A Fawlty Towers Christmas

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I just had a Fawlty Towers Christmas in the middle of South Africa. There’s really no other way to describe it.

I had forgotten how different Christmas is in the southern hemisphere. Not only is December summer in southern Africa but it’s the month that nearly every South Africa retreats to some remote mountain or oceanside cottage for four weeks or more, not unlike the Europeans do during the month of August.

We fell upon a small village in the middle of the mountains in the Eastern Cape called Hogsback, a place lost in time…..English time.

We fell upon a small village in the middle of the mountains in the Eastern Cape called Hogsback, a place lost in time…..English time.

We had just spent numerous days and nights traveling through areas of the country loaded with Afrikaners and Zulus. Suddenly without warning, we discovered a mountain village loaded with English South Africans and British who must have moved here in the 1920s and never left…..or changed.

Hogsback wants to be England’s Cotswolds with views and mountain ranges but it doesn’t quite cut it. First, it’s much too small, so small that there’s no filling station and the tiny two grocers were so bare, it is hard to believe that the South Africans tout this place as a local getaway. It almost felt like a Romanian grocery store in the 1980s.

As you make your way up the mountain road for the first time, you wonder where the village will sprout from as close as five kilometers from its border. Then you see it the sign with the hog. And then another one, followed by a smattering of guest house signs on the left and right, most of them closed.

A couple of traditional English hotels promise dinners and breakfast although aside from these establishments, there’s not much else.

We learn after a series of hikes to various waterfalls in the area that nothing is open for Christmas dinner except for the Hogsback Inn. Follow the hog it says, so we do. They offer a 6:30 pm buffet and since we have little choice if we want to eat, we arrive early. The English senior bartender who looks more like an Irish priest than a bartender tells us “no, its really 7 pm but the bar is open.”

We enter a very English looking pub, the kind that the English must have brought with them some one hundred years ago and decided nothing could be modified for fear of losing their heritage from a country they once knew.

If you didn’t see black South Africans passing through from time to time, you’d be hard pressed to think you were anywhere but Sussex, or even Cornwall once you noticed the rosy red cheeked drunk at the end of the bar.

Of course there’s nothing but South African wine on the wine list yet the youthful looking white South African bartender shrugs his shoulders when I ask the difference between the Fleur Du Cap Shiraz and the Nederberg Cab……he doesn’t drink wine he says. The black South African bartender who is taking orders from the one or two tables lining the walls has no clue either.

He at least has a sense of humor when I ask him to bring us a bottle that will blow our socks off. We laugh together, he because he has no idea what I’m saying and me because I can’t believe how strong the colonial remnants are in this small untouched village. The wood burning fire glows as I look around and hear the voices echoing on this cool Christmas night.

“I had a lot of daytrippers,” the owner of Nina’s Restaurant said, who walked in moments after we did. We had Roiboss tea at her establishment earlier in the day, a casual pizza joint with four picnic tables, which they moved from the shade to the sun since the wind had rapidly picked up overnight.

In her mid-thirties, she had a strong English South African accent and wore tiny colorful barrettes that were snipped to every two inches of her hair all the way down to the middle of her back. She wore bright green and blue overalls, funky sneakers and one wild yellow earring which you could clearly tell it was solo on purpose.

She hugged the rosy cheeked drunk in the corner and loudly wished him a Happy Christmas. This was a mere six hours after a very traditional English church service outside under a tree, where some 30 of us or so sat on logs listening to a very humorous 75+ year old minister crack jokes. They somehow managed to get a miniature organ to play even though we couldn’t see a power outlet anywhere.

I won a Hogsback mug for traveling the furthest to his service, followed by a skinny English woman in her forties who wore narrow gouchos, ugly German sandals and a dorky cap, the kind your grandmother used to throw on your head as a toddler to keep the rays off your face.

The humorous minister brought out a manger and asked the four children present to decorate it. Then he called for his technician and made fun of the Scot in the audience who was nudging him to collect money from the congregation.

It was one of those surreal experiences where you had to pinch yourself and say aloud, “it’s 2008 and I’m really here.” Yet, the day rewound even further in time after we left the pub with our bottle of the Fleur du Cap Cab.

The dining room was a Fawlty Towers cut-out, except that it had hogs on the walls, a stringy looking Christmas tree with a half manger of four hogs trotting past it on a little tiled cliff overhang. Just beyond it was a massive oil painting of a cheetah, the only indication aside from the hogs that you were indeed in Africa.

The wait staff was a mishmash of white English South Africans and black South Africans, all of them wearing a hotel uniform that came out of the 1930s.

The senior English bartender who was dressed like a priest doubled as the play-by-play announcer at the God awful buffet.

Enter Fawlty Towers at its worst. We were politely told we could make our way to the buffet, as a very drab version of Away in the Manger played in the background. I asked one or more of them what was in each dish and damned if they knew since I received different answers from each of them.

We could at least make out the mushroom soup which had as much starch as the last shirt you picked up from the cleaners. After a few mouthfuls, my stomach began to ache. Where are the vegetables and salad you ask?

This is a serious meat-eating nation. You start your travels with such a question and as time marches you, it changes to “I wonder if there’s fried bacon in my potato, melted cheese on my steak or deep fried anything on any dish that sounds remotely healthy. You learn to ask about how everything is cooked, early and often.

The pork was as tough as that starched shirt you last got from the cleaners and the potatoes were like leather if you can imagine such a thing from a potato. Ah, lettuce and onions I see out of the corner of my eye. I ask. Pickled fish of course, although it looked more like potstickers that had just eaten a lemon.

Cold turkey borders what we were told is meatloaf but it’s a cold week old stiff stuffing instead. Gammon was not far from the stuffing and six jars of sickly sweet jellies circled the vast amounts of meat, all of which was covered in fat.

Lastly, the healthy bit pork and lamb pies. With vegetables the waiter says with a smile. What this means is one lamb and one vegetable, an orphan green bean soaked with gravy that tasted like it had flour, sugar and bacon as its base.

We kept trying more certain that something had to be better than the last and of course nothing was. The staff as friendly as they were and as white as their teeth glistened (a rarity in these parts) pop by from time to time unable to answer whatever question you threw their way. It was as if it was the first time they worked in a restaurant and most certainly the first time their chef ever cooked a meal.

We smiled at the painted cheetah who smiled back knowing what we were going through. Sad sods you are he says with a grin. The black South African waiter walked over to check on us, my favorite of the lot. “You can have seconds, it’s unlimited, just pack it in,” he reminds us. His smile was far and wide.

And we did pack it in because we couldn’t believe the food could be as bad as our last taste. The results continued to be painful and our stomaches began to sour. It got worse when we dove into chocolate malt balls as a way to cover up the taste. We suddenly remembered the four kilometers of potholes we had to cross to get to our cottage on the edge of the hill.

A woman walked into the dining room with her barking dog and swung around behind my chair. He sat on my feet wagging his tail, barking and licking my leg. He was on a leash but she let it go clearly oblivious and unconcerned that she was in a dining room on Christmas day. As she began to wander around the restaurant, he stepped into my purse sitting beside my feet on the floor.

They eventually left when Away in the Manger played for the fourth time. A gold candle shimmered on our table with an inch to go before it would burn out. Would this be before our stomaches did?

Our friend came around again for the last time to alert us to dessert. When we asked what it was, he said he didn’t know but he’d quickly find out. There is no quickly in Africa and so I start laughing out loud and so suddenly that he doesn’t know what to do so joined in.

He came back with his quickly rehearsed list: pavlava, that God awful English Christmas bread, Genoa cake, and vanilla ice cream (which we see upon passing has some kind of yellow oil through it). When we asked what pavlava and genoa was, he didn’t know and started laughing again.

I thought to myself, “he must think we’re either just happy people or drunk on our Fleur Du Cap.” Yet, I was in a different world by this point. A Fawlty Towers world, as if we were really in one of their episodes and nothing happened to indicate we were not.

How did the Africans let the English bring this cuisine with them at the turn of the century and still serve it a century later? And so it came to pass, the end of our long Fawlty Towers Christmas in the middle of an English colonial village only a few hours from where the world began, some say. Hogsback South Africa and no I’m not making it up.

  • Julie Rainier-Pope

    Such an apt description of what these small towns are like. Reminds me of our stay in Colesburg at the hotel. I was a teenager at the time with my family. It was awful but something I treasure with fond memories!