Those weren't the days in Franschhoek

The past is a foreign country, as we have been told, peopled with incomprehensible beings. Or, in this case, it is different winelands from those we know and perhaps love.

One separating feature is myth.
Take the Franschhoek Valley, where a number of persecuted Protestant refugees from France settled at the end of the 17th century. The vague feeling—sometimes solidified into authoritative print—is that these Huguenots, being French, must have greatly benefited the nascent wine industry, as well as adding some elegant je ne sais quoi to Cape culture.

Hardly. Apart from some evocative farm names—and many Afrikaans surnames—they left no cultural legacy. We have a Cape Malay tradition in our food thanks to humble slaves, but no trace of French ­cuisine. Most of the refugees had been impoverished farm labourers back home, not vignerons in berets. All were soon integrated and there is no evidence that they added anything noteworthy to the wine industry. The best Cape wines were made by Dutchmen and their slaves in Constantia.

As for the now-fabled loveliness of the valley, then it surely seemed a dreadful place, full of wild animals and potentially dangerous natives. Who was looking at the view?

A few Frenchies quickly made good, but most shared the hard, rough conditions of the other settlers, farming with cattle, wheat and, increasingly in this lush area, grapes for wine. To imagine those lives is difficult, even more so the appalling lives of the slaves who did the hardest slog in building the wine industry.

I was reminded of all this while reading Karel Schoeman’s recent Cape Lives of the Eighteenth Century (Protea, 2011). He persistently rebuts the idea that those early days of white-ruled South Africa were a time of gracious living in gabled manor houses, or even charming whitewashed cottages set on purple-and-green mountain sides.

Humble beginnings
For example, here is his simply eloquent account of one ­Swartland household in a small, roughly thatched edifice with earth floor and unglazed windows: “A German husband, a French wife born and raised in the Netherlands and [two] slaves from the Indian subcontinent and the interior of Africa, respectively, all probably communicating in some more or less broken or imperfect form of Dutch.” This, he says, “is how colonial South Africa was shaped”.

The meticulous inventory of the household contents, made after the man’s death (he was murdered by his wife and slaves) is a pathetic list that includes an iron lamp, a small table, four tin spoons, four wooden bowls, an old tin bowl, a bench and a bedstead with mattress, two pillows and a blanket—and not very much more. The slaves slept on the floor in rags, grateful for the rare privilege of being indoors.

A foreign country, indeed, although there are those working among today’s vines and whitewashed gables who would ­understand the language.

Recommendations from 300 years later: Ken Forrester is a (sadly) unusual producer in that he ardently supports the winelands charity Pebbles and submits to the Wine Industry Ethical Trade Association’s audit of “ethical” labour practices.

He makes smart stuff, but also the Petit range of cheapish (R38), easy-going wines for those wanting soft, just-off-dry charm but also a definite winey character. The delicious, flavourful Petit Chenin Blanc is great for its type and the Petit Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot is the best of the reds, its exuberant fruitiness unblurred by oak or ambition.

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