I’ve often described my job as being a bit like a really bad boyfriend. The kind who whisks you off on a negroni-filled mini-break and then disappears for weeks on end while you check your phone incessantly and go to bed with a knot in your stomach.
Well, a few months ago my really bad boyfriend came up trumps again and my agent disturbed an extremely quiet Tuesday morning to say that I’d been cast as a leather-clad Russian assassin in Sky’s new Indiana Jones-esque-venture Hooten and the Lady and I needed to get on a plane to Cape Town immediately. I packed with the flurry of a girl in complete denial about just how bad her boyfriend is and it wasn’t long before I was back in Cape Town — sans negroni — wondering at the clouds slowly draping themselves across the epic expanse of Table Mountain from my window at the magisterial Mount Nelson Hotel.
There were some hours to fill, and after a rather tortuous costume fitting, with lots of discussion about how to tailor my catsuit tight enough to satisfy my rapacious vanity but loose enough for stunts, the South African seamstress suggested that I head to Bree Street for lunch.
Now I can’t remember much about Cape Town from my last job here five years ago, but the cuisine definitely didn’t stick out. Locals raved about Willoughby & Co, which turned out to be a sushi joint in the rather anaesthetic Victoria and Alfred mall, where you have to queue by the escalator due to its massive popularity. Bree Street for me, then, was something of a revelation. This sun-baked street (‘Bree’ means ‘wide’ in Afrikaans) is peppered with one-storey restaurants with colourful canopies, epitomised by the achingly trendy corner café Jason Bakery. With no signage other than the white outline of a single croissant on its black frontage (hipster cafés abhor words) these guys take themselves very seriously.
Firstly, there is a dress code distinct enough to make me regret wearing my rather crumpled Zara all-in-one, and secondly, there is an elaborate dance to get a table. After I was turfed off one for not following the-queuing procedure, my tattooed and highly attractive waitress refused to make eye contact for at least 25 minutes. I was desperate to hate the place but after she reluctantly brought a slate slab on top of which stood a towering porchetta sandwich with black mission figs and a mojito mousse cupcake topped with shavings of lime… I admit I cracked. In less than 30 seconds, I had embraced the pervading aura of hipster smugness and joined the rest of the restaurant in scoping out those unfortunate enough to still be queuing.
There’s a slightly more chilled brunch experience in the white-tiled interor of the Culture Club and Cheese, a quick stroll away. Founded by charming husband-and-wife team Luke and Jessica, this shop-cum-café-pleased me on many levels. First, because they painted it banana yellow (and who doesn’t like that?), and secondly, because Luke, a self-proclaimed ‘curd nerd’, took the time to talk me through how he’s worked with local producers to develop a variety of artisanal cheeses which are proudly shown off in a glass cabinet.
Our brief conversation over a fabulous croissant Eggs Benedict confirmed that Cape Town is undergoing a food revolution and Luke insisted I went to the Neighbourgoods market in Woodstock to fully appreciate this.
So when I next peeled off my catsuit I headed to the Old Biscuit Mill neighbourhood, which is what Camden Market might look like if it had been designed by Ottolenghi. There is live music and the odd vintage clothing outlet, but the main attraction is stall after stall of food.
The heavy hitters here are two restaurants called Test Kitchen and Pot Luck Club. When I asked for a reservation at the former they basically laughed down the phone, so I was excited to get into its slightly more relaxed cousin the following weekend. Now I don’t normally get excited about a tapas restaurant. Like Joey in Friends, I don’t share food. I particularly dislike the obligatory halving — even quartering — of that final fish taco. But the problem didn’t arise at Pot Luck Club. My companion was a particularly skinny vegetarian so I was able to happily munch through plates of springbok-carpaccio with burnt honey and pig’s head bossam and pineapple kimchi without any of that ‘you should try it… no, don’t worry, I’ll halve it’ nonsense.
You don’t have to sport a beanie or a sideways ponytail to taste this change — an interest in local and sustainable food has spread to the most stalwart institutions. At the Mount Nelson, a bastion of colonial grace with a palm-lined drive, the remarkable resident chef Rudi Liebenberg is an ardent supporter of farm-to-table food sourcing. Vegetables for the Planet restaurant come from a community farming project in the townships, there are beehives on top of one hotel wing and even a worm farm to create organic fertiliser for the magnificent gardens.
After filming wrapped I sat in the Mount Nelson’s beautifully manicured gardens nibbling wistfully on some sourdough toast from the breakfast buffet. The waitress told me the bread was made with wild rather than cultivated yeast and I wondered how I’d ever go back to Hovis. I hope it’s not too long before my really bad boyfriend takes me on another adventure.