Babylonstoren is the flavour of the year, and is on everyone’s lips.  Just over a year after opening, the hotel has made the Conde Nast Hot 100 list, and Babel Restaurant the Eat Out Top 20 shortlist.  Now the owners Karen Roos and Koos Bekker have opened the Babel Tea House on the impressive property, as a refreshment stop for visitors to their garden.

Designed to emulate a Victorian ‘kweekhuis’, the glass conservatory is positioned under oak trees about 400 meters from Babel Restaurant.  To get there, one must walk through the massive 1,2 km x 700 meter 3,5 ha fruit and vegetable garden, with 350 species, which was designed by Patrice Tarravella, who has a  Relais & Chateaux property about two hours south of Paris, which is well-known for its garden.  The Bekkers contracted Patrice to design their garden in the same style, with a lot of trellising of roses in-between the vegetables, and especially along the pathway.  One needs a hat, and comfortable walking shoes to walk on the part stony and part peach-pip path to the Tea House.  Tables with a collection of colourful chairs are set up under the trees outside the Tea House.  Inside the Tea House one can sense the decor style of Karen Roos – a collection of flowers, including blue lillies, just lying as if they are still to be put in a vase.  Another table has a collection of vegetables on a table, making a decor statement.  A third table has herbs from the garden, with Nigiro glass tea pots and warmers.   One can choose one’s herb from a collection from the garden – e.g. rose geranium, sage, mint, lavender – and have one’s own tea made, at a mere R10 a cup.  Cupcakes were also on display.

When one arrives one receives a brochure with the layout of the grounds, and of the vegetable garden specifically.  I heard that a guide can take one through the garden, but this is not communicated on arrival nor when one is at the Tea House.  Some interesting sounding garden sections include the prickly pear maze, the historical mulberry, ‘mulberry meditation’, the citrus block, the ‘guava avenue’, and many more.

It is very ‘gesellig’ at the Tea House, as a number of visitors came to say hello, including radio man Nico de Kock, the F&B Manager Annelle van Tonder, who brought me a Winner plum as a welcome, and both Karen Roos and Koos Bekker.   Karen Roos is a very private person, and had her own decor magazine ‘Red‘ many years ago, and ended her editorship of Elle Decoration, no doubt to devote more time to her new project.   She has won awards for her stylish dressing, and her impeccable taste shows in her understated decor at Babylonstoren.  Koos Bekker and I have crossed paths three times – as members of the editorial team for Die Matie whilst we were students at the University of Stellenbosch; as a client when I was seconded from Y&R Johannesburg to work with him as a market researcher when he set up M-Net 25 years ago; and as a research consultant to M-Net a few years later. Now he is the CEO of Naspers. Koos’ touch is evident in the Chinese on the signage, with English or Afrikaans, and his company has lost a lot of money there, he told me. He is still very active in China, having returned from a trip to there the day before, he told me. Babylonstoren must be the only South African tourism player that is recognising the potential power of the Chinese market. Admirably he has taken Mandarin lessons, to master this difficult language.  Koos looked like a country gentleman, with a Panama hat, was friendly and relaxed (he is an extreme work-a-holic), and he even brought me a hat to protect my face from the sun.  He has invested an inordinate amount of money in Babylonstoren, one assumes.  Koos told me that they will start producing their first wines next year in their 300 ton cellar, Charl Coetzee, previously of Clos Malverne, being their winemaker.  In the meantime they are selling wines drawn from the terroir surrounding the Simonsberg in their shop and in the restaurant.  I have read elsewhere that a tasting room for these Simonsberg terroir wines is on the cards at Babylonstoren, with a deli selling cheeses too.

The GM Terry de Waal also came to introduce himself, and told me that his background is industrial engineering and not hospitality at all.  He was the project manager when Babylonstoren was first developed, and now takes overall responsibility for the estate.   His industrial engineering skills were useful when the Tea House was designed, working with Patrice, Koos, and Karen to come up with the design of the building. I saw Terry being hands-on, carrying food boxes from the kitchen to clients.

Water is offered for free in branded bottles, and must be from the farm. Cutlery is the most stylish patterned perspex.  The food is served in a branded wooden box.  The paper table cloth is also branded, with a Delft plate, which has become a new symbol for Babylonstoren, remnants of which have been found on the grounds during the renovations.  The table cloth states that it is recycled, going into the compost after use. The concept is very simple – from a blackboard choose for a ‘sandwich’ a bread style (ciabatta, wholewheat, rye, farmstyle white), a cheese (Dalewood Huguenot, Gorgonzola, goat’s cheese, pecorino), and/or a charcuterie item (Black Forest ham, smoked chicken, soft cured biltong, smoked trout).  The cost of both the meat and cheese sandwich is R65, and R55 for either the one or the other.  A fresh garden salad with herbs is served in a separate glass jar, and there are two further jars: one with plum relish with granny smith apple and pineapple sage, and the other with a mixed herb oil. My rye ‘sandwich’ was a roll, and was rather tough, filled with the ham and cheese, and wrapped in branded paper, with the perspex cutlery tied to it with a serviette.  I took my roll home with me, and only had the salad, spontaneously booking for lunch at Babel restaurant.  I am not sure how one would eat the ‘sandwich’ without having a plate, the wooden box in which it was served possibly serving this purpose. Chef Simone Rossouw confirmed that the cakes and cupcakes are made for them by Kelly in Franschhoek, who transforms the produce they have in abundance into cake.  I took a chocolate cupcake (R25) home with me, and it was wrapped in the branded paper, with six cherries giving it a beautiful finishing touch. Slices of cake cost R45, and the selection includes lemon meringue, carrot cake and chocolate cake.  Cappuccino costs R18; red, yellow or green juices cost R20, homemade iced tea R25; homemade ginger beer R16 and lemonade R20; Marriage Freres teas cost R30.

Service is slow, but Babylonstoren is not the place to go to if one is in a hurry, and the service should improve as the Tea House settles in.  Neither the blackboard nor the staff explain clearly how the sandwiches work, and what the prices are.   One needs a hat and comfortable shoes.  I was disappointed that they buy in the cakes, and do not make them on the farm. But the overall delight of walking through the gardens, of getting an opportunity to experience a taste of Babylonstoren without pre-booking Babel Restaurant, and of seeing style personified makes the food disappointment secondary.

Babel Tea House, Babylonstoren. R45 to Franschhoek, next to Backsberg. Tel (021) 863-3852. www.babylonstoren.com Twitter:@Babylonstoren.  Wednesday – Sunday. 10h00 – 16h00. No reservation required.  R10 entrance fee to the estate.

Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter:@WhaleCottage