Sucking my Raw Nerve with Etienne Bonthuys

It began with an oyster.........

Strange as it may sound, there was a time in South Africa when chefs were, well, just chefs. Nameless, faceless men and women who gallantly slaved away in restaurant and hotel kitchens, feeding patrons to whom only the content of the plate mattered. The Ch?+¦???+¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¬teaubriand (for two, of course) and Crayfish Thermidor could have been cooked by Hannibal Lecter or Marilyn Monroe, nobody would give a chicken liver.

A dining venue was judged on the food and the ambience and the mood created by the fulfilled feeling of being fed by others.

This was, of course, before the era of the celebrity chef arrived. Whilst he or she still had to be able to churn out a passable plate of edibles, the chef became the star of the show in top-end restaurants, early 1980s I’d say. Catapulted into the public eye via the media and word-of-mouth, the famous chef became a major draw-card for the restaurant who had managed to procure his or her services, or which was owned by the donner of the Golden Apron.

No longer would a deft hand with the sauce-spoon or a way with fish stock alone be good enough to make a restaurant famous. There had to be a “somebody” in the kitchen.

Growing up in Paarl in the late 1970s, the name Etienne Bonthuys began peppering the conversations my parents and their friends held at the yellow-wood dining-room table. My dad’s lifelong friend Peter Veldsman, then food editor for Sarie Magazine, said Bonthuys was the real deal. I heard Bonthuys had done his training under a maestro in Belgium.

The late,Dr Anton Rupert had business-associates from foreign lands flown down to Cape Town especially to eat at Rosenfontein, the restaurant Bonthuys was then running in Paarl’s Main Road.

My mother had been allowed into that hallowed kitchen and had reported that Bonthuys was using stuff like real Cognac and real Champagne in his sauces.

And then I turned 18 in 1981, and the folks said, okay. Your time has come. Rosenfontein it shall be. A part of me cringed ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ I had read an article where it was reported that a three course meal at Rosenfontein plus wine would set you back almost R10.

Did I deserve such riches?

I don’t remember much about the meal except the food. Amanda, my brunette girlfriend at the time, practised French on one of the very pretty Belgian waitresses. Peter Veldsman arrived with a group of friends who had just returned from New York and they demanded four different wineglasses for each of us, hauling out wine bottles with French names.

But the food stole the show. I remember an oyster, a warm oyster, just-so-ever slightly poached. It was in the shell, swimming in a pond of butter and Champagne. I remember the oyster in my mouth, gently crushing it between tongue and the roof of my mouth, that juice dripping down my throat and me looking at Amanda and thinking the kind of things I had only ever read about in an Edna O’Brien novel.

Thoughts about Edna.

Being a strapping lad who a few weeks earlier had been having disagreements with communists in Angola, I ordered a piece of meat for the main course. Venison.

Two things struck me: the venison was reddish-pink, the colour of an African sunset over a large, shallow lake. Rare venison was not quite de rigeur at the time. In fact, unless you shot the stuff yourself it was practically unavailable.

The meat was gentle, almost mushroom tasting. But the sauce. I had never tasted anything like that before. It was reddish brown and smelt of good, meaty, salty things. The flavour was whorish in its intensity, wine and shallot and a bit of garlic but an unctuous savouriness that created emotions ranging from soothing on the one-side to a vivid moreish bloodlust on the other.

Bonthuys moved on, and so did I. I subsequently found his cooking at Buitenverwachting, Floris Smit Huis, Bonthuys. And Tokara. Which he recently left.

But somehow I had lost the emotional connection I had to that first meal at Rosenfontein, as well as a few more at the same place.

This week I popped into Casparus, Bonthuys’s latest venture. It is situated in Dorp Street, just shy of the hectic mid-town area of Stellenbosch.

The occasion was a fleeting lunch with Nikki Ellis – ,literary critic, budding author, journalist and soon-to-be PR at Neil Ellis Wines’ new Helshoogte venue.

Casparus is a barn-like, cavernous piece of restaurant with some eclectic conceptual-architectural art-kind-of-stuff, courtesy of fellow owner, artist Strijdom van der Merwe. The floor feels roomy, free. I like it.

Nikki brought along a bottle of Neil Ellis Groenekloof Sauvignon Blanc 2006, but having scoped the wine-list I eschewed corkage: the wine prices are so damn reasonable I deemed it only good manners to show my support to the proprietors. Not even 50% mark-up? Well-done, sirs.

We ordered the same Neil Ellis wine, but the 2010 vintage. This being a Neil Ellis Sauvignon Blanc, I did not have to have a Rennie on the side.

The menu spoke of fresh and seasonal and country-like with a bit of French here, Asian there and appealing all over. Salads and fish and game; soup, steak, ostrich.

For starters I talked Nikki into the aforementioned oysters, still on the menu after all these years, while I settled for caprese.

Warm, crispy rolls were delivered to the table. The wine was cool and grassy, with a smattering of honeydew-melon and pear.

The oysters arrived, six huge ones. I could smell the sauce from my side of the table. My caprese was brilliantly fresh, the mozzarella not too rich and heavy; the tomato at just the ride side of ripeness. Lovely, gorgeous basil-dressing.

We spoke of France and books, people and landscape. Just when I thought I was going to get an oyster, Nikki popped the last succulent morsel in her mouth, leaving me mopping up basil-dressing with a piece of roll.

The main course, for me, was calamari and oxtail. Sticking to the sea, Nikki ordered the catch of the day which turned out to be yellowtail.

Calamari and oxtail really is a wonderful combination. The squid tubes were ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ obviously – perfectly cooked to a marrow-like tenderness. They tasted like fresh ocean foam, a flavour sensually offset by the dish’s other half, namely rich off-the-bone oxtail ragout. The sauce was pale yellow, and it was saffron.

Calamari, oxtail, saffron sauced.

On the other side of the table, Ms Ellis was dealing with a generous slab of yellowtail covered in a red wine sauce. I was keen to place myself in a position to report on its quality, but the woman had wolfed everything down before I could mention the PL of please. (I was later told that it was very good.)

Espresso completed the meal.

There was nothing pretentious or “ah-gee-look!” about the experience, although I did the naff thing of photographing my main course. It was gloriously tasty, satisfying food. Two people, a bottle of wine sharing conversation on a glorious autumn day in Stellenbosch. In a really good, honest and reasonably priced restaurant. Just over R500 for the whole deal.

Thanks for the memories, Etienne.

And I wonder,what happened to Amanda?

– Emile Joubert

8 thoughts on “Sucking my Raw Nerve with Etienne Bonthuys

  1. Having dinner there for my birthday tonight – thanks for the beautiful imagery, I can almost taste the oxtail and calamari already.

  2. Thanx for the memory – Bonthuys & Veldsman: the men who taught me that food is not only about cooking, but mostly passion.

  3. Hi Emile

    Having worked at Buitenverwachting in the 80’s when Etienne was there, I had a rude number of fabulous meals at his resaurant. I too, must thank you for the memories….
    beautiful story which I could not stop reading – I should be working!

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