“You’re going to South Africa? You must visit Spier, you’ll love it.”
The advice of a trusted, well-travelled, foodie friend is hard to ignore, and so Spier, a heritage wine estate established in 1692, was promptly added to my travel itinerary. Upon arrival, it was difficult to ignore the wide, sprawling acreage that the wine estate dominates, unlike the many boutique vineyards of the area. Yet, it is precisely this space – 620 hectares, of which 432 hectares is farmed organically – that provides the opportunity of an incredibly holistic yet commercial enterprise.
Unlike numerous smallholding farms that practise sound sustainability in one or two specialities, Spier has demonstrated how sustainability can be done on a mass scale and across the spectrum. The secret ingredient that has made Spier so successful? Its people. This was made evident with an introduction to Lorraine Heyns, known affectionately by her colleagues as ‘Lolli’, and Executive Chef of the on-site Eight Restaurant, and Spier hotel.
Heyns has the likeability of a long-lost friend, and an infectious passion for Spier’s deep-rooted sustainability vision. Her approach to menu planning is unique – the estate’s produce dictates what she is going to prepare for that day, and is entirely dependent on the seasons and nature’s temperament.
“Each morning I call our head farmer and ask him what’s ready to be harvested. We always have our surefire crops but any new ingredient becomes our recipe inspiration for that day.”
Passion aside, Heyns is an exceptional chef. Breaking the snobbery of many gourmet chefs, she brings real, home-style food to the table with a sublime flair. Dishing up a gratifying vegan flower salad starter, it was agreed she was a contender to Raymond Blanc, with her eruption of delicate flavours; while the main course, a light basil souffle, explained why she is dubbed the ‘Diva of Delicious’.
Some could argue that Heyn’s talent, who trained locally in Franschhoek and in some of London and California’s top restaurants, is wasted at Spier, which has more a family-friendly eatery vibe than high style dining. Yet Eight is the culmination of South Africa’s passion for its land and heritage, and it takes an ambitious character like Heyns to imbibe it.
It’s not just organic vegetable sourcing that Spier boasts, its entire dining experience is closed loop, from its waste management practices – over 90% of solid waste and 100% wastewater is recycled – to its cared for cattle and chicken.
The meat comes from the estate’s own hoghouse, fine wine from its vineyards, rustic breads from the bakehouse, and delicious farm cheese from neighbouring farms down the road. The entire process is managed organically. The best way to understand how Spier ticks is on a Food Safari, as you glide through the farm on a Segway with the resident farmer, Angus McIntosh. Well-connected, Heyns promotes sustainability to South Africa’s top chefs by being an active participant of the Longtable Project.
Heynes also spends a significant amount of time mentoring aspiring chefs on the estate, as part of Spier’s enterprise development approach, which encourages local people to run their own companies - from a laundry service to a bottle reworking factory. The concept is simple: by supporting small and local black-owned businesses, Spier can meets its local supply chain goals, reduce costs and positively influence employment rates. Heyns informed me that the estate is the largest employer within the community.
“When we employ our staff, our criteria is not how much experience an individual has in a service-orientated environment. That can be taught. We don’t care for their educational qualifications. We are community-orientated and employ the people who live here. Any other approach doesn’t make sense to us. Our HR team sum it up with we hire for attitude, train for skill.”
Spier’s Tree-preneur – a project that gives more than 70 people living in some of the Cape’s poorest areas the opportunity to change their lives – teaches some of the Cape’s most impoverished communities how to care and grow indigenous trees and plants, which can be exchanged for vouchers for food, clothing, bicycles and even school and university fees. The scheme is indiscriminate – currently individuals from the age of five to 93 are involved.
From an visitor’s perspective looking in, Spier seems to be getting everything right. This is probably the reason the winery is the most awarded in South Africa, and is a shining light for responsible tourism, conservation and ethical trade.