CAPE TOWN, Nov 13 — A suburb of Cape Town, Woodstock has a reputation for being run-down with rising crime. Or used to — these days the neighbourhood, located between Table Bay and Devil’s Peak, is transforming into a hipster haven where designers, artists, technologists and food entrepreneurs congregate.
Most of the hipsters are flocking to The Old Biscuit Mill, a former — you guessed it — biscuit factory that has undergone a revitalisation of sorts and perhaps the key reason for Woodstock’s rapid change. The brick-red façade of the former mill is well preserved; clean white lines frame it crisply. Water features and the high chimney (no longer in use) infuse its Victorian-era architecture with a colonial charm.
But the real life of the space comes from the folks that inhabit it. The Old Biscuit Mill is a vibrant “urban village” where indie designer stores share the same space as pottery barns, crafts workshops and some of South Africa’s best restaurants.
Indeed most visitors come for the extraordinary food scene — from traditional cheeses to craft beer, wines and sausages, organic produce and artisanal breads fresh from the oven — as do we. Consider it a gourmet “food hop” without leaving its trendy, retro compound.
While many shops have flamboyant store fronts, one stands apart due to its distinct lack of colour. Espresso Lab Microroasters is all black and white with occasional spots of crimson to draw your attention. Indeed, its “laboratory” ambience — think: beakers as coffee pots, a snowy-white Diedrich roaster and a tiled map of bean-producing countries around the world – is meant to invoke a very precise and technical passion for specialty coffee.
Yet the café is far from cold and clinical. Jovial baristas are happy to converse with us and offer recommendations. Espresso Lab’s founders, Renato Correia and Helene Vaerlien, believe in sourcing green beans from sustainable, organic farms and roasting them in small batches to allow their flavours take centrestage.
Their current coffee selection spans the globe, from Costa Rica to Kenya. For single origin filter coffee, we try their Ethiopian heirloom beans from Sasaba, Guji; these are harvested at approximately 1800 metres above sea level. This natural processed coffee had a delicious floral aroma and tasted of Medjool dates and pineapple, a most winning combination.
Lovers of a good cappuccino should try their Alpha 2016 espresso blend — now into its version 3.0, according to the barista — that is a mix of 50 per cent Fazenda Recreio (Brazil), 25 per cent La Union de Narino (Colombia) and 25 per cent Konikona (Ethiopia). Its caramel-almond and cherry blossom flavours cut through the milk to create a balanced cup. Their Black Ice — espresso, crushed ice and natural sweetener — is a cool favourite during the summer months.
The jewel of The Old Biscuit Mill’s gourmet food scene has to be The Test Kitchen, the only South African restaurant in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list this year. Unfortunately, it is currently undergoing renovations but fortunately for us, chef-owner Luke Dale Robert has opened a second restaurant in the mill called The Pot Luck Club.
The Pot Luck Club offers tapas-style “sharing plates” that showcase the way we taste food. The menu is divided into sections named Salty, Sweet, Sour, Bitter and even Umami. We sit at the counter for the best view of the open kitchen. Our waiter recommends selecting one or two dishes per section so that we can enjoy the full spectrum of flavours.
We begin with the Korean fried cauliflower from the Salty section. Marinated in buttermilk and fried with kimchi, the florets are simultaneously juicy and crunchy. The dip made from miso and amasi, a type of South African fermented milk, is delectable on its own. Pickled cucumber slices with black sesame seeds complete this dish’s list of Asian influences.
The Sweet menu offers liquorice-glazed sweetbreads wrapped in pancetta, served with tahini and lemon cream, a pine nut gremolata, frozen raspberries and chicory-flavoured radicchio leaves. The radicchio adds a lovely bitter note to the other flavours dancing on the plate. Such moist, succulent sweetbreads too.
Japanese, Korean and South African cuisines play together in the Umami dish: fresh octopus caught in Kalk Bay, south of Woodstock, is breaded in panko before being fried till crispy. Topped with a not-too-cloying teriyaki sauce and served with a dip made from mayonnaise and doenjang (a Korean fermented soybean paste), this is easily our favourite course.
What’s more South African than peri-peri chicken? The Pot Luck Club’s take on this flame-grilled poultry — marinated in a fiery sauce made from local piri piri chillies, citrus peel and other spices — is accompanied by wilted kale, caramelised baby onions and paper-thin croutons. Who knew chicken could be this moist... and tongue-numbing hot?
From the Sour menu comes the pièce de résistance: pig head bo ssäm. Instead of the traditional pork belly, pork cheek is used here. Create your own lettuce wrap by filling it with slices of pork cheek and crackling, homemade sriracha sauce, pineapple kimchi and pickled daikon. Add a sprinkle of bean powder and you have a mouthful of pure magic.
If you fancy something fancy for dessert, try Heaven’s Bacon — a decadent concoction of almond and apple tart, burnt peanut butter, popcorn ice cream, cubes of apple jelly and sinful slivers of maple-glazed bacon. Or go for the comforting rhubarb crumble, generously covered with ricotta custard, toasted oat ice cream and pieces of buttermilk rusk biscuits. Nothing like a sweet ending to a long, leisurely meal.
If you love chocolate as much as we do, do not miss CocoáFair, South Africa’s first organic bean-to-bar manufacturer. Run by Thor Thorøe and Heinrich Kotze, CocoáFair is a social enterprise that seeks to help communities and the environment throughout the artisanal chocolate supply chain. They begin with the provenance of their cocoa beans: by buying directly from the producers and ensuring everyone involved in the cultivation are treated fairly and not exploited.
CocoáFair is known for their wide array of dark chocolates, from a semi-savoury 65 per cent Dark Couverture with Desert Salt to a mildly spicy 71 per cent Dark Couverture with Chilli. They even have a 100 per cent Dark Couverture rarely found elsewhere. Little wonder their unofficial motto is “Do not be afraid of the dark.” (We surely aren’t; every nibble gives us courage.)
Change doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Some may argue the revival of The Old Biscuit Mill has caused the gentrification of Woodstock. Others will see it saving the troubled suburb by bringing in youthful start-ups and creative businesses. Either way, the new Old Biscuit Mill is certainly a much-needed breath of fresh air.
The Old Biscuit Mill
373-375 Albert Rd, Woodstock, Cape Town, South Africa
Tel: +27-21-447 8194
Espresso Lab Microroasters
Open Mon-Fri 8am-4pm; Sat 8am-2:30pm; Sun closed
Tel: +27-21-447 0845
The Pot Luck Club
Open Mon-Sat 12:30pm–2:30pm and 6pm–10:30pm; Sun 11am-3pm
Tel: +27-21-447 0804
Open Mon-Fri 9am-4pm; Sat 9am-3pm; Sun closed
Tel: +27-21-447 7355