Constance-Marie is wearing one of the straw hats I’ve just furiously coveted in the shop across from the restaurant at Babylonstoren. Her white linen blouse, faded black jeans and secateurs nonchalantly resting in a pouch tied around her hips makes her the epitome of garden chic crossed with a hint of hippie.
There is, by now, a group of us gathered in the courtyard of Babel, the restaurant at Babylonstoren in Paarl for the garden tour. We sit and stand at intervals around a blackboard that broadcasts the seasonal veg and fruit the restaurant will use today.
Behind me, up on a table that seems barely able to deal with their size, are three enormous pumpkins and squashes, the likes of which I’ve only seen in gardening magazines. They look like your common garden pumpkin on steroids.
Photographs — Left: Espalier – fruit trees / Right: The vegetable gardens
To my left the kitchen of Babel is gearing up for breakfast. The restaurant is all light and glass, white décor and blackboards, whilst the kitchen is visible for all to see, its cutting boards under strain whilst the chef and her team prepare fresh ingredients for breakfast and lunch.
Out in baskets on the tables in the restaurant’s courtyard is a spread of satsumas (Babylonstoren is a wine and fruit farm, planting predominatly plums, grapes, pears, olives and citrus), and they’re not for decoration. You can simply help yourself.
Wednesday to Sunday one can join a tour of the gardens at Babylonstoren. We’re not talking a mere kitchen garden here. We’re speaking a little piece of France spread across 8 acres of garden that has me gasping at its magnificence. But you’ll need to book in advance – the free tours are popular, and we barely manage to squeeze in on this particular morning.
Babylonstoren’s garden is inspired by the Orsan gardens in Maisonnais, France. Patrice Taravella, the designer and owner of Orsan, has been actively involved in creating the magnificence I see before me – the wooden towers over which the gardeners are training various creepers, the 48 pergolas of climbing roses, the indigenous herbs, the 300 different varieties of edible plants, the espaliered fruit trees, walkways, stone fruit orchard paved with peach pips…I could go on.
Photographs — Left: Everyone under the shade / Right: Towers
It’s hot. I’m overdressed even with the legs of my jeans rolled up and am grateful for the hat that protects my face. Constance-Marie keeps to the shade as much as she can when explaining the various aspects of the garden.
The historic garden, inspired by the company Gardens of the Cape – a hill nearby is known as Canonkop because of the canon that used to sound to announce ships in the harbour – that would replenish crews with water, veg and fruit as a halfway station between Asia and Europe.
The garden’s layout is pretty formal. Nothing haphazard or concentric here. It lies directly opposite the little koppie on the farm that gives it its name – Babylonstoren -, a series of grape vines, the river and a section of fynbos the divide between the hill and the vegetables.
The gardens are predominantly rectangular and divided into fifteen clusters spanning vegetable areas, berries, bees, indigenous plants, ducks, chickens, a roman camomile lawn and a prickly pear maze. Waterways from the stream into the garden operate according to gravity, as they would have 300 years ago.
I find myself so excited at being in amongst all this beauty that much of what Constance-Marie shares with us is lost, but I’ve come away with a few particular impressions. One of these was seeing rhubarb grown in cylindrical wicker baskets – handwoven – to protect the plants, I believe, but also because the leaves are poisonous.
Photographs — Left: Apples on the tree / Right: Bountiful food
Another was seeing roman chamomile grown exclusively as lawn (it makes the most wonderful seat, one you can’t tear yourself away from), which gave me all sorts of ideas about using herbs as ground cover – although this is going to prove fairly difficult in high traffic areas in our garden as I’m not sure thyme will take kindly to constant tramplings, and roman chamomile needs sun in order to thrive.
This was also my first introduction to espalier – the rather ancient practice of controlling the woody plant growth of fruit trees by pruning and tying branches to a frame so that they grow into a flat plane. In this case along a latte trellis connected to the towers and wooden pergolas. We’ve come home brimming with ideas for our wooden pergolas both in front and behind the house. And just as we thought we’d run out of space for trees.
Alongside the garden area run a series of guest ‘suites’ – their main emphasis, in similar fashion to Babel, their kitchens – which face the garden, their glass exteriors ensuring the vegetable and fruit garden is in full view and the picture for each morning’s waking. Each of these is modelled on Cape Dutch farm buildings and guests are bought a daily basket of veg and fruit for using in their daily dishes. The focus is on food.
Our tour, which lasts roughly an hour and a half, but is over too quickly, ends at the garden’s glass green house. Inside there is a large old fashioned brass tap that looms over a large stone table on which fruit is spread for us to help ourselves. Again there is this creative play on the lavish use of food, without the fuss.
Photographs — Left: Putting up scarecrows / Right: Plums
Next to this is a table on which are balanced a series of herbs in glass jars, just picked. There to entice us to smell and touch. Tables and chairs take up most of the area outside the greenhouse and are soon all occupied. The menu is simple – there isn’t a lot to choose from, but when the food arrives we are blown away.
My meal of farmstyle ciabatta (made on the farm and for sale with their wine and other delicacies) with goats cheese and smoked trout arrives together with a sealed glass jar in which I find freshly picked salad leaves from the garden and a couple of ‘surprises’ in the form of a carrot and pickled beetroot. With this come two smaller jars that contain homemade chutney and a collection of herbs whizzed in the blender that infuse the olive oil in which they are served.
My friends and family have similar – some served on rye, others on wholewheat, with a choice of dalewood huguenot or gorgonzola cheeses, hickory ham, smoked chicken or trout. To drink we have iced ginger and apple cordial or freshly squeezed fruit and veg juices, whilst the children take it in turns to step on the tap’s ‘on-button’ set in the floor below the table.
Sitting in the greenhouse, we are periodically doused in a fine spray of water that keeps the heat of the day from wearing at our sense of humour. And the play of food so delights us all that the talk at the table centres around growing and the joys of sharing beautiful slow food with friends.
If you want to visit Babylonstoren, make sure to book ahead for the garden tour or to eat at Babel, the restaurant. You can wing it, as we did, and join the tour of the morning and end up at the Glasshouse afterwards. Either way, you will have an experience to remember.
Directions from Cape Town
Take the N1 towards Paarl. Take Exit 47 – Klapmuts, Stellenbosch R44 off-ramp. At the Stop street turn right (underneath the N1 towards Stellenbosch). Go over the next 4-way stop and over the bridge. Take the next left on Franschhoek (R45). About 6km down that road on your right you’ll see Babylonstoren
Telephone: +27 (0)21 863-3852