A Little Bit Country: Lunch at Babylonstoren

May 21, 2013 11:25 am

sign

If “farmer chic” isn’t a thing yet, sovaldi it really ought to be.

After working at a major travel magazine for nearly five years, misbirth you find your travel bucket list runs about as long as the Great Wall of China (yes, that’s on it, too). But few destinations and properties have embedded themselves into my subconscious the way Babylonstoren did when it opened two years ago. We ran a story on the property in Travel + Leisure in 2011, and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head since. I can’t really explain why — I’m about as far from a rustic as one can be, and, as you all are beginning to learn, nature typically isn’t my thing — but I was transfixed by this charming property on a historic farm in far-flung South Africa, with some exotic-sounding form of architecture called Cape Dutch. I never thought I’d ever get around to going there, but I rolled the name off my tongue with wonder. “Babylonstoren.” A mythical retreat in a mythical place.

Now that myth of South Africa has become my day-to-day reality, and so, after I moved here, I was determined to make the 40-minute drive toward the Winelands as soon as possible. I’m convinced this notion of winter in Cape Town is a fabrication, since every weekend since I’ve been here has brought with it “unseasonably warm and sunny weather.” So we set off on a glorious Saturday afternoon to the Franschhoek Literary Festival (more on that soon), with a stop for a quick lunch at the hallowed Babylonstoren.

mountains

 nature collageglasses fruit collageSet in the Drakenstein Valley between Franschhoek and Paarl, the farm dates back to the late 1600’s. Today it hosts a stylish 13-room hotel in converted farmhands’ quarters along with a 200-hectare farm, orchards, vineyards, charcuterie, bakery, cheesery… in fact, most of the food served in the signature restaurant, Babel, as well as in the Green House, comes from fresh produce farmed on site. It doesn’t get more farm-to-table than when your table is literally in the farm, does it? There’s also a swimming pool in a converted water tank (perhaps the first infinity-edged reservoir around?) and a spa, and while everything is über-modern on the inside, when you walk along the dirt paths you find yourself in some sort of quaint fairy tale village. Think Hansel and Gretel — though if Hansel and Gretel had Nespresso machines and flat-screen TV’s, they might not have gotten in so much trouble.

Babylonstoren is the brainchild of South African power couple Koos Bekker and Karen Roos (she’s a former editor of Elle Decoration, which explains the high style quotient), and if you want to get a close look at the fruits (terrible pun intended, sorry) of their labor, book a garden tour — they start daily at 10 a.m., and show you around the 300+ varieties of plants being grown there.

And whether you come for the garden tour, come for a meal, or come for a few nights, come to Babylonstoren you must. Because the thing is, you can read about it as much as you want, and you can stare at these pretty pictures in my blog (courtesy the talented Faatima Tayob) all day long, but nothing can really compare to the real thing. No technology has yet been invented that can re-create the scent — that heavenly, all-natural fragrance from the herbs and flowers and fruits that permeates the grounds. I’ve never smelled anything quite like it before. A single whiff surely must possess restorative qualities. It’s air freshener à la God.

My friend Tasnim asked me if I was handling the abundance of nature OK — my avowed city-girl persona is fairly well known around here at this point — and I was surprised to realize that not only was I far from bothered by the nature, I was enjoying it. Maybe South Africa is beating this supposed aversion out of me bit by bit, but I absolutely loved frolicking around the picture-perfect gardens framed by mountains in the background. Here I am playing peek-a-boo behind an orange tree.

me and tree

We had originally planned on eating at the main restaurant, Babel, which has been generating more than its fair share of international culinary buzz, but decided to save it another, more leisurely meal someday. We opted for the Green House, a casual affair set in a conservatory at the far end of the gardens.

greenhouse

The menu options are simple, and most of us went for a sandwich and salad, with some fries, super fresh condiments made of pickled fruit and oregano, and fresh-squeezed juices.

Food collage

friesThere was even an unspeakably moist carrot cake, crowned with an adorable little carrot.

carrot cakeBut the highlight, for all of us, was the scones. Oh, my God, the scones. Soft, fluffy, buttery, perfectly complemented by butter and curd and passion-fruit jam… They were delectable enough for me to momentarily forget how jarring it is for me that everyone here pronounces them “skons” (shudder).

scones

I’ll be back soon enough — Babel is calling my name, as are the lovely white-on-white cottages that would make for a cozy winter retreat, should winter ever arrive. A few more visits to Babylonstoren and you might even find I’ve become a rustic!

Babylonstoren
R45 Road, between Paarl and Franscchoek
Franschhoek, South Africa

All photographs by Faatima Tayob

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