A profusion of fruit, vegetables, berries and herbs is showcased by walkways charted through pergolas of fragrant roses. You'll find an apiary, an immaculate chicken coop and ponds filled with trout, tilapia and waterblommetjies, edible water lilies indigenous to the Western Cape of South Africa. Meandering its paths is both a spectacular and serene experience.
It's enough to give you garden envy. This extraordinary retreat in the Cape Winelands region of South Africa began with the vision of a vegetable garden – not just any vegetable patch, this one is sustainable and organic, inspired by the mythical gardens of Babylon and managed using biodynamic principles.
Once a working farm, the property has been transformed by media mogul Koos Bekker and his wife, Karen, a former editor of Elle Decoration, with the help of French architect and landscape designer Patrice Taravella.
It's now Babylonstoren, an exclusive farm hotel and spa, renowned for its magnificent, three-hectare kitchen garden that brings to mind both the mythical gardens (the nearby hill is called Babylons Toren – the Tower of Babylon) and the centuries-old Company Gardens, a Cape tradition of replenishing Dutch ships on the Spice Route with fruit and vegetables.
Cradled on three sides by mountains in the Drakenstein Valley, the 238-hectare property boasts one of the best-preserved werfs (farmyards) in the Cape Dutch tradition, and features whitewashed farming structures dating back to 1690. Into this dramatic landscape, Mr. Taravella sculpted the kitchen garden on a formal grid system, with more than 300 varieties of edible plants all gravitationally irrigated by canals leading from the Berg River.
Cultivating such a varied garden has been a challenge: “It is fairly easy to grow indigenous plants organically, since they are well adapted to the environment,” Ms. Bekker explains. “But vegetables and fruit are more delicate: They need much richer soil and more protection from insects and diseases. It gives us a great deal of pleasure to cultivate these delicate plants with the least amount of artificial help we can get away with.”
Ms. Bekker clearly has a flair for design that's sympathetic to the farm's heritage. The elegant Manor House, where the family frequently stays, was built in 1777, and the pool beside the guest spa and gym has been cleverly converted from a reservoir – circular, earthen-coloured and modest.
Twelve guest houses with solar panels were created on the footprints of the original farm buildings. With whitewashed, thick-walled cottage exteriors and monochromatic, minimalist interiors, they have a simple, clean aesthetic and restful ambience. A flat-screen TV, fireplace and four-poster bed are all very welcome, but it's the posies of indigenous herbs intended to fragrance the bathwater that add the rustic finishing touch. Some guest houses even feature glass-encased modern kitchens that open onto the garden itself. And new to Babylonstoren is a conservatory tea house, a perfect stop after a garden tour.
With no “private” signs, guests are at liberty to roam the entire estate. Taking the farm-to-fork movement one step further, you are encouraged to “pick your own” from the garden to use in your kitchen; join in with the general pruning, planting and harvesting; cook with the chef or bake with the baker. More athletic guests can canoe the dam, cycle the vineyards or stroll along the clivia lily-lined stream.
The ebullient and eccentric head gardener, Gundula Deutschlander, is thrilled to offer garden tours. She spins gaily through the pathways, picking delicate morsels for me to taste: sweet guavas, red num-num berries oozing milky juice, tangy and aromatic elephant bush leaves and fresh, raw nuts from the peanut plant.
Ms. Deutschlander protects the garden using an organic pesticide spray. “I make a concoction myself using rotted infected leaves, garlic, ginger and chili,” she says enthusiastically, “and it works so effectively that the local farmers have asked me for the recipe.” She also employs a mob of ducks to plod about picking snails, and chickens are let loose to kill the fruit fly larvae. A symbol of Babylonstoren's ecological ethos, chickens – which provide eggs for the kitchen – are fed scraps; and bread oven ash helps to kill mites in their coop.
Head chef Simoné Rossouw meets weekly with Ms. Deutschlander – “They always ask for the weird and wonderful” – to discuss what's in season and how each quirky plant can be incorporated into the cooking. Set in a former cowshed, the restaurant, Babel, is all white tiles, glass and wooden tables. It's the kaleidoscope of kitchen garden produce, used in both dishes and decoration, that injects the colour here.
The sheer variety of produce means the salads are colour-coded: red, yellow or green. So as I sit down to dinner at a lantern-lit table outside my cottage kitchen, the chef presents me witha glorious red salad of beetroot, pomegranate, red cabbage, grapefruit and aubergine. A main course of local smoked trout in lemon butter with melon and sweet viognier grapes is followed by a beguiling gorgonzola and rosemary crème brûlée with cabernet balsamic syrup and Serrano ham crisp.
With a panorama of mountains in view and the garden at my feet, it's the best way to enjoy the remarkable fruits of Babylonstoren's labour.
IF YOU GO
Where to stay: Babylonstoren is only a 45-minute drive from Cape Town, so it's well worth exploring the city first. The Last Word collection has three luxury boutique hotels with exceptional service in the city area – with beach, vineyard or mountain views. The Last Word at Camps Bay has a stunning location overlooking arguably the country's most glamorous beach; the Constantia property (in the city's wine valley) is moments from celebrated restaurants such as La Colombe at the Constantia Uitsig wine estate; and finally, the Bishopscourt hotel – situated in a leafy suburb – is thrillingly close to Table Mountain. All are intimate and elegantly designed, with top notch amenities.
Rooms at Babylonstoren start at $360, including breakfast. 27-0-21-863-3852, babylonstoren.com
Where to eat: The world-renowned culinary hub of Franschhoek is 23 kilometres from Babylonstoren, and as Babel restaurant is closed Monday to Wednesday, it's a great excuse to visit on those days. The ever-popular Reuben's restaurant and garden (021-876-3772; reubens.co.za) requires booking, although a table at its delicious deli is a good last-minute option for lunch. While Le Quartier Français (021-876-8442; lqf.co.za) is well known for its nine-course African-Inspired Surprise Menu, Ryan's Kitchen is still generating buzz for its open-kitchen concept, where every table is a chef's table (021-876-4598; ryanskitchen.co.za).
Special to The Globe and Mail
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