Motorists barrelling down the N2 tend to refuel at Riviersonderend and then push through to their weekend destinations, but if you’re in the vicinity at lunch time, it’s worth taking the Bonnievale/Stormsvlei turnoff, about 20km out of town, for a taste of Edwina Köhler’s hospitality.
Although it’s a stone’s throw from the intersection, Stormsvlei is the kind of place you might miss if you blinked. There’s not much happening there these days, but the cluster of buildings, including an abandoned inn, post office, shop and smithy, hint at a colourful period in the 1800s when the complex was a bustling hamlet and rest stop for travellers. It’s the ‘new’ hotel, built across the street in 1920 (and now very Retro, with lots of shiny brown wood panelling), that attracts today’s visitors. No longer operational as a hotel, it houses a flower shop, a wine shop, an off-sales outlet and Zanddrift restaurant. A tongue-in-cheek sign outside identifies these four businesses as ‘Stormsvlei Mall’ and Edwina has added another quirky touch in the form of a board listing the restaurant’s daily menu as ‘take it or leave it’.
For R150 a head, you’ll get bread and an excellent liver pâté, soup of the day, and either a cold platter of meats, cheese and fruit, or a hot platter of assorted dishes such as tongue (‘even the Danes are asking for more – they don’t usually like it’), lamb stew, schnitzel and filet medallions, served with finely-sliced fried potatoes and lettuce. There’s heavenly cheesecake for dessert, followed by freshly brewed coffee that’s hard to beat.
‘It’s the best,’ Edwina says emphatically. ‘I should know; I have about eight cups a day.’
She’ll whip up something special for vegetarians, depending on what’s seasonal and fresh, and as Zanddrift is open from 9am she’ll do a fluffy mushroom omelette for breakfast. ‘But don’t ask me for bacon and eggs, because you won’t get it,’ she warns.
It’s a formula that works so well that she’s never needed to advertise. Her regular customers troop in happily, knowing that whatever she puts in front of them (they almost always choose the hot platter), it’s going to be good. But they come as much for their eccentric and engaging hostess as they do for the food.
Edwina has been cooking all her life. The fourth of 11 children, she took over the job of preparing family meals at the age of 12. A Capetonian by birth, she and her German husband, Peter, lived in Swellendam for 16 years, where they ran a well-known restaurant by the same name, before relocating to Stormsvlei. Peter was diagnosed with leukaemia two years after they moved, and in addition to coping with the loss of her partner in 2004 and other challenging family circumstances, Edwina has survived a long battle with breast cancer.
But you’d never know. She bristles with energy from the moment she dons her trademark sweatband in the morning until she closes the door and returns, with Cilla Brown, the sausage dog, to her spacious Victorian home across the field from the ‘mall’.
Some of her guests joke, ‘Are you off to play tennis?’ to which she replies ‘Yes, and if I have guests who don’t behave themselves, I’ll whack them with a racquet.’ And she would, too.
She loves her sweatbands; she chooses the one she wants before she chooses her clothes each morning, and wouldn’t dream of posing for a photograph without one.
‘I was on a walking holiday in Locarno when I met someone who said, “Don’t you have a restaurant in South Africa?” I said, “Yes, I do,” and he said, “So where’s your sweatband?” It’s wonderful to have customers so far afield. In some ways I’m a prisoner in Stormsvlei, but the world seems to come to me! I love cooking and I love meeting people, so it’s really not a bad life. Now, how about a top-up of your coffee? You know, it really is the best in the country … ’
Zanddrift Restaurant is open from 9am – 5pm, except on Saturdays
To book, phone 028 261 1167 or 083 266 3954
The Stormsvlei complex is currently owned by the Thomson family of Swellendam. There’s some debate about whether Stormsvlei was named for one of its many owners, Christiaan Andreas Storm, who acquired the property in 1781; or for the fierce winds that blow across the nearby vlei. Whatever its origins, the name proved prophetic: in 1871, in a stormy period of its history, William Twentyman, the Laird of Stormsvlei, was stabbed to death in the old inn. The resulting bloodstain on the wooden floor was apparently a source of ghoulish interest to travellers.
Twentyman, during his tenure, opened a shop and was granted a licence to sell gunpowder, established a postal agency and also successfully motivated for a liquor licence – only the second to be granted in the Cape, after Houw Hoek.
The new hotel, the police station and the ‘modern’ post office, complete with telegraph facilities, date from the 1920s. The post office operated until 1973. Mary and Willem Spies took over the hotel in 1985 and ran it for 10 years. When it closed they retained the off-sales outlet and still occupy the adjacent home. Mary Spies exports hydrangeas and in 2001 was a Western Cape finalist in the competition for Woman Farmer of the Year.
text: 1000 words, with photographs