I felt blessed to be invited to the relaunch of Nix Wooden Spoon in Bethlehem on a chilly Tuesday evening late in May. Having been there over the years, not often but consistently, I have always thought of it as one of the best pub grubs available in that town, and enjoyed the hidden away feeling of the little courtyard on the side. Like having your own little garden in the middle of a busy day, good Free State renditions of favourite dishes – steaks burgers and schnitzels with pumpkin and boointjies.
I didn’t really know what to expect when I arrived at the event, but the flame lit pathway down to the sounds of DenzL and Okkie on violin and accordion playing Sinatra immediately established that something special was on the cards.
Welcomed by restaureteur Duncan Bruce, we were immediately offered Graham Beck bubbly, Protea wines and Red Rock beers in the fire-heated outside courtyard, which is surrounded by luxuriously appointed guest rooms with all the most amazing fittings, mirrors and amenities, underpinned by a stylish sense of elegance and sophistication. As a central hub for the Free State, situated in the middle of Bloem Joburg and Durban it is an ideal place for midweek business reps and travellers to overnight before having an amazing in house breakfast and continuing their busy days.
Having always wondered about the history of the place, I was delighted to discover that this little space is one of the oldest buildings in Bethlehem, and its usage as a Tuishuis for local farmers to share Nagmal and stories on their visits to town gives it a wonderful community feeling – a home away from home for you to meet your extended family and neighbours.
This tradition is continued and extended under the careful hands of Marna (daughter of Nick and Ena who have owned it for 30 years) and Duncan (visionary food fundi who grew up in Bethlehem before following his passion for flavours around the world), who really have gone out of their way to create an amazing space of artisanal ingredients blended with top class skills in a stylish atmosphere.As Duncan says, their philosophy is all about relationships, and that obviously includes flavours as well people.
The starter snacks were from the lunch-time tapas menu, mature gouda croquettes with an apple preserve, calamari tentacles and duck fat potato skins with tarragon mayonnaise and carpaccio on slivers of melba toast with pickled onion, roast beetroot, capers and parmagian.Delicious!
Once we had all toured and inspected the rooms we were guided through to the main bar and courtyard and treated to a variety of international and artisanal gins, I highly recommend The Botanist from the island of Islay. The main snacks arrived shortly – sticky ribs falling off the bone and steak with a variety of preserves, truffle oils and whole grain mustard dips.
The sense of community showed itself again during the speeches, and I realized that of the 100 plus people there, I was one of few who hadn’t helped to create the space around me. Marna’s parents after 30 years were entrusting her to continue their work, with school friend Duncan who had the passion and vision, back then, to bring this venue back to life. Everybody there had collaborated, from building and fitting to decorating and supporting this little hideaway of class and sophistication.
After more music, laughter and conversation the final doors were opened to the restaurant area which I had never seen before. Gobsmacked!
The fine wine selection is prominent, the walls white, a magnicent kudu trophy overlooks, and creme brulee and milk tarts centered the room. Although the conversation was mainly in Afrikaans and (strangely) Italian, I was made to feel welcome and included by everyone I met, and felt honourod to be involved with this family celebration.
As the night wound down we were shown to our room, warm and comfortable, fresh flowers, coffee and tea selection and electric blankets. Not terribly spacious but everything you need for good night sleep away from home, secure in the knowledge that the car is safe and that the outside world is far away.
After such an evening of highlights, the breakfast stands out especially. A Harvest Table of yummy goodness, shared by friends, specially selected micro-roastery coffee with Duncan and the best Salmon Eggs Benedict I’ve had the pleasure of in years. Stone ground flour fresh baked muffins under layers of smoked salmon, soft poached eggs and a silky hollandaise and whole grain mustard sauce makes this a breakfast worth driving to Bethlehem for.
Duncan tells me his secrets are quality ingredients, a large cold room, Chef Solon Kendal and passion. Together he and Marna (and his wife Kirsten and Nick and Ena and extended family and friends and so many besides over the years) have managed to create an oasis in the middle of Bethlehem, and a shadow memory of how the town must have been like when the Jordan river was clean and the parks were filled with picnics.
If you are on your way to or from Clarens, or just popping into Bethlehem for shopping, treat yourself to a stop at the new (old) Wooden Spoon. With talk of a shuttle service to bring people from Clarens you should book now