A CONVERSATION WITH BLAAUWKLIPPEN’S BEN-CARL VAN DER MERWE
I was so honoured to be asked to attend Stellenbosch Garden Week. Without realising it, gardens have played a huge role in my life ever since I was a child, and continue to shape the chef I am today. From Le Jardin de JAN in Nice to the vast open plains of the Kalahari, I draw so much inspiration from the bounty of nature in my work. Find out what we talked about during my visit to Blaauwklippen.
What is your first memory of a garden?
I grew up on a farm and had to harvest mealies to go and sell at the market when I was still very young. Those early mornings, when my father forced me to get out of bed, so my sister and I could go and pick the mealies, I remember getting really bad cuts from the wet corn leaves. They weren’t my fondest memories, but they taught me a thing or two about entrepreneurship.
My grandmother’s garden really awakened my love for gardens. I remember she had these enormous roses… the smell was unbelievable. My grandmother and I made rose water from her roses, which I remember so fondly. But one particular memory that stands out about our house was, on our back porch, we had these two conifers. We’ll come back to them in a minute, but my mom won an all-expenses-paid trip to France one year because she bought something from an infomercial… I think it was a dust buster. Anyway, when she returned, she brought back all these pamphlets. On the back of one of them I saw these manicured French gardens and it just sparked something. I trimmed those two conifers so that they were never the same again!
How have gardens influenced your perception of the world?
Every garden is different, but it’s such a window into a culture. In France, they’ve got these incredible gardens on the street that often grow wild. French towns and cities get given flowers, or flouris* – kind of like Michelin stars – that tell you something about the quality of life in that town on a scale of one to three. Usually, that goes hand in hand with how many green spaces there are. It’s this kind of attention to detail that I feel has opened my eyes to how important creating a beautiful garden is to the soul.
* The Concours des villes et villages fleuris (Competition of cities and villages in bloom) is an annual competition that encourages communities to improve their quality of life by enhancing their natural environments.
Tell us about Le Jardin de JAN, the cosy courtyard garden where you grow ingredients for your restaurant in Nice.
The building is situated in Rue Bonaparte, named after Napoléon, who actually lived in that building. There’s a naughty story to it… he used to entertain his lovers in that garden when he was still a sergeant. But in more recent years, the garden fell into disarray. Together with L’Abeille Nice, who turned the building into a beautiful boutique hotel, we turned this courtyard into a beautiful potager garden where we do JAN picnics in summer and grow produce that we use in preserves at Restaurant JAN. The space has become almost like a fairytale.
What inspiration do you draw from fragrant-rich areas like Provence?
I recently had the most incredible experience visiting Chanel’s jasmine harvest in Grasse. I was the only chef there. We harvested the jasmine so early – at four in the morning (I’m not a morning person!) – but I learnt so much about the different flowers they use in perfume. I’ve got a huge love of lavender as well, and nothing beats the sound of those cicadas that are so endemic to the region. When you hear them, you just know you’re in Provence.
Amongst your many talents, you’re also a keen florist. When it comes to flowers, what advice would you give to anyone hosting an event?
The Vroue Landbou Unie in Middelburg was a big deal to my mother and grandmother. My grandmother was president, then my mother later followed in her footsteps. Seeing the two of them arrange flowers is where it all started for me. It’s sculpture! Those days it was all about “die vier pyle” and aspidistras – Japanese vibes (laughs). But nowadays, we’re a lot freer than that. There’s a pot in JAN’s entrance that everybody knows not to touch. It’s mine! I change the arrangement every two months. I just replace the fresh flowers every now and then. And don’t be afraid to use artificial flowers. You can use them over and over again.
What advice would you give us when it comes to edible flowers?
I’ve had so many dishes where the chef just kills it with too many flowers. It’s such a fine line. It needs to make sense conceptually. I love using flowers in salads but taste your flowers before you put them in a dish. Some add bitterness, some add acidity, others sweetness… they’re all different. And it really depends on the people you’re cooking for – and the season, of course. You don’t want violets in the middle of winter.
How did you go about incorporating local plants in your culinary repertoire at Klein JAN?
That really was what sold the idea to me – the challenge of creating there. As an artist, you can so easily become spoilt by having too many options. But the Kalahari isn’t as challenging as people think it is. We source our ingredients from within a 300 km radius, which I know sounds huge, but in the Northern Cape it’s nothing. We also have a root cellar where we keep all our ingredients, which we often preserve by pickling or fermenting them. When we source pumpkins, for instance, we get five hundred and keep them for 4-5 months. I’ve never used such delicate ingredients. Our whole philosophy at Tswalu Kalahari is to leave the world a better place than how we found it, which I think is enough to make any chef rise to the occasion. Everything we use is so considered. Some ingredients are toxic if they’re not the right colour, for instance, so you really have to know what you’re doing. We serve a lot of game, and locally grown wild sage was a revelation to me.
What is the most memorable garden you’ve ever visited?
Villa Ephrussi de Rothchild outside Nice.
What is your favourite plant?
What is your favourite time of day in a garden?
Late afternoon, early evening. There’s a lot that happens in the darkness.
Who do you admire in terms of the dishes they create from a garden?
Marianna Esterhuizen. The work she did at her restaurant in Stanford was just so inspirational to me.
In your dreams, what natural landscape would you like to explore next?
A lavender field.