I suspect I’m not the only confused person in the world – or even the only person confused about Franschhoek and the various forces operating within it. Or misled about its history. Did you know that until 1881 the town was called, less usefully to modern publicists, Roubaix Dorp? Franschhoek dorp has seen the comings and going of various prominent people – amongst them an alleged mafioso (Vito Palazzolo), a rich Italian (his colleague and pal Count Agusta; Agusta Wines reverted to Grande Provence a few years back), a Rwandan-born billionaire (Miko Rwayitare who died in 2007 but whose first name lingers on in the premier range of wines of Mont Rochelle, in good South African tradition), to a South African radical-politician-turned-capitalist (Tokyo Sexwale, who bought a winery called Elephant’s Pass, which subsequently disappeared without hint of an explanation from the Platter Guide between the 2003 and 2004 editions).
Franschhoek is a place where the memorial to the Huguenots is really, of course, a monument to Protestantism and the deep value of European colonialism. Franschhoek is a place whose publicists decided to annex Victor Verster prison to their celebrations because that’s where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for a while and the PR people thought there’d be mileage in it. Franschhoek’s a place which pretends that the French Huguenots had a beneficial effect on Cape wine in the olden days (though there’s not a shred of evidence to support that idea; the only great tradition in Cape wine was being forged by Dutchmen and their slaves at Constantia). Franschhoek’s a place where the only winery showing a deep (or any?) commitment to truth and justice and something like equitable sharing of the proceeds of winefarming, Solms-Delta, also emblazons its labels, whose wording pays tribute to the local vernacular, with two or three coats-of arms of European aristocrats.
It’s a pretty odd place, in some ways. Fortunately, of course, Franschhoek’s also a place where the wine has been improving at least as much as anywhere else in the Cape in the last decade or so.
And, in a town and wine-ward where scarcely anyone can accurately pronounce the French names of the wine farms, while they opportunistically claim to celebrate Bastille Day, Solms-Delta is also the place that carries out what is the valley’s closest approximation to genuine French tradition in having a harvest festival aimed at the people who actually do the hardest work of the harvest, the vineyard and cellar workers. Everything else in Franschhoek caters to the rich – well, they’re the ones who’ll buy the wine, which is what counts, isn’t it?
Well, this irritable little riff originated in my learning that the extraordinary and valuable little museum at Solms-Delta had been more-or-less rebuilt in the city of Malmö in Sweden, where the museums are having a year of exhibitions about the struggle for freedom and democracy in South Africa. As the website says:
“Stories about Nelson Mandela, his life and the fight for freedom and democracy will be told, as well as Sweden´s involvement in the struggle against apartheid and of a vineyard where a small museum has been built that express[es], and in itself embodies the complexities of South Africa´s history. Malmö Museums present stories of democracy and human rights, that hold relevance today, and for our future.”
Indeed. And you don’t even need to go to Sweden to hear the stories. If you’re in Franschhoek over the hols, and have a spare minute to think about democracy and human rights and their connection to Franschhoek or by implication to the wine industry as a whole, you should pop in to the museum at Solms-Delta. It’s actually very interesting, and moving (it occurs to me to wonder how many of the eminences of Franschhoek wine have bothered to go!).
Incidentally, the Solms-Delta museum wasn’t mentioned in today’s Cape Times full-page spread on the splendours of Franschhoek (which suggested that “if history is what you’re after, the Huguenot Memorial Museum is where you should be headed”).
As something more than a bonus, the Fyndraai restaurant at Solms-Delta serves some lovely food (as Angela Lloyd recently reported), and the aristocratic (Solms) and philanthropic (Astor) powers and fortunes behind the scene have led to some pretty good wines being made.
And if you want to read a rather rambling but fascinatingly informative and, as it claims, “different history of Franschhoek and the Drakenstein district” click here.