Story of an African bistro

Blaise Hopkinson
Blaise Hopkinson

Cradock in the Eastern Cape is one of those sparkling jewels that make South Africa’s countryside arguably the most alluring in the world. It has history, charm, bustles to its own beat, and was the stomping ground of a name to conjure with: author Olive Schreiner, who died in 1920.

Restaurant critic Tony Jackman under a picture of his muse.
Tony Jackman under a picture of his muse.

Fast-forward almost a century, and her name and sentient gaze live on, this on the signs and walls of Schreiner’s Bistro and Tea Room.  Newly reincarnated with the worldly word “bistro” added to its moniker, the connection to the printed word goes way beyond the storied name of Schreiner, for whom the locale was home turf and inspiration.

For it is two familiar names from SA journalism that now fill the proprietor’s mantle: foodie and restaurant critic Tony Jackman and Di Cassere, columnist, fearsome editrix and former promotions maven at The Cape Times.

A few scribes take tea in the gardens of the Olive Schreiner Bistro and Tea Room. Picture: Chris Marais
A few scribes take tea in the gardens of the Schreiner Bistro and Tea Room. Picture: Chris Marais

Their first restaurant venture was Perlman House, in the windswept climes of Sutherland. There, in a historic old house once owned by trader Bernard Perlman, Di and Tony created a gem of an eaterie, largely centred on local Karoo lamb taste sensations. It changed the way Sutherlanders and observatory wallahs ate.

Having been there and done that the pair returned to their roots in journalism, writing, editing and stirring the proverbial pot.

A Schrein to Olive!
A Schrein to Olive!

Long associated with the Schreiner Festival in Cradock, the Jackmans were ready for a new challenge, and Cradock’s Sandra Antrobus, owner of the picture perfect Die Tuishuise and Victoria Manor had just the idea for them.

Thus, mere weeks after logging off from their steaming computers in Cape Town’s Newspaper House, Di and Tony threw open the doors of Schreiner’s Bistro and Tea Room in the heart of Cradock.

The previous iteration had been a jolly tearoom but the idea was to up the ante and broaden the culinary horizons to include bistro fare. Blackboard menus show an eclectic mix of comestibles, from pecan pies to roast lamb Sunday lunches. Bangers and mash (Karoo wors) and cannelloni vie with summer salads using local produce and Tony’s olive tapenade for attention. “I will tell you the tapenade recipe but then I will have to kill you,” says a gentle-voiced Tony. To save carnage, patrons can purchase bottles of the heavenly paste, along with pickled olives and other homemade treats.

How many scribes can you spot, starting with the fabulous Julienne du Toit on the left?
How many scribes can you spot, starting with the fabulous Julienne du Toit on the left?

“The idea with the blackboard menu (one in the restaurant, one out on a stand in the garden and yet another at the door) is that this is a small town and if people want to come again and again, which we want them to do, they don’t want to keep finding the same items,” says Di, whose finely-honed editing skills are much in evidence on the boards.

There is a hot special that changes each day and Karoo lamb pies, which became a magnet at Perlman House. Tony’s legendary biltong pate and Olive’s Olives, an olive platter served with Di’s to-die-for rosemary bread, have sold like hot vetkoek since opening day. For those recidivists who crave a Perlman House lamb shank, the much-travelled cast of iron and enamel cooking pots in the kitchen are primed for a reprise.

The décor is charming and largely locally sourced, with a little help from the manne at the shelter workshop who have worked wonders with saws, sandpaper and varnish. Although known for her simple tastes and stoic beliefs, one could only imagine Olive Schreiner herself enjoying a freshly baked scone or a piece of orange drizzle cake, maybe with Cecil John Rhodes as her guest.