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Leefstyl | Lifestyle > Kos & Wyn | Food & Wine > Rubrieke | Columns > Paul Murray: Murray's Food Trails

The Lafayette Food Trail

Paul Murray - 2006-11-14

Dining at Lafayette will transport you across three continents: Africa, Europe and the United States.

Eating here is as exotic as the revolutionary ideas of the Marquis de Lafayette himself. He was the first Frenchman to come to the assistance of the Americans in the revolutionary wars against the English.

There is a deep irony here.

It was at a dinner on 8 August 1775 where he met the Duke of Gloucester, who showed great sympathy with the Americans in their struggle against the English, who were taxing their subjects, even though they had no vote.

Lafayette was immensely inspired by that meeting with the Duke at dinner; and with thoughts of this being a "romantic" cause, he began to make arrangements to proceed to America to make a contribution. On arrival he received the commission of major general and volunteered to fight with no pay.

This gem of an eatery nestling on the corner of Andringa and Dorp Street, Stellenbosch – an address to die for – is therefore aptly named after a great European general who served on two continents: North America and France.

Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roche Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette Lafayette – Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roche Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette – was born into nobility in 1757, 250 years ago next year! At two years old he had lost his father, and at twelve his mother, thus ending up a very, very wealthy orphan.

For Lafayette in Stellenbosch, there’s more of the history to come.

Born into nobility, Lafayette married even higher in French nobility. On April 9, 1771, at the age of fourteen, Lafayette entered the Royal Army and when he turned sixteen, married Marie Adrienne Francoise de Noailles – allying himself with one of the wealthiest families in France. She was related to the King.

Today, Lafayette and Marie are still happily married. Marie loves Lafayette dearly. This is evident when you visit Lafayette. They are inseparable. Marie is there to welcome you and her friendly, French face remains as calm as ever.

She moves aristocratically and with grace, and to Lafayette, Marie is more than just a proprietor.

But going to Lafayette can be for many other reasons, not just to meet Marie. She will be there anyway. It’s a favourite for me and my friends to enjoy that ultimate of the fruit of the grape, a cognac, on a hot summer’s evening, as an aperitif. Fine fare will follow.

As you imbibe the cognac, you can drink in remembrance of the noble way Lafayette, a member of Washington's staff in the American War of Independence, joined the American forces at the Battle of Brandywine, to liberate America from its colonial shackles. And when you drink cognac thus, at Lafayette’s, partaking of this extraordinary history-laden libation, it will bring with it blessings too innumerable to reckon.

Stellenbosch is exotic African. You cannot hide its oaks. Talking of which, it is exactly at the spot now occupied by Lafayette that the Queen Mother, travelling in a horse-drawn carriage on her visit to the town in 1947, is reputed to have let off a little noise when an acorn fell on her head. How exotic can you get – the flatulence of a queen on African soil within hearing distance of Lafayette?

One wonders about the concomitant response from Lafayette. Being a mere stone’s throw away, in true chivalrous form he would have considered himself part of the entourage, and not out of place, because of his blue blood.

It’s those summer evenings at Lafayette that are to die for – as you're firmly seated on African foundations, enjoying European food, under the banner of Franco-American liberalism.

Marie brought the revolution to Stellenbosch after a working holiday in Tuscany, observing carefully the fine food traditions of the world’s most sophisticated kitchen. After all, Catherine of Tuscany introduced Florentine cuisine, and the fork, to the French court.

The tagliatelle are home-made, as are the delectable soups and potages. The beef fillet in brandy and port is a sheer delight. Those with a predilection for fish will enjoy the fresh fish bought in daily and prepared by grilling.

In the many times I have dined at Lafayette it has never failed to intrigue me exactly how much effort has gone into preparing the food. It’s all home-made. The end to the meal, with more time taken in the hot evening, or around the fire in winter, is the expertly made coffee accompanied by close friend Giorgio dalla Cia’s grappa.

In a fast food culture that has overtaken us like the serpent in the statue of the Laocoon, a breath of fresh culinary air characterised by slow food such as you get at Lafayette, is highly commendable, and at reasonable prices!

The venue is suitable for summer and winter dining, inside or outside, depending on the temperature. There is a courtyard and a large fireplace for more cosy experiences. Inside the restaurant the feeling is Italian rustic – not surprisingly, since the architect and designer Riccardo Panzeri (who still patronises the venue and can be seen there often) is Veronese, Venetian trained. His other commissions include Cuveau on Heritage Square in Cape Town and, most recently, the wine bar opposite Newlands at The Josephine Mill.

A suitable variety of wines and cultivars serves as an accompaniment to the fine fare. Someone described it as "a sublime selection of popular South African wines …"

Professors and writers, as well as upper crust businessmen, frequent this venue. You can see them deliberating, engaged in confabulation, or just sitting, after a hard day of writing or lecturing.

The verandah in summer is hard to beat. That’s when you see everything in perspective at Lafayette – the scale, the history and the people that dine there. That’s when Lafayette’s motto speaks to you the loudest: Taste. Food. Wine. Passion.

Seated at the dining table of a restaurant cum café cum wine bar designed by a Veronese who studied at a Venetian University, on a hot African summer’s night under the oaks in Afrikaans Stellenbosch, eating alla italiana at a place whose French name invokes feelings of liberalism in America, is as much of a hotchpotch as you will get anywhere.

The great love between Lafayette and Marie becomes more evident the more you dine there. This cordial relationship is also true of Lafayette and Washington, reflected in the close ties that they had. In their correspondence we read of Washington writing to Lafayette, thus: "I owe it to your friendship and to my affectionate regard for you, my dear Marquis, not to let you leave this country without carrying with you fresh marks of my attachment to you." Before boarding the United States ship Alliance on 23 December 1781, Lafayette penned a letter to Washington in which he said, "Adieu, my dear General; I know your heart so well that I am sure that no distance can alter your attachment to me. With the same candour I assure you that my love, respect, my gratitude for you, are above expression; that, at the moment of leaving you, I felt more than ever the strength of those friendly ties that forever bind me to you."

This is how you feel after dining at Lafayette. The experience constructs important culinary and historical ties that the discerning diner, appreciative of the best in home-made cooking, will cherish.

Time, energy and wisdom have created this space in an epicentre of fine dining, so much so that one must hail those who took the initiative by quoting from the book of Proverbs: "Through wisdom is an house builded; and by understanding it is established. And by knowledge shall the chambers be filled with all precious and pleasant riches."

Taste, food, wine and people with passion, for cooking, and eating – its riches – are what fill its chambers.