What with winter still being out in full force in the Western Cape, one dreams of whiling away a weekend accompanied by a well-tended log fire, a few bottles of warming red and a shelf filled with dog-eared paperbacks. Fortuitously, this is exactly what we came to experience at the luxurious Wildekrans Country House in the Houw Hoek Valley. Settled away from the town of Elgin, this sprawling estate that dates back to the 1800s is owned by Alison Green and her husband Barry Gould and features a historic manor house and a separate self-catering cottage.
Although best booked for a large group, the rooms at Wildekrans Country House can also be reserved for singles or couples that want to escape to the valley for a few days. Within the manor house, each room has an en-suite bathroom with the largest bedroom or “honeymoon suite” featuring it’s own lounge. A communal dining area, sitting room with slow combustion fireplace and a small farmhouse kitchen make for comfortable living. Shelves groan under rows of coffee table books and popular paperbacks and a small drinks bar stocks a selection of whiskey, gin and wine from the area, including Barry’s own red blend. Guests of the manor house are also treated to a comprehensive breakfast spread each morning, an array that begins with cereals, fresh fruit, thick Greek yoghurt, honey and the refreshingly sour tang of fresh orange juice and culminates in farm eggs, shards of crispy bacon, fried tomato and freshly-baked soda bread with butter and chunky marmalade and apricot preserve made on the estate. Weather-permitting, lunch is held in the dappled shade of an oak tree in the gardens or inside the old barn if its cold. We enjoyed an entirely vegetarian meal of crisp green salad, fresh bread with butter and Melanzane – an Italian dish of aubergine, tomato and cheese baked to an oozy deliciousness. Paired with a bottle of icy Paul Cluver Sauvignon Blanc, this al fresco style of dining in Wildekrans’ sprawling gardens with the fragrance of magnolia heavy in the air, must be the best way to spend a sunny winter’s afternoon.
Having grown up on a farm in nearby Glen Fruin in Elgin, Alison has run Wildekrans Country House for almost two decades after leaving Gauteng to return to her roots. An avid collector of art, the grounds at Wildekrans Country House are scattered with sculpture from Alison’s private anthology. Inside the grandiose manor house, various painting, sketches, etchings and figurines line the walls and I was honoured to share a room with a Kentridge charcoal sketch from the early Nineties. Citing her personal garden favourites as being Adam and Eve by Wilma Cruise for their substantial presence against the huge mountains, Sheep Are Safely Grazing (again by Wilma Cruise) for their tranquil presence and Guy du Toit’s Cock on Chair, as it was brought it here from Alison’s garden in Johannesburg.
Guests are welcome to use the manor house kitchen upon prior arrangement, or Wildekrans Country House can cater to bigger parties with a knees-up barbecue or hearty slow food like Osso Bucco. Since we were only three, the decision to explore the nearby town of Botriver as a dinner location was made. Coming in highly recommended by locals and visitors alike, we opted for dinner at Manny’s Kitchen – a welcoming Portuguese taverna run by Madeira-native Manny de Andrade. Avid about the food of his homeland, Manny treated us to regional specialities like flame-grilled chicken, squid and steak, all served with milho frito – fried wedges of polenta, a tasty alternative to potato chips. The star of the show was Manny’s fiery peri peri sauce and I was lucky enough to be given a bottle to take home. Since the chilly August weather outside didn’t quite match the spice in the food, a bottle of Wildekrans Wines 2014 Estate Pinotage kept us warm.
After such a meal, a good night’s sleep was calling. Devoid of the light pollution and noise present in the suburbs, sleep comes swiftly to guests of Wildekrans Country House. Hearing only the occasional call of night birds and the soft rhythmical heartbeat of the estate’s pump down at the river, the surrounding darkness is consolingly velvety. And little comes close to waking at dawn and seeing the first rays of the sun peeking over the Groenland mountains. Wildekrans Country House is an active member of the Groenlandberg Conservancy and runs two popular hiking trails – the Blue Mountain and the Green Mountain trails – from the estate. We has been invited to take part in a portion of the hike so as to better experience the surrounding fynbos of the area.
After a languid breakfast it was time to set off with Patrick Mapanye, our guide for the morning. Hailing from Malawi, Patrick joined Wildkrans Country House in 2017 when a friend of Alison and Barry’s became ill and sold his rose business. Patrick has a love of roses and so had worked there until the business was sold. A gentle people person with a keen love for plants, Alison and Barry asked Patrick if he would be interested in working as a guide and in the gardens of Wildekrans. Now apart from tending the gardens with his expert hand, Patrick has begun to study for his training accreditation and is currently awaiting his exam results before beginning his practical assessment. After experiencing his company on our walk, it’s easy to see why guests love walking with him – a soft-spoken man with a wealth of knowledge on flora and fauna alike and an infectious sense of humour, Patrick introduced us to myriad species of fynbos including the buchu family (Agathosma), wild sage or impepho and the sugarbush protea family. Armed with sturdy walking sticks, a flask each of tea and coffee in Patrick’s satchel and Titan, Wildekran’s pup who kept us company, we hiked up through the pear orchards, across the stream and onwards past the ruins of a village that once lay here at the turn of the twentieth century. After reaching the top of the bluff that overlooks Wildekrans Country House, we stopped for a tea break in the sunshine. Patrick pointed out the rhino bush, an indigenous shrub that is sadly as endangered as it’s namesake with now only 1% of the plant occurring naturally. After an easy hike back through the towering bluegum trees that line the perimeter of the estate, we had the chance to explore a few more corners of Alison’s garden. From the dormant pear orchard to the olive grove and the ponds put in place by her mother years before, every aspect of the gardens at Wildekrans Country House are a visual feast. Arum lilies bloom in abundance around the stream feeding the ponds and early spring daffodils and snowdrops nod gently in the breeze. While it’s not quite time for the roses yet, delicate peach blossoms have appeared on one tree while knobby Cape lemons dangle from the boughs of another. The scent of star jasmine is heady during the long afternoons and one can hear frogs croaking in the section of stream that runs past the manor house. Naturally Wildekrans Country House rates highly as a destination for the annual Elgin Open Gardens festival. This year the estate will welcome in new art exhibitions by Wilma Cruise, Guy du Toit and Greta Davis along with lunch, tea, dessert, farm produce and a picnic offering for guests to enjoy in the gardens.
Apart from that aforementioned chunky marmalade and many other goodies, the farm shop also stocks Barry’s own wine and I was first attracted to this varietal through its interesting doodle of a label. Because the Elgin Valley is subjected to a cold weather climate, the wines produced here are full-bodied without being too heavy. The blend consists of a barrel each of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon that are left to mature on oak with minimal interference. The result is a velvety mouthful of subtle spice and a rich woodiness on the nose. Unsurprising when one considers that Barry learnt all he has to know about winemaking from time spent on a remote farm in the Chianti area of Italy.
As for the doodle, Barry reckoned that he was still the uptight Jo’burg type when he began working with wine. His collar-and-tie self portrait pokes fun at the juxtaposition of his former lifestyle versus his and Alison’s current enviable situation in the Elgin Valley.
Which is, if I may say, truly la dolce vita.