Lekker local ingredients are the star of the show at this culinary gem.
My knowledge of Pretoria’s culinary scene is sketchy at best, but I have no doubt that Fermier has to be one of the capital’s loveliest restaurants. For a part-time Joburger, it has been a frustratingly elusive dinner spot — too expensive to Uber back from. But in February, the stars aligned — an embassy staffer-cum-foodie I was joining for dinner offered to drive us home, happy to be teetotaller for the night.
Fermier is in the semirural suburb of The Willows on a smallholding, Karoo Yard. Driving from Hatfield station, I found it amazing how quickly we slipped from big city into what felt like the countryside.
It is pitch-black when you arrive and park. Fortunately, someone comes out and guides you by torchlight past neat beds featuring mealies and squashes.
A door opens and you are let into a warm, glowing space. The wooden tables are ensconced by red-brick walls under a humble metal roof. Adjoining the dining area is the open-plan kitchen, where Adriaan Maree and his team work quietly.
Maree has quite a pedigree. After training at Prue Leith, he worked with Peter Tempelhoff (then at Grande Provence) who encouraged him to gain experience in the UK at the best restaurant he could find. Maree worked at two, both in London’s Mayfair: Wild Honey, a bustling one-star Michelin, and the French chef Claude Bosi’s two-star Michelin Hibiscus.
Fermier was dreamed up by Maree and Karoo Yard’s owner, John du Raan, to serve food made using the property’s fresh produce and the tilapia breeding in its aquaponics system.
A farm-to-table approach is “something I have always been passionate about — how the ingredients should be the star of the show”, Maree says. “It was amazing to see the amount of fresh produce that was delivered at your doorstep every day while in London, a huge city.
“Great ingredients make great meals if they are treated correctly,” he says. At Fermier, “we can’t ask for it to be any fresher”, he adds.
Karoo Yard’s gardens and greenhouse supply the restaurant with a remarkable bounty that includes tomatoes, basil, beetroot, cucumber, radish, celery, potatoes, pumpkin, spring onions and herbs. Other fruit and vegetables come from small-scale farmers in the area. Although they have to source their three-month-aged Black Angus beef from the Karoo, the farm is sometimes able to provide duck and duck eggs.
“We made an effort to use as many of the skills available on the Karoo Yard to build and ‘furnish’ the restaurant as utilising the community and local products in all forms is vital to us,” Maree says.
The restaurant’s gorgeous earthy-toned ceramics were handmade on the property by Elza van Dijk, while the tables and chairs were made on-site by an artisanal carpentry firm based there. The effect is an interior that is solid and unostentatious and yet richly characterful and memorably stylish — a summation that just as easily applies to the food.
The R550 nine-course menu is a set one, which blissfully removes the agony of indecision. All patrons have to decide on is whether to have the wine pairing (another R250). As the list is littered with interesting and obscure wines, this was a no-brainer — or so I thought.
Getting customers in the mood was the Tanzanite Brut MCC accompanied by cultured butter and fresh bread. Given that West Coast crayfish is now on the South African Sustainable Seafood Initiative red list, its freshwater cousin (from a nearby farm, the waiter said) served with avo, baby gem and cucumber, was a guilt-free alternative, although we all could agree it was a slightly blander one.
The highlights were two of the meat dishes. I loved the rich and gamey quail served with beetroot, fig, parmesan and hazelnut. Despite its delicacy, the Flotsam & Jetsam Cinsault with which it was paired was an elegant match. The second of two beef servings — sirloin, broccoli and bone marrow — was a merging of wondrous umami. Its drinking partner, the restrained but fruity Dorrance Syrah (made in an urban winery right in the heart of Cape Town), sealed the deal.
There was so much at Fermier they got right — the smooth arrival and removal of dishes, the exquisite plating and the cosy interior.
But I have a quibble. Despite interspersing our wine-drinking with frequent sips of sparkling water, on several occasions, our wine glasses were empty before the new course had arrived.
It is not surprising, as we received just a tasting of each wine, hardly more than just over a centimetre. I have been to wine tastings, where the pouring was more generous. Sometimes, I would ask a waiter for a top-up and he would kindly oblige. We discovered when we got the bill, these top-ups had been charged at an extra R190 (for the three of us who were drinking). The parsimonious pouring left us feeling rather cheated — and it made the restaurant seem stingy.
It was this perception — more than the actual lack of alcohol (which we ameliorated with a bottle of Fram Chenin Blanc to enjoy over the remnants of the cheese board) — that put a damper on the evening.
I still believe it is worth the trip though. Its food, ambience and ethos all make Fermier a very special place. In a province riddled with steakhouses overlooking parking lots, you won’t find anything else quite like it.