The springbok is an antelope native to South Western Africa. It’s been hunted and eaten since prehistoric times in that region. It is very fine with the texture of veal combined with the rich, subtle taste of organic, matured beef, but without beef’s high fat content. When cooked it has a subtle sweetness and light gaminess that is quite different from other meats. So it’s not surprising that the great chefs of the South Africa’s Cape region have been making springbok into complicated and beautiful dishes for many years, and of course they’ve been pairing it with the region’s great wines.
At Capetown’s La Colombe, a three-star Michelin destination, much is made of springbok. Executive Chef Scot Kirton, the first South African to run the kitchen in the country’s best restaurant, has continued the eclectic approach that his French predecessors brought to cooking the game. Since La Colombe is the restaurant of the wine estate Constantia Uitsig, Kirton prefers to work with the wines from the estate. “As these wines have been paired with South African food for many decades, I conceive my dishes with them in mind,” Kirton explains.
In its most natural form, Kirton combines springbok medallions with pan-fried foie gras and fig puree; another natural creation is springbok loin, wild mushroom cannelloni and langoustine salad. It’s not surprising that Kirton pairs his springbok dishes with a Constantia Uitsig 2008 red, essentially a Bordeaux blend of cabernet and merlot grapes. The wine is kept in French oak for 15 months, and that gives it a rich body and complex aromas of spices and fruit that hold up well against the springbok without overwhelming it – at about $35 a bottle, this wine is very good value.
For the springbok loin, Kirton will also suggest a wine from a little farther away: A Tormentoso Morvèdre from Stellenbosch. The Morvèdre grape provides a complex layered wine that also spends many months in the barrel. It develops a nose of berry fruit complemented by soft spice aromas, while the palate layers flavors of cloves, leathery spice and red fruit. The elegant finish is dry and savory; it is ideal with hearty food. This is also good value at around $40 a bottle.
More complex is smoked springbok tataki–tataki is a manner of preparing fish or meat that comes from Japanese cuisine. The fish or meat is seared very briefly over a hot flame or pan, briefly marinated in vinegar, thinly sliced and seasoned with ginger. At the Johannesburg restaurant DW Eleven-13, chef Marthinus Ferreira makes a nori-wrapped springbok tataki with beetroot gel, parmesan spheres, soy-sake reduction, pickled mushrooms and radish springbok tartare–more eclectic than that would be hard to achieve! Anyway, it’s delicious washed down with a Waterkloof Circle of Life 2011. This wine is a blend of merlot and syrah grapes with additions of cabernet sauvignon and mourvèdre. It is somewhat sweet, focused blackberry and blackcurrant fruit nose with a chalky, gravelly edge. It has a nice gravelly savouriness that matches the springbok well. Again, the price is accessible at about $45.
Then there is the more traditional approach of the springbok bobotie. A bobotie is a very old South African sweet-and-sour dish, one that came over from Malaysia in the 16th Century. It consists of spiced minced meat baked with an egg-based topping.
At the Capetown hotel Cape Grace Signal restaurant, chef Malika van Reenan makes what she calls “Deconstructed Springbok bobotie,” the traditional dish made in a modern way–she’s won several awards for the preparation. Her version is a bit less muscular and more delicate than the traditional one, and she serves it with the subtle wines from Wellington, made from the Shiraz grape. These are very different kinds of wine, with intense spicy noses surrounded by black cherry and blueberry fruit. The palate is full-bodied, chewy and juicy, with integrated wood tannin that creates a pleasant clean, dry finish.
While nothing compares to dining on springbok while surrounded by the South African veldt, it is a meat that one can easily cook at home, even just slap on the barbecue, thanks to its innate rich qualities. When you pair that richness with a subtle, full-bodied and elegant wine, you will have a pretty remarkable meal. It’s fashionable in Johannesburg to serve a special kind of worm, called a Mopani worm, which is actually the larva of a moth, as an appetizer before eating springbok, but you probably don’t have to get all that authentic.– Andrew Rosenbaum