We know that the Khoisan people roamed across the Cape regions for centuries before the first Europeans arrived at the Southern tip of Africa. We also know they were herdsmen, but they surely also ate berries and bulbs as they looked for food for their families.
However, at the Cape all the sectors of the fruit industries have been competing for many years to prove that trees from their sector were the first to be planted and harvested after Europeans arrived here. There is a very old pear tree (but its fruit are not harvested any more), in the historical Company Gardens estabished soon after the frist settlement took place. Recently an old apple tree of the same kind planted by Jan van Riebeeck brought to the Cape from Holland was planted there. The wine industry refers to 1659 when the first wine was made from the grapes from this Garden.
During his stint as a radio and television journalist during the 1970’s Fredo and Janey attended the annual celebration of the making of the first wine at the well-known Groot Constantia Estate. In a huge tent behind the old manor house we celebrated with the people of the wine industry and some famous wine writers and photographers such as Chris Swanepoel, Chris Jansen, Godfrey de Bruin and Piet and Madder Botha.
The fruit industry celebrated each year at the fruit garden in Stellenbosch – but these celebrations somehow never matched the glamour, glory and romanticism of the wine sector. No wonder everyone thought that everything that was old and important emerged from the wine sector.
Fredo has news for them!
Well, it is fairly certain that the humble table grape was probably amongst the first fruit trees and vines imported to the Cape and therefore picked and enjoyed here within the first years of the settlement.
The Cape Hanepoot was one of the grapes used to make the first wine. It is also certain that this table grape was enjoyed by the colonists well before any other fruit was reported to have been harvested.
That is why Fredo recently gave Willem Bestbier at SATI some cuttings of the Hanepoot variety. He asked Willem to ensure that vines are made and that they are planted and clearly marked in the Company Gardens to demonstrate the historic role table grapes played in the history of South Africa.
The arrival of Cape Hanepoot at the Cape
In his new book – 125 Years in Pursuit of Excellence – the history of table grapes in South Africa, Fredo wrote about the arrival of Cape Hanepoot at the Cape.
It is important to note what happened in the first 20 years after the settlement at the Cape. Those early vine imports, within one year of the start of the settlement, included cultivars which are accepted to be table grape varieties.
They were not imported to the Cape specifically for growing ‘grapes for the table’, but rather to start a wine industry. Well-known fruit industry personality Gawie Groenewald, busy with a major project to verify the history of the French Huguenots in South Africa, says Van Riebeeck made his first wine from Hanepoot and Steen cultivars.
The Muscat family of grapes include over 200 grape varieties belonging to the Vitis vinifera species. They have been used in some parts of the world in wine production, but also for raisins and table grapes for many centuries. In South Africa, Cape Hanepoot is generally regarded as an ‘eating grape’, and therefore a table grape.
It is also certain that in the years between 1652 and 1659, after the first imported vines were planted and before the first wine was made at the Cape, Hanepoot ripened here to its full glory and well-known muscat flavour.
It would certainly have been enjoyed on the tables of the homes of the early settlers even before the first wine was made. There are plenty of reports by visitors of vines laden with golden covered grapes as they arrived at homesteads in the young colony.
Therefore, although the table grape remained a slumbering giant during the first 200 years after the settlement started at the Cape, growing grapes ‘for the table’ have some claim to be older than the wine sector and other fruit categories in South Africa.
Not only that – the Cape Hanepoot is undoubtedly the oldest surviving fruit tree or table grape vine which still survives in South Africa and which delivers fruit for consumers. Every year, in February, on the winding roads of Constantia one still finds Cape Hanepoot from Sonnestraal Farm being sold on the streets of the valley. This is clearly remarkable.
The Cape Hanepoot has now been growing in South Africa for at least 355 years. And it is still growing strongly and is a consumer favourite.