There are few people better placed to talk about South African wines than Ben Prior. Which is a strange thing to say about the owner and chef of a small, award-winning bistro in the town of Marazion in Cornwall, England. But then, there you go.
Ben’s Cornish Kitchen has, over the last 10 years, become synonymous with quality and creativity. With a staff of family and friends feeding a steady stream of locals and tourists that rush to fill the 35-seat space, this tiny, unassuming bistro is developing an oversized reputation.
It feels as though we need a disclaimer at this point. While his menu is full of local delights with its focus on regional and seasonal ingredients, Ben’s wine list is dominated by magnificent gems that were made 6000 miles away. That’s because he is somewhat obsessed with South African wine. And when you’re creating fresh, balanced dishes and accompanying them with their vinous equivalent, then those wines begin to take on a life of their own.
Which is to say that Ben Prior is not only a fantastic chef, but also an important ambassador to the South African wine industry. In the era of bloggers and influencers, this is someone with genuine influence. He buys and sells a lot of our finest wine, and proudly presents it to an audience that might otherwise never learn about it. He even sells it to other local restaurants. In Cornwall it would seem wine drinkers are converted to South African wine, one delicious meal at a time.
Ben’s Cornish Kitchen also hosts a monthly winemakers dinner. Here the winemaker presents a number of their wines alongside a menu prepared specifically for the occasion. These are highly sort after events that sell out well in advance. In June it was Stellenrust. Last month it was Ken Forrester. This month, Ian Naudé.
In fact, for the month of July, Ian was featured as the restaurant’s guest producer. As one of Ben's favourite winemakers, it gave him the opportunity to offer his guests all of the Ian's wines by the glass. Those same wines were also featured on the menu and dishes were offered to pair with those wines. Yet another lovely touch to make them accessible, and to add value to the dining experience.
Having said that, not everyone can get to Marazion, so we decided to ask Ben for some pairing recommendations for various Naudé wines. And here they are:
2016 Malvasia Rei – Spicy gazpacho buratta, lovage and pistachio
Also known as Palomino, the Naudé take is perfect for light, spicy food. Ben’s choice here sounds incredible
2007 White Blend – Crab tacos with jalapeno, avo and heritage tomatoes
Made for seafood vol. 1. Brilliant vibrance and acidity
2009 White Blend – Lobster and mango salad
Made for seafood vol. 2. Slightly more full-bodied than the ‘07
2014 Grenache – Veal with broad beans and girolles
Light in body, big in flavor and complexity. Inspired pairing.
2015 Old Vine Cinsault – 18-hour BBQ Beef brisket, rhubarb and beetroot ketchup
No doubt one or two of these dishes will be on the menu when Ian heads over for his dinner on the 31st of August. He will be in the UK for the New Wave tasting in London, where many of South Africa’s top producers will be making an appearance.
A number of the winemakers will also be joining Ben at an event after the New Wave. The magnificent folk behind Thorne and Daughters, Restless River, Crystallum, Lismore, Alheit Vineyards and many others will all be making their way down to Cornwall to show off their wines and meet the community; a vital part of our winemakers establishing their brands in foreign markets.
We asked Ben where his love of South African wine began. And it’s a cool story: About 25 years ago, he got a summer job working for the first UK importers of post-apartheid South African wine. Not long after South Africa became a democracy and sanctions were lifted, young Ben Prior was in the warehouse, packing pallets of Neetlingshof and Nederburg. Every so often, he was able to taste, and well, you know how that story ends.
That was then, and this is now. Today, he is an influential British Chef, helping to define the culinary landscape of Cornwall, while using his talents to promote South African wine.
So, to Ben we say thank you.
*It goes without saying that if you're ever in Cornwall, make your way to Ben's Cornish Kitchen and discover this for yourself