This week I helped organise an impromptu Slow Food Mother City visit to the ‘Garden of Elgin’, a specialty food garden on Paul Cluver Estate. It was a scouting mission, rather than a formal outing – to see what was there, and to determine whether a larger, more organised Slow Food visit later this year might be a good idea.  We put out the word, the day before, that we’d be going, and although it was very last-minute, and on a week-day, quite a few interested parties turned up to join us!

The organic food garden was created some years ago by Dr Cluver and Norwegian chef, Andreas Viestad – and we were lucky enough to have Andreas himself show us around.

I love gardens that are both functional and beautiful – and this one certainly fits that bill.  Most of the spaces are circular, which is very soothing to the eye, with colourful swathes of bright lights spinach here, electric blue artichokes there…

We wandered through as Andreas shared his enthusiasm for the incredible variety that such a garden can provide (at one stage they had over 100 different types of tomatoes growing there), not just to look at, but to taste.  No dish is ever the same when you’re using home-grown ingredients – the flavours change with the season, with the soil, with the time of day.

We tasted fennel flowers, lush basil leaves, herbs of all shapes and sizes and gawped at the most enormous beetroots I have ever seen.  We oohed appreciatively at the tree tomatoes (tomatillo family, apparently) and gobbled up some sweet alpine strawberries.

And then it was time to wander over to the orchard, where even more treasures awaited.  Pomegranates, quinces, over 15 varieties of citrus… A lemon, it seems, is not always a lemon: sometimes it’s a Buddha’s Hand Citron, an alien-looking creature that smells like lemon, tastes like lemon, but certainly doesn’t look like lemon!  It’s a cultivar used for the oils in its skin, rather than any juice you might get out of it (there isn’t any), and it smells absolutely heavenly.

Then came the peaches and almonds plucked and eaten right off the trees (you need strong teeth to crack the almond shell, but the payload is delicate, sweet almond flesh inside).

I tasted three different peach types one after the other and started daydreaming about setting up a tent in the garden, and foraging all summer long…

When the tour came to an end, we were so enchanted we felt we couldn’t leave straight away, so we decided to stop in at the estate’s new restaurant, ‘Fresh’ and have a bite to eat.  Joan Lancefield, who runs the restaurant, had been with us on the tour, and had spoken to us about their philosphy of using locally-sourced ingredients for their dishes – most from the garden itself, and the rest from farms and producers in the area.

It’s a wonderful, rustic, convivial environment with long shared tables and a huge aga stove that must be wonderful in winter time.  The staff are super friendly, and the food was lovely, unpretentious and reasonably priced (R45-R65 for mains, if I remember correctly – and you could have a half-portion of certain dishes if you asked nicely).  It’s a simple menu, which I like, and naturally I love the fact that most of the ingredients come from just around the corner!

The verdict, of course, is that we will definitely be organising another Slow Food Mother City visit – so watch this space.  And if you’re heading out to Elgin any time soon, stop in at Paul Cluver Estate for breakfast or lunch at Fresh, and take a walk around the garden – it really is a wonderful experience.

Paul Cluver Estate is located in Elgin, just off the N2 at the Kromco turnoff (directions here). Fresh is open Tuesday to Friday from 9am-4.30pm and on Saturdays from 8.30am to 4pm. Telephone: 071 563 6020. If you’re not a fan of communal seating, there are also a few smaller tables dotted about the area. More photos from our tour are posted on the Slow Food Mother City website.

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