Chris Erasmus, Foliage restaurant and of course wine
06 March 2016
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Welcome to Old Mutual Live Wine Edition, I’m Jenny Crwys-Williams. All right, I’m chatting to Chris Erasmus and the reason I’m chatting to him, one, I’ve been eating at La Motte for years and years, when he was the chef there. Also bringing out that beautiful La Motte cookbook.
Now he’s moved into Franschhoek itself and he has got, I think, the go-to restaurant in South Africa and that is Foliage. So, what took you away from a really, really secure background at La Motte to go out on your own in Franschhoek, where the people are picky?
Chris Erasmus: I think living in Franschhoek for 12 years, I’ve sort of started really building relationships and getting to meet all the winemakers, the local producers, the farmers and working in an open kitchen. That was the whole philosophy, with La Motte as well.
People need to be seen and I was really privileged working with Hetta van Deventer, who is a food historian. She sparked something that I always had in me growing up, which was sort of foraging with my mom for and preserving and working out of our own gardens and I thought I’d take it a little further. There we studied, well, she did and I picked her brain as much as I could.
Everything was planted from the start by Jan van Riebeeck, who was a botanist at the Cape Gardens and what the settlers brought in and what their cooks were cooking, what they were planting. So I just thought I’d take it a bit further and start studying other things. Look at what the Koi San did and what the Locals did and how the people really lived off the land as well, instead of just what was grown. That’s just snowballing a lot.
A living off the land philosophy
JCW: I’m fascinated by this whole thing. I went for a walk with somebody who was saying, the Koi San used this and the Koi San this plant for that and whatever. So actually, you start taking the history in, but I had no idea that we’re actually eating it. Can you give me an example?
CE: Oh yes, African wild garlic, the mountain garlic is amazing. We use wild ginger from the mountain, all the different types of fynbos, Buchu, we use, not just food. We used to make ropes and bind huts and we use that to fix our baskets and to make baskets. There are so many medicinal values.
If you look at things like Milk Thistle, Dandelion, we all know the health tablets. It’s got liver regenerating properties, it’s good for detox, but it’s also tasty. We use, my sous chef, Nick, he makes all the cheese in-house, but we don’t use animal products, we use wild leaves and we use things that we know is going to split the milk, like the Thistle family. We use Milk Thistle, we use fig leaves, we use the sap, this is steering away from using animal products and these things have all been done for hundreds of years, it’s just been forgotten.
JCW: That was the background thinking to Foliage?
CE: Definitely. I knew the day, funny enough, when I put an ad in the paper, I didn’t take any chefs from La Motte, we don’t do that. I put an ad on Gumtree and a few papers saying I’m opening an organic foraging restaurant in Franschhoek, I need gardeners and foragers, booking is optional.
My first two chefs that arrived, Shawn and Nick, arrived in their gumboots, baskets. The interview was done in the forest, knowledge-wise. They are survivalists and even Nick was sponsored by a survival company and that’s how they live, that’s what they live for. It all started off organically in the right way. It feels together, it just felt right and these guys are still with me, they’re a big part of it.
You need to know what you are collecting
JCW: Listen, I’m relieved because you have to trust the food, or the mushrooms, for instance, that are on your plate. Otherwise you could have a restaurant full of dead people!
CE: Of course. Our research, we use the Rustafarian’s in the area quite a lot as well. When we pick things, take it to them. It’s also a way they live and if they can’t identify it, I’ll take it up to Rob Armstrong or Mikey Spar who is a good friend of mine.
We blew all kinds of things up there with him. He’s also going back to school, finishing his botany degree. We just try and keep as many mentors in our lives as possible and references and people and instead of cookbooks, we buy references and books on trees and shrubs and wild plants. That’s our reading material.
JCW: It sounds beyond brilliant and of course I’m at the receiving end and so was everybody who ate over the Franschhoek Literary Festival. I’m going to fly down there for a meal because I think the food is so wonderful.
CE: Please do!
JCW: When you go in there, there’s a wonderful smell of smoke, isn’t there? Depending on what you’re burning or whatever, you come in and it smells different. That’s the only way I can describe it.
CE: Earthy. We have a beautiful old, black American style barbecue outside and we have a homemade smoker. So we do a lot of things slow, low and slow. Old techniques, cooking on the joint, cooking on the bone. We steer away from prime cuts like steaks, we don’t really service sirloin or fillet, we haven’t since we’ve opened.
We just take the hard cuts, brisket and neck, cheek, sort of more the fore quarter of the animals. Then porcupine and feral pigs and things that do become a little bit of a pest on the farm sometimes. If they do get hurt in cages or get shot, which does happen, we’re on the receiving end, so nothing goes to waste.
What is beef hump?
JCW: One of the dishes that I actually ate was your barbecue Afrikaner beef hump, forest mushrooms, braised fennel, buttered pears and onion panzanella, celeriac and sorrel salad. Two of us were eating it and we nearly had to be resuscitated it was so wonderful! What is beef hump?
CE: The hump, if you look at a Sanga or an Afrikaner, they’ve got this big hump on their back. That’s the hump, it’s a piece that, I think we’re the only restaurant in South Africa that I know of that uses them. There might be others, correct me if I’m wrong, but we’re the only one that I know of and I’ve made friends with Adrian Cloete, he sort of runs the Afrikaner, the whole cattle industry on that side, up north. He eats with us quite often and he just told me the one day, he cooks the humps at home because there’s no market for it and ching, a little light bulb went up and I said, I’ll take all of them.
There’s obviously one per animal, so there’s not lots, but as we get, we get. If we don’t have, we don’t have, we take it off the menu and when we do have them, it goes on immediately. But the mindset behind the whole dish is to keep it very earthy and we would like to incorporate the forest a bit.
We sat down, before we opened and discussed, myself and my two chefs, about how do people get to eat cooked meat. After, I think too many beers, it came down to, we thought, after a big forest fire, I’m pretty sure the Neanderthal’s and the cavemen would have rushed into the forest to see what they could savage.
That’s how it started, we burn the beef outside on the barbecue, so literally burn it, take some forest floor, all fermented leaves, all edible leaves. Take some burn bark off the trees, put into a muslin cloth, make a stock and poach the beef in there.
After it sort of was really charred well and the end result just gave this beautiful smoky, earthy, we’d add some fresh pine needles into it. It’s just this perfume of forest and then we incorporated other things that we knew cattle would eat, if they were still roaming out or what animals would eat.
The one I picked up is oxalis sorrel, which is very high in oxalic acid and Vitamin C and it’s a very healthy plant. I’ve been watching the little animals in the forest and they tend to go for the tender leaves when they can find it, because they would grow where the little streams go. It’s always by a water source.
What wines it would go well with
JCW: It sounds wonderful. With that, wine, I can’t remember because I drank quite a few of your wines as well. The Reyneke Biodynamic Cornerstone, that would go with that particular beef. So would the De Wetshof Nature in Concern Pinot Noir, they would both go with that yes?
CE: They both would go beautifully with it. The De Wetshof has that nice charcoal, smoky, after finish, it’s not your everyday Pinot Noir. The same with the Reyneke Biodynamic, but also there are some hints of dandelion in the Reyneke, or in the dish.
One of Johan’s biggest things is that he leaves the dandelions in his vineyards for the mielie bug because it’s their natural home. So they don’t actually have to spray or do anything for the mielie bug and certain other bugs. That was also one of the reasons that the Reyneke is one of our house wines.
We have two biodynamic farms wines, which I believe the herbs that we pick and cook with, grow in the vineyards. We call it natural Terroir pairing. That’s also sometimes why these wines work beautifully with the dishes.
JCW: I’m looking at some of the names and these are wines I’ve never heard of before, but they sound wonderful. Franschhoek Pass Winery Rosè, obvious the Lekkerwijn Rosè, but a lot of these I don’t know at all. What is your philosophy in terms of choosing a very idiosyncratic wine list to go with your very idiosyncratic but marvellous food?
CE: There’s two ways of doing this. The one is, how can I put it, the realistic business aspect of it, where I should look at wines that people are going to order and what sells in Franschhoek. There Ludwig Maske from La Motte was a big help. I sit with him every now and then and we look at Franschhoek wines specifically and what the winemakers are doing.
He’s born and bred in Franschhoek and he had a hotel and he’s our local wine merchant. Then there’s the romantic side of things where it’s more personal and that’s all, I would say bartering relationships I’ve built with farms. It’s friends, it’s farms where we forage, like I say, the natural pairing we do, wines like Boekenhoutskloof, Landau, these are all farms where we forage our ingredients.
Mullineux, I grew up in Malmesbury, in my high school years, so there’s quite a few Swartland wines on there because that’s sort of also my roots. It’s a few of my wife’s favourites, a few of my favourites, it’s wines we drink with the food that we eat and we cook what we normally eat at work as well. It’s really wines that we know work with our sort of foresty, smoky, sometimes really hard flavours.
Paring a wine with your starter
JCW: I haven’t eaten my way through the menu, but I did have a starter which was barbecue fig leaf cheesecake, gardener shoot and candied tomato salad. What wine would you choose for that, if you were doing it course by course?
CE: That one plays around quite a bit because the cheesecake itself is quite creamy and smoky and if you hear that, you’ll immediately think something like a lightly wooded Chardonnay or even a Sauvignon. But that wine, because we smoked it with oak, it’s got a bit of a bacon flavour, so even a Pinot Noir would work with that, even a Cab Franc or a Merlot. That is a very wide, diverse, if you hear the tomato, you think acid, it’s not.
It’s been really cooked down, the acid is removed, so it’s quite sweet, so it’s one of those dishes, and then it also depends on what herbs we pick and put into the salad. If we have lots of sorrel, it’ll be more acidic, if we pick wild mint, wild basil, then something more like a Cabernet would work. We read that dish on what herbs we put into the salad that week, what we can pick and that’s also why our wine by the glass is not, it’s never set. It’s different every week, it’ll be different to what we pick and how we cook.
JCW: Really, this whole thing, if I say spontaneous, I don’t mean to say careless, but it’s what is growing on that day, it’s what you manage to harvest on that day. It is the wine that may or may not go with it, so you can change that, in terms of, I came in and wanted a wine for each course, for instance.
JCW: Everything is thought through on that morning.
CE: Exactly, we believe in daily seasonal. We study the weather more than anything else, to see what our menu is going to look like.
A beautiful organic wine
JCW: I see that you’ve got Purslane Burg organic, full bodied Syra pure fruit; earthy tones, smoked meats, lengths, and that, it comes in at quite a cost. But people are talking about this estate, aren’t they?
CE: It’s beautiful.
JCW: Is it because it’s organic, I presume.
CE: I think people, I always think when they see organic, they think, steer away from it and think oh, it’s not going to be a nice wine. But it’s really, there’s so many farms in South Africa that are too scared to put that organic or biodynamic on their label because of that.
There are so many great farms that are doing it, certain blocks that’s organic and biodynamic and a lot of the farmers are going that way. I think it’s just a great farm, it’s a great winemaker, it’s really good wines. The fact that it says organic and people are still buying it, it’s great, I love that.
Spiced root chakalaka?
JCW: I think it’s incredible and please, because I’m curious, spiced root chakalaka. Now, chakalaka is spicy, tell us about that particular wine. It’s inexpensive, smoky, savoury, oak, spice, just tell us a bit about it, what would I eat with it?
CE: That specific wine, as you would know with a ramen broth, where they cook all the duck bones after a Peking Duck in a stock, with lots of soy and sugar. Our version is more a preservation through smoke, where we take our bones, we barbecue and hot smoke it for a whole day. Then simmer it in a way, with lots of dried mushrooms, a little bit of sugar and salt and lots of chilli and wild herbs.
You get this really spicy, smoky broth that we do. We poach the by-products from our pork belly, is the ribs, we’ll smoke that, poach in the ribs and make a little steam bun, just with some fresh radish and sweated carrot. It’s just a really spicy dish and that chakalaka is beautiful.
The reason I put it on as well, it’s not cost effective for the winemakers, but it works well for us, is the half bottles. You can actually have two people each a glass, instead of ordering a whole bottle. Each have a class with the dish and then the next dish go onto something else.
You don’t actually have to order something, you can have a little bottle. I really like the fact that it’s a 375ml bottle and it’s not expensive. I think a wine list, you should have some high end stuff, but I think you should have some really good value, affordable wines as well.
JCW: If I had to ask you for Chris Erasmus, what is happiness? Could you tell me?
CE: Right now, sitting under a tree. I’ve got a little bag next me with some porcini’s in it. On Sunday’s, if we’re not working and my wife and my son and myself can go for a walk and pick some mushrooms and go fishing, go home, light a braai and family time and nature, those two with a good wine.
JCW: Definitely good wine. Chris, I could go on talking to you all day, but I think the way I like you most is in the kitchen and I can see smoke coming up, I can smell it. I just know that within five minutes I’m going to get something that is absolutely memorable. Chris, thank you so much, I hope to see you soon.
CE: You’re welcome Jenny, thank you, have a lovely day.
JCW: Thanks for listening to this episode of Old Mutual Live Wine Edition. If you’d like to get in touch with comments, questions or suggestions, you can email me at email@example.com.