Clarke of the Karoo
It’s pouring with rain, the first proper soaking Barrydale has had this season, it’s a Monday morning around midday, and we’re nigh on freezing. We later learn that snow lies on the tips of the surrounding Langeberg Mountains, not visible because of the blanket of clouds hovering over the town.
We’ve flirted with a stop at Clarke of the Karoo during our two-day visit here, but as yet haven’t managed more than at least three drive-bys, so we pull in to a parking lot already filling up with cars (restaurants should take note that parking a couple of cars outside a venue is a sure draw card to passers by) by now desperate for a hot cuppa something.
Clarke of the Karoo is humming. Word has got out. The staff bandy about June’s edition of Country Life, in which the restaurant has a seven-page feature, and you can see that they’re more than a little chuffed at the notoriety this brings them. Best of all, there is a roaring fire in the middle of the room and Mike orders us to a table virtually on top of it; he must have taken one look at my very red nose and realised that nothing short of a burning log in my lap would help the situation.
Mike Clarke is hardly what you would call charming. He has the persona of a sergeant major and runs a tight ship. You don’t help yourself to a table in his restaurant, he shows you where he wants you, and woe betide you if you’re not staying for a meal – you’ll probably find yourself out on the wet stoep, although no-one, I note, is prepared to put him to the test and when asked if they’re there for lunch, most simply nod their heads.
It’s all part of the charm of the place. Above one’s heads is a chalk board on which there stands a rather curt: prices may vary, according to customers’ attitude!! He’s brisk, hands on, and quick on the repartee, but his food is fantastic, and he knows it. And he can’t be that mean if his staff love him and the restaurant so much.
In the window the badge that has come to denote Route 62 sits proudly. The road winds right past the restaurant, one of many along this small portion of the very long wine route that winds through the town. Barrydale has a lot of restaurants for such a small village, but you begin to understand why pretty soon.
Not only does Route 62 run through the town, bringing visitors from both Montagu in the gorgeous Tradouw valley, and Oudtshoorn across the Klein Karoo, but the N2 also brings visitors here from the Garden Route via the gorgeous Tradouws Pass. This town must rock in summer, if even the beginning of winter finds it beautiful.
As we’re thawing and waiting for our coffee to arrive we mull over the menu that changes daily and is subsequently available on mobile chalk boards, the kind that do the round from table to table. As we’re discussing our meal, another couple of patrons pass our table and remark on the Country Life, which by now has found its way to us.
‘We’re in the July issue’ says the taller of the two gents, who it turns out are here from Swellendam from an establishment called Jan Harmsgat Country House, which is going all out in its organic farming venture and is already a Fair Trade business. We swop notes for a couple of minutes and I promise to buy the following month’s edition.
To our left another table is suffering under the weight of one of our local boy’s garbled marketing as he plies a group of about five young Dutch visitors with various options for the next couple of days that include bungy jumping, shark cage diving (in this weather!) and a visit to the Cango Caves. When they finally leave, they clamber into an earthstompers.com vehicle and make a hasty and wet departure.
At the next table my eye catches the newspaper headlines that are debating the merits of the vuvuzela – will it stay or has its overbearing noise already had at least one soccer team demanding its demise?
Our meal arrives, beautifully put together and none too soon as we’re famished. Clarke of the Karoo is renowned for revolutionising the style of Klein Karoo food and the lamb curry alone has been voted Route 62’s favourite by the Weekend Argus. Our meal is no exception.
From a menu of what Mike terms a mix of Karoo cuisine and Mediterranean style dishes we chose from a selection of homemade soup, smoked salmon on potato rosti, fillet of south Atlantic hake, the famous Karoo lamb curry, pan-seared yellowfin tuna and the restaurant’s own version of Karoo oysters or skilpadjies, in this case lamb livers, we chose a homemade beef burger, roasted vegetables and feta on bruchetta with an organic side salad, and fish and chips for the youngest member of our family. The meal was scrumptious, went down exceptionally well and left us feeling replenished and, finally, allowed me again to feel my toes.
We cast our eyes over the farmstore that is part of Clarke of the Karoo on our way out. It easily mixes with the restaurant’s pub area and provides locally-sourced products that range from home made bottled fruits and jams to olive oils, marmalades, luxury chocolate sauce and any number of foodie joys. A good place to stock up if on the road, as most are who pass this way.
The rain had abated somewhat, as we paid our bill, helped at the till by Mike’s son, one of only five youngsters living in Barrydale. I remarked on this fact, but he seems to enjoy his time here, and the fact that the majority of the people living in the town are well over fifty doesn’t seem to irk him too much. He advises us to take the Tradouws Pass back to Cape Town via Swellendam – a great idea, and a wonderfu drive, despite the pouring rain.
Address: On Route 62 in Ladismith Road, Barrydale, Karoo, Western Cape.
Telephone: +27 (0)28 572-1017
Opening hours: Seven days a week 07h30 to 16h30.