Written by Rhynhardt Krynauw
It’s no secret that South Africa has a vast, diverse array of plant and animal species within its borders – the Cape especially so. The triangle with Clanwilliam, Cape Town and Port Elizabeth at its corners, more or less, is known as the Cape Floristic Region, or Cape Floral Kingdom. It’s one of only six floral kingdoms in the world. Australia is another, as is the entire northern hemisphere. The Cape is the smallest, and the richest in species for its size. It’s just bursting with plants, more than 9 000 species, in fact, most of which are fynbos. Around 6 000 of those fynbos species are endemic to the region.
It’s from this amazing floral bounty that we have managed to extract rooibos, honeybush and buchu, for example. Indigenous peoples have known for thousands of years that there’s more to it than that. However, it’s only in the past decade or so that food and drink producers has have reappraised this natural bounty, leading to a fresh new enthusiasm for all things floral. Cape Town has been at the epicentre of this trend, with craft breweries and distilleries – not to mention established wineries and restaurants – popping up all over and using these novel flavours. But, what if the occasional rooibos ale isn’t quite enough for you?
When entering The Botanical Bar on Longmarket Street, you’re greeted with a light, airy space with big, open windows, high ceilings and exposed wooden beams. The small, open kitchen is buzzing, the evening’s prep the focus. Earthy touches of light-wood furniture, terracotta lampshades and potted yuccas are soon thrown into sharp relief against a fascinating collection of bottles and jars spread out on shelves around the bar area. There must be 200 of them, big and small, all containing some kind of liquid. The labels all seem to make sense at first – lemon zest, smoked juniper berries, that kind of thing – but at some point (possibly around renosterbos or cat herb), I start to wonder whether some of them aren’t made up.
Co-owner Anthony Gird later clarifies: ‘South Africa is a mega-diverse country – one of only a handful – and there are something like 13 000 species of plants here that are found nowhere else on Earth. Table Mountain alone houses nearly as many plant species as the entire United Kingdom does. And once you start looking, you’ll find all these incredible plants all around you you’d never even heard about. They’re everywhere!’
And look they did. During the planning stages, two of the guys on the team – one of whom, head barman Peter Lebese, is upstairs crafting a vermouth at the moment – went on a two-week trip around the country to explore and learn, and build up a library of flavours. ‘Everyone likes being out in nature and has memories attached to those smells,’ Anthony explains, ‘and we wanted to be able to bring that feeling of being in nature to our menu.’ They also consulted with traditional healers, a medical herbalist and a variety of academics, including an ecologist, to find the right botanicals.
That brings us neatly back to the bewildering array of bottles lining the wall; those are tinctures. Essentially, some aromatic plant matter – spekboom or aniseed root, say – is steeped in very strong alcohol until the liquor is infused with it. This is then diluted to a more manageable strength and used to flavour, well, anything they want. Cocktails and simple bitters drinks – think star anise and wild mint, soda and simple syrup to replace the T in your G&T – all get the treatment. Oh, and shrubs. Hilarious homonym aside, a ‘shrub’ is actually an old drink, popular in colonial America. The name derives from the Arabic šarāb (drink), and it’s basically a drinking vinegar. Fruit is macerated in vinegar and sugar for a few days, resulting in a delicious sweet-sour syrup you can use like a cordial. And, of course, blend with bitters and use as a mixer: I have grapefruit and African ginger with gin and soda, and it’s just what the doctor ordered on a hot day in the CBD.
The menu continues the overarching theme of indigenous plants. Smoked snoek and spekboom pâté, buchu-and-orange-marinated olives, Karoo lamb frikkadels with wild-mint salsa… All light tapas dishes (mains coming soon), and all celebrations of what the Cape has given the team to work with. That’s actually the second prong of the concept, after showcasing the botanicals: With the exception of one specific ingredient needed in the kitchen, everything they serve is local. ‘We wanted it to be a showcase for local crafters’, Gird says. ‘Every drink we serve is completely local. That’s all the way from our own tinctures and local craft beer to South African whisky, rum, vodka … you name it. We want to encourage people to look at what those around them are getting up to.’ What Peter’s getting up to, now that he’s done with the vermouth, is blending some aromatic bitters. Smells like nature, doesn’t it?
The Botanical Bar is open Tuesday to Saturday from 4pm to 12.30am (1.30am Friday and Saturday); the kitchen is open 5 to 9.45pm.
Contact: 076 124 4639
Address: 160 Longmarket Street