Food and whimsy in Darling

A typical Darling farm gate in the village underneath which flowers grow wild.

In the old days, they used to say they rolled up the pavements at night in Darling. But while the hamlet on the West Coast still has a sleepy charm about it, there’s a buzz about the place as tourists come not only for the shows and the flowers (and more of that later) but also for the food.

With this month being Tourism Month, Darling is a perfect destination for a day’s drive – from Table View it’s a drive of less than an hour, and once you get off the highway, and on to the Darling Hills Road, you can take a deep breath and exhale, as you’ll pass green paddocks, spring blooms and sheep and cows chewing the cud.

So why not take a Sho’t Left, as the slogan goes for local tourists?

In the year since I last visited the village where I lived in the early years of the new millennium, there has been something of a food revolution. Sure, there’s still only a short main road, but exciting things are happening both on the “Hoof Pad” and off, on the side streets.

Darling has long been a wine destination (with four wineries, a * égociant and a dedicated wine shop). And good wine goes with good food.

These days, you’ll find an artisanal cheesemaker, who recently opened a factory next door to The Darling Wine Shop on the main road. You can peer through a glass window and see how the cheese is made. And so dedicated is proprietor Carla Bryan, that she or her partner, Russel Kent, travel almost daily the 70km to and from a dairy farm to buy the milk for the cheese.

Ms Bryan studied cheesemaking in Durbanville seven years ago, and inspired with all the knowledge she gained, she launched her own business, Udderly Cheese. Apparently to much success. She makes six different cheeses in the European style, and it looks like she made the right move from recently taking her business from the couple’s home to a dedicated cheese factory, as she was racing to keep up with the demand.

The cheeses are simply quite delicious. There is skattie (between a Gouda and a Cheddar but much lighter in colour); caciotta, which she describes as between a feta and Brie; pepper caciotta (with black pepper); and beer cheese with Darling Brew Native Ale. Mascarpone and ricotta are made on order and, time permitting, she makes pecorino.

It takes 12 hours to make skattie and hence the name, as the cheese is treated like a baby. After the production process, it is put in brine for a day, and it takes two months of drying in the fridge, when it is turned, washed and oiled weekly. I also love the fresh taste of the caciotta, flavoursome with a fabulously smooth texture and not too rich-tasting.

Try the cheeses with Darling olives and a good Darling wine, which you can buy right next door at The Darling Wine Shop, owned by the highly knowledgeable and affable Charles Withington.

Mr Withington sells wines from all four Darling wineries (Groote Post, Cloof, Darling Cellars and Ormonde Vineyards) and also sells wines under his own label with grapes sourced from the area or close by in the Swartland. The Malbec, recently tasted, is quite sumptuous. And do try the Groote Post rose Brut when you’re in for a celebration – a zingy, satisfying bubbly.

Darling has also been the setting for a home-grown beer called (what else?) Darling Brew, which has been going since 2010.

Beer lovers will, no doubt, have spotted the beer sold in 500ml bottles with its distinctive label as it’s now sold all over Cape Town. The brewery has grown so exponentially that they recently moved to new premises where you can take a tour and watch the craft beers being made, of which there are a range of styles from a pale ale to a more hearty dark beer.

Close by, is the Flying Pig, which is not only a deli but a restaurant selling many of the products that have put Darling on the map or is that the other way around? It has one of the best, most descriptive Facebook sites I have ever seen, personalising the journey that this gourmet eatery and store has taken. Ethically-reared pigs are used for the pork that goes into a range of products from the prized culatello (allegedly the king of cured pork) to a range of sausages.

The deli also offers a one-stop shop of all the food Darling offers, including De Bos olives and gourmet Darling mushrooms, although that’s not an excuse not to drive or walk around popping into the individual producers’ outlets.

When you have had your fill, a must is Evita se Perron, Tannie Evita’s (aka Pieter-Dirk Uys’s) stomping ground. This year, the Perron, based at the original Darling station, celebrates its 20th year since opening.

It’s a cornucopia of delights, intrinsically Uys, with a lot of boere kitsch thrown in and tongue-in-cheek humour for some serious subjects.

In his inimitable way, Uys has exhibited difficult relics from the past: the notorious apartheid-era “whites-only/ slegs blanke” signage; busts of the bad old boys who were at the helm during apartheid’s reign; and Voortrekker emblems. These are displayed along with posters and paintings of iconic movies and stars and divas.

He binds the whole lot together with the whimsy of plastic flowers. I’ve never seen such a wonderful garden made by and large with a fantastically bad-taste-come-right collection of brightly coloured flowers. Only Uys could trail a plastic creeper over one of the stoeps with such panache.

Presiding over this all are Uys’s cats who love basking like lazy lions in the bright sunlight.

Tourists are always there, and they cannot help but smile and giggle to themselves or their friends as they take in this amazing venue. It’s worth the trip alone. Take in a show in the theatre/restaurant, lit up with fairy lights, and if you haven’t yet had your fill or are in the mood for boerekos with a twist, enjoy it at the same time.

Finally to round the whole visit off, take a walk through the village or visit a reserve in the next week or two while the wild flowers are out. They’re not plastic, and, sadly, they’re out for an all-too brief period; but they beckon strongly, much like this delightful West Coast village where you may just leave a little bit of your heart.

* You’ll find everything you need to know and a full list of eateries and food producers; accommodation and events at www.darlingtourism.co.za

* Darling is celebrating its 99th Wildflower Show this year at its traditional home at the Darling Golf Club from Friday September 16 to Sunday September 18. Go to www.darlingwildflowers.co.za for more information.