Tea in the gardens

In the early 1990s my business ­partner and I tendered to develop the café in the South African Museum. We had plenty of fun ideas for an ­exploratory menu. I wanted to call the place ­TriloBites.
We did not get the contract.

The café that won the bid went under, something we predicted after a mere glance at the menu and the ­decorative efforts of the department of ­public works.

Back then South Africa was re-opening to the world tourist market. The restaurant in the nearby National Gallery fared a little better for a few years, but it too succumbed. The cable-car station was overhauled and the charming stone-house Table Mountain restaurant was replaced with a canteen to handle industrial quantities of tourists. The prefabricated tearoom at Kirstenbosch was closed and a stunning new facility built to replace it.

Unfortunately, the food there has steadily declined to the level of national ­embarrassment, though not as disgraceful as the nosh dished up at Dulcé Café in the international terminal at Cape Town Airport. It seems to be the way of places with captive audiences.

Time for a change
There was talk too in the mid-1990s of upgrading the tearoom in the Company Gardens. We had a few meetings with the city authorities. They wanted the tenderer to invest vast amounts but they were only prepared to offer such a short-term lease that one could never make back the capital. Nothing happened. As a result, the café has not changed in possibly 40 years.

The City of Cape Town has been busy with a R1-million upgrade to South Africa’s oldest public garden, the Company Gardens, laid out by Jan van Riebeeck and master gardener Hendrik Boom, who prepared the first ground for sowing seed on April 29 1652. A Pyrus communis tree—a saffraan pear—planted around this time still exists propped up and surgically rescued. It is worth the pilgrimage.

The garden was intended primarily to grow and provide vegetables to the ships of the Dutch East India Company, but in time it became a botanical garden. The first roses bloomed on November 1 1659.

Simon van der Stel and his master ­gardeners, Hendrik Bernard Oldenland and Jan Hartog, planted indigenous and exotic ornamental species. Johan Andries Auge, superintendent from 1751, planted many indigenous collections. One of his Streletzia nicolai is thought to be alive still today.

Cultured surroundings
In Victorian times lions were kept in the grounds now occupied by Cape Town High School. The Gardens embrace the cultural precinct of the city, including the Slave Lodge Museum, South African Museum and Planetarium, the National Library, the National Gallery, the Holocaust Centre and Tuynhuys, among other institutions.

Recently, the Cape Town mayoral ­committee considered turning “the Bothy”, the old farm labourers’ quarters, into a café, coffee shop or takeaways kiosk and possibly the old Director’s House into a restaurant. Both buildings were renovated in 2008.

Talk of sprucing up the rather faded “­corner” café at the heart of the Gardens has been going on for years. Sitting under the giant bluegums with beady-eyed squirrels peeping around the trees and always the possibility of a bit of pigeon garnish landing on one’s plate, I am still in two minds about this café.

It would be wonderful to have something chic and comfortable in this glorious ­setting. On the other hand, this is a plebeian democratic space, relatively affordable: anchovy (paste) toast at R10 a slice, a R20 plate of slap chips, a plain hamburger for R28, a small French salad for R22—all of these equally bland. One stops by this café for a quick fix, maybe a cuppa.

At the top end of its menu is a mixed grill for R105 and grilled kingklip for R80.

When the food arrives, one sees the ­postcard-writing tourists stare at their plates, shrug and then get on with eating it, while the less fussy squirrels entertain them.

The real attraction of the Gardens remains the plants. The gardens are ­laudably ­well tended, clean and thriving. You may be accosted by a religious nut with a Bible, shouting and followed by four poor-white disciples in short pants, as I was the other day, but the grounds are pretty safe.

Among my favourite trees is the ­century-old tree aloe—Aloe bainesii—the 200-­year-old Outeniqua yellowwood and the Indian rubber tree.

Then there are the birds. Plenty of pigeons, doves, hadedas and Egyptian geese, but also the impressive gymnogene—­now known as the African harrier hawk—and dazzling malachite sunbirds. It is good to know the city has a green heart.

Brent Meersman

Brent Meersman

Brent Meersman is a political novelist (Primary Coloured, Reports Before Daybreak). He has been writing for the Mail & Guardian since 2003 about things that make life more enjoyable – the arts, literature and travel and (in his Friday column, Once Bitten) food. If comments on the internet are to be believed, he is a self-loathing white racist, an ultra-left counter-revolutionary, a neo-liberal communist capitalist, imperialist anarchist, and most proudly a bourgeois working-class lad. Or you can put the labels aside and read what he writes. Visit his website: www.meersman.co.za Read more from Brent Meersman

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