle farmyards and mark off vineyards. 

Basse Provence – Franschhoek
Burgundy Bourgogne established in 1694 by Pierre de Villiers
When a hundred years later, during the discovery of vast indigenous forests in the the Knysna and Plettenberg Bay area, (needed for ship building) and Britain and Holland were at war (1780-1783), a  British fleet sailed to take ownership of the Cape but was attacked and disabled by the French. As a result two French regiments arrived in the Cape amongst them, Louis Michel Thibault, a Parisian architect who became one of the most significant contributors to Cape Dutch architecture.

For those of you who need not just a feast for the eyes and a taste of the food and wine, there's a monument and museum in the heart of Franschhoek village that celebrates the arrival of the Huguenots in the Cape. You won’t find any elephants but you will be able to raise a glass of Cap Classique, Voignier or Pinot Noir to the people who saw potential in the terroir of Oliphantshoek.


Ruan Peat said...

Thank you for this snippet of Huguenots history, my husband is from Huguenot stock from the east end of London, and I am afraid I know little of it. There was a programme about a firm called Toye who make regalia in the UK and they started as Huguenot silk weavers in London's east end in the 1600's which was very interesting to watch, which is how I know he came from similar roots, as he was talking about family links there. I forget that while i find my own past full my children have two halves and articles like this help fill some of the blanks. Thank you very much for an interesting article and some wonderful pictures on this cold and rainy winter day.

Joan Lennon said...

Those views! Beautiful!

I have Huguenots in my background, but they went west, to Canada, instead of south.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Thanks for this Ruan. Silk production seems to be an industry that many Huguenots were involved in. I wonder if your relatives were silk producers in Canada, Joan. I haven't researched that part of the diaspora.

Do children keep silkworms in England? I haven't come across them. I had silkworms every year and would keep their eggs in a shoe box for the next hatching the following year. Then would forget to check on them until these tiny black antlike creatures would appear in the shoe box absolutely ravenous for mulberyy leaves. I remember a boy in my class putting the fattest of worms on his tongue. Urggh!

michelle lovric said...

what a wonderful tour around a beautiful place. Thank you. I don't know about English children but Australian children always had silkworms. The most popular girl in the class was the one with the big mulberry tree in her front garden. The mulberries were delicious too.