By Trevor C. Hale
The discovery of the sublime restaurant Foliage on its opening week a year ago in Franschhoek, South Africa, is certainly one of my great gastronomical experiences. Key to the greatness, as in all epicurean experiences, was the chef. In this case, it’s Chris Erasumus (the other great southern Chris chef #Hastings), a former chemical engineer who has taken farm-to-table cooking to the next level.
I’m back a year later and want to see what has changed.
Back to the beginning. My wife and I were staying at a vineyard in Franschhoek, a sleepy but sumptuous wine village 40 minutes north of Cape Town and the winemaker suggested we check it out freshly opened. We took many pics of the sumptuous food—as one does these days, for better or worse—but all I remember is an incredibly fresh salad, super rich soup, and pork bellies to die for. What I’ll never forget is meeting Chris Erasumus.
He seemed genuinely delighted to meet us and show us around his kitchen, which is lined with all shapes and sizes of containers filled with homegrown ingredients. “I’ve kept this vinegar alive for 17 years,” he proclaimed, offering us a taste. “My mother had a batch of wine that went bad, and I keep feeding it over the years to keep it alive.” It was more sweet than bitter and had a wonderfully tangy fruit flavor. The container, with a breathable cloth wrapped around the top, would have looked at home in a lab.
He darted around the kitchen with a mad-scientist bent, beckoning us to try various ingredients key to the freshness of his food. His secret: He forages every morning in the nearby woods and vineyards and bases the day’s menu on what he’s discovered. We asked if we could join the next day’s forage.
We picked him up at the allotted time and proceeded to one of his semi-secret foraging areas. We followed him, not knowing what to look for, watching as he filled a basket with green, mushrooms and plants that I would never have considered eating. The second stop on the forage was at a vineyard. He explained that he pairs wine grown on the same vineyard with food cooked from what he’s foraged from the same land, calling it “Terra pairing.” “The food and wine come from the same land experiencing the same nutrients and stimuli, so the pairing, while subtle, aligns on a much deeper level,” he said. Next level.
“Try this,” he implored more than once. He said it was a fennel head fern. It tasted like walnuts and he used it in soups and salads for people with nut allergies. We finished the forage and returned to the restaurant later for lunch, where he made a fennel head fern soup so fresh and rich and creamy and sublime I could have taken a long bath in it.
So here we are a year later. The place is buzzing, even in the middle of a Cape Town winter, with reservations booked weeks in advance. With me are Cape Town friends Richard and Keri, and it’s a great feeling to be able to introduce them to this culinary delight. I’ve been over-selling it and hope it meets expectations a year on.
Chris comes out to say hi as I imagine other diners look on enviously. When asked about his secret, he gives his mother credit and his upbringing. “We lived in a remote area and ate from our garden every day. We had to figure out how to make great food with what we had,” he says. “When mom visits, she puts on an apron and takes charge of the kitchen, showing the younger staff a few tricks.”
The vinegar? Alive, well, and maturing at 18.
The food? We started with Muscovy duck dumplings, had some spiced zebra (yes, zebra!) and Parmesan croquettes with some mouth-watering mushroom risotto. We had a delightfully delicate Hoisin-glazed grilled yellow fin tuna with caramelized bananas, but the standout was the Fenegreek-roasted free-range pork belly, dandelion pomme puree, pan juices.
We finished with Caramelia Delice, salted peanut butter, macerated strawberries, and honeycomb, followed by a dish of bittersweet Vairhona chocolate potplant, carrot cream, and buchu ice cream.
Words, mere words, can’t come close to describing the gastronomical delight. If you’re lucky enough to get to South Africa and Cape Town, the jaunt up to Franschhoek is so well worth the trip. It was founded by Huguenots (Frenchies) who brought vines and the desire to eat and drink very well from home. It shows.