When Winter Comes to Stellenbosch

For Dave Pepler, winter awakens every one of his senses.

When winter comes to Stellenbosch, I become a squirrel. By the time the first warm gusts of an approaching cold front send leaves racing down the road, my summer stock of firewood is stacked perfectly, like a vertical quilt. I revel in the gorgeous repetitive pattern of cut ends, concentric in coffee hues, and the smell of dry timber, a heady mixture of dust and vanilla. At my front door there are crates of dry kindling, neatly broken into lengths that will fit into my stove.

In the evenings I melt the summer’s candle stubs and make firelighters from the wax and used tea bags. Newspapers are stacked and I wait patiently for that magical evening when the front hits and the rain beats against the windows. I will light my first winter fire and race outside to wait for the first dense smoke to swirl around me. Immersed in this acrid nebula, I am baptised for winter.

When winter comes to Stellenbosch, I ride my bicycle. There is something marvellous about moving fast in cold air because the nose is primed: runny, yet acute. If only I could close my eyes while moving, I would navigate by smellscape alone. Leaving the farm gate by dirt road, I would know where the tar starts because the woodsy, muddy, mouldy bouquet would be replaced by… nothing. As I approach Ida’s Valley, the first hints of winter cooking would be written on the wind: biryani, curry, bean stew and soup – the stappies (casseroles that are welded into our culture. Closer into town I would smell oil on tarmac, the sausage stall at the supermarket and then, where the windows steam up as you dream over a cappuccino, would come the scents of coffee and wet wool.

When winter comes to Stellenbosch, I seek out my copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child and Simone Beck and take it into the kitchen. That first evening when you attempt the fourhour recipe for classic French onion soup, you start early. The smell of equal parts butter and olive oil slowly warming, of the little bowl of grated Parmigiano Reggiano, the cup of cognac, the bread ready for croutons and the freshly cut onions fills the kitchen – and your imagination with things to come. For breakfast, you take the last of your lobed Ponderosa tomatoes and fold them into onion glazed i olive oil. Break brown-shelled eggs into the stew, replace the lid and poach until soft-centred. Serve on toasted white bread and, in your pyjamas, eat in front of the newly laid fire.

When winter comes to Stellenbosch, I am witness to the true theatre of the trees. Summer, for all its glory, is all too verdant and well lit. Green flows into green, light into light. Only when stripped and darkened with rain does the tree reveal its true architecture. Now is the time to walk down the grand avenues of the university and take in the hidden patterns in chaos. The few gums and pines in town simply become gloomy in winter; deprived of light, they wane. But the oaks, planes and liquidambars stand proud and stripped, alive but not alive. How can one not marvel at the natural engineering of tons of weight cantilevered into the void? Winter is the time for looking at the true glory of trees.

When winter comes to Stellenbosch, I garden in earnest. Earthworms come to the surface in winter when the soil is newly soaked and soft. To me this is the time to till and mulch, prune and trim. I dig over my vegetable patch and, when it’s smoothed over, pile on the dead leaves of autumn. Every morning the ash from my stove is sprinkled lightly over this leafy duvet and soon the silent working of bacteria becomes visible as steam rising from the beds. I marvel
at the hushed life hidden in the soil and sit, mug of coffee in hand, planning the spring planting of fava beans.

When winter comes to Stellenbosch, every fibre in my body is connected to the silent earth and I feel that I am truly alive.