This blog piece has been transcribed from Taste Woolworths Magazine March 2021 issue: The Happy Accident

Happy stories were hard to come by in 2020, making the collaboration between Jess Shepherd and Luke Grant of Good to Gather and Rozendal Farm in Stellenbosch even more inspiring. Beautiful, seasonal food in a mindful setting? Nicely done

Many words were used to describe 2020. Unprecedented. Disaster. The ubiquitous "pivot". Insert your favourite expletive here. But other words also came up: creativity, survival, collaboration. It's this last in particular that has been the lifeline for many working in the industry, including Jess Shepherd and Luke Grant of Good to Gather and Nathalie Ammann of Rozendal Farm in Stellenbosch.

Jess and Luke ran the award-winning and highly regarded The Table restaurant at De Meye Vineyards in Stellenbosch for six years, where they served seasonal, close-to-the-Earth food using produce they grow themselves. They’re now doing pop-up lunches and dinners ate Rozendal, following the same farm-to-table philosophy, as well as running a small Sunday market at the same venue where they sell fresh produce, bakes made by Jess and her sister Jené Steyn (including the best shortbread you will ever taste and brown butter almond financiers), bread from PJ Vadas at Spier, nitrate-free bacon and pork sausages from Ryan Boon, and freshly pressed juices from Harry’s Juice, among other pantry gems.

It is a partnership and collaboration with the place where they first met 15 years ago when Jess was 21, fresh out of chef school and cooking for guests on Rozendal farm. Serendipitously, the events of 2020 ended up taking them full circle, back to where their journey together started.

After deciding to wind up The Table at De Meye in late 2019, the couple spent six weeks working on Fern Verrow farm in Herefordshire in the UK, a biodynamic farm run by Jane Scotter, which supplies acclaimed chef Skye Gyngell’s restaurant, Spring, with farm-to-table produce and flowers.

“After the demands of the hospitality industry, it was a relief to get back to the basics of growing good produce,” says Jess now. “It's hard work though!” On their return to South Africa, they didn’t really have a plan. “But we’re pretty resourceful and started doing Friday lunches at Waterford Wine Estate. Then lockdown happened.”

This is another phrase that echoed through last year, and which has changed everything, including the way restaurateurs approach their businesses, and what diners want now - a more meaningful dining experience that respects the produce and its suppliers, as well as the people using it in their restaurants.

Respect for produce is something that is paramount for Jess and Luke. “I did my share of work in fine dining restaurants and I realised it wasn’t what I wanted to do forever. I find expressing myself through food and cooking enjoyable, it allows me to be creative and to cook food that resonates with me and our customers. Being introduced to natural, organic food set the tone for me.”

Woolworths Taste Magazine article

In another ingenious move, Jess and Luke started selling weekly produce boxes online that are delivered in certain areas of Cape Town, and continue to do so. 

“In lockdown, I realised that there were many farmers and producers who couldn’t do anything with their fresh produce as restaurants and hotels were closed. They were having to discard it. I couldn’t bear to see it go to waste so we started doing the boxes. I got fruit and veg from Louis November in Jamestown and Steve Botha in Porterville, as well as milk and cheese from Dalewood in the winelands and Gay’s Dairy in Prince Albert.”

Jess also uses these suppliers for the pop-up at Rozendal, creating a valuable lifeline for them, in addition to the produce that she and Luke grow on nearby Blaauwklippen, where they live now. “We honour the produce and seasonality and use what’s available. If something is picked a day or two before you eat it, it just tastes better.” Judging by their sold-out dates in December and January, the locals agree.

The other half of this collab is vinegar-maker Nathalie Ammann, who runs Rozendal and produces the vinegars with which the farm has become synonymous. The farm used to produce wine, but in the early 90’s her father, Kurt, left some in the barrel for a bit too long, turning it into proverbial vinegar. A Swiss guest suggested they use it to make vinegar and the rest is history, as they say.

Woolworths Taste Magazine article

“We call it a happy accident,” laughs Nathalie. “My dad then went on a bit of a health kick and started having a shot of his home-made vinegar in the mornings - it has many beneficial qualities. Then we started serving it as an apéritif or digestif in the restaurant and people really loved it. We then started bottling some, on a very small scale. Printing labels on our laser jet printer!”

Her father was onto a good thing. He still swears by his shot of vinegar every day and. At 74, walks the length of the Grand Canyon every year.

The first varieties they made were the lavender and green tea vinegars. The latter is a concoction of green tea, chilli, carob and kelp, among other ingredients, and Nathalie describes it as probably the most underrated and healing of the vinegars they make. It was inspired by kombucha and, as a result of the biodynamic fermentation process, contains multitudes of beneficial bacteria, as do all the vinegars made at Rozendal.

After receiving positive feedback, they decided to put more energy into making vinegars and to stop making wine, with the last vintage being released in 2002. “We decided to choose our niche and focus on making our vinegars,” says Nathalie. Since 2004, Nathalie has been responsible for running the vinegar business. She describes it as a natural progression: “Making things is part of who I am, after growing up with my dad making wine and food.” Following the success of the first two varieties, they released the fynbos and hibiscus vinegars. When asked about how they decide on new flavours Nathalie says, “We experiment with infusing the base vinegar with different herbs and simply taste it until we’re happy with the flavour.” Much like the process Jess follows in her kitchen on the estate.

Woolworths Taste Magazine article

The vinegar-making process is a long one, with most being aged for at least 12 years. It’s difficult to determine their exact age as the barrels are never completely emptied. They’re made according to the solera system (a system of blending in such a way that the finished product is a mixture of ages, with the average age gradually increasing as the process continues over many years) using organic wine from nearby Joostenberg, Reyneke and Avondale wine estates. The wines are inoculated with existing vinegar (the “mother”), which contains the bacteria required for the fermentation process, and stored in fermentation tanks to age. “Vinegar likes warmth and lots of exposure to air, the opposite to making wine,” explains Nathalie. “We follow a biodynamic process and don’t pasteurise or sterilise it; it’s a living product.” In simple terms, the wine is turned into vinegar through a process of fermentation and aeration and is then transferred into oak barrels where large muslin “teabags” of herbs are added to infuse the vinegar in each barrel, it adds character and helps age the new batch. The different herb-infused varieties are then blended together according to recipes for each type, with the lavender being the only single-herb varietal. They also have a balsamic vinegar, Essentia, which is part of the original batch that was made about 20 years ago. “There are only three barrels left. We’ll make some more, but it will take some time,” Nathalie smiles.

In these uncertain days, time is something a lot of people have; time to think more creatively, and time to do things in ways that fulfil them while sustaining livelihoods and spirits.

And if 2020 has proved anything, it is that Nathalie, Jess and Luke are on the right track.