“It is a well-known fact that women know more about wine than men.” Gertruida, who knows everything, watches the men, waiting for the inevitable challenge. Vetfaan doesn’t disappoint her.
“That’s hogwash, Gertruida. Men have been guzzling down wine since Noah planted some grapes. Monks made wine. And we drink the stuff. So there.”
It’s been a quiet afternoon in Boggel’s Place. After venting their frustration at ESCOM for – once again – failing to produce enough electricity, the patrons in the little bar had to settle for warm beer. This of course didn’t go down well and resulted in a protracted discussion about the causes for these occurrences – which Servaas hoped nobody would ever repeat, especially not in printed form. He said it might be a constitutional right to have an opinion, but that lawyer’s fees are rather expensive. To change the mood – and the subject – Gertruida started talking about wine, a subject they could explore at length without the threat of litigation.
“Well,” Boggel chips in, “I read somewhere that women started making champagne?” He poses the sentence as a question, hoping that Gertruida would stop teasing the men.
“The veuve story? Yes, of course.” She reminds her little audience that ‘veuve’ is French for ‘widow’, and that famous widows like Barbe-Nicole Clicquot (née Ponsardin), Louise Pommery and Lily Bollinger used their widowed state to create new wines, new labels and new methods – resulting in the brands we still know today.
“It was in the 1850’s and 60’s that they started using the word Veuve on their labels, perhaps hoping that wine-drinkers would take pity on them. Whatever the reason, the idea was a spectacular success.”
“That’s nice, Gertruida, but we men started making wines in the Cape.” Vetfaan scowls absently at his warm beer, thinking dark thoughts about what he’d like to do with South Africa’s electricity supplier.
“Let me tell you,” Gertruida says with a superior smile, “about Angela van Bengale, also known as Mooij Angela.”
Way back, just after Jan van Riebeeck started the colony, a slave girl arrived in the Cape of Good Hope. This young woman had survived the hardships of the trip from Bengal and was sold to van Riebeeck by the ship’s captain, Pieter Kemp. Angela, also known as Ansiela, worked hard in the van Riebeeck home, becoming a trusted and even loved member of the household. Here she met a Khoi woman, Krotoa, who was often mentioned in van Riebeeck’s writings as ‘Eva’. It is unclear whether Krotoa was a slave or a volunteer, however, she acted as a reliable interpreter with a solid command of Dutch, Portuguese and several local dialects.
When van Riebeeck left the Cape in 1662, Angela was sold to his second-in-command, Abraham Gabbema. Gabbema must have been impressed with the young girl – she was 20 at the time – for he freed her in 1666.
“Now this Khoi woman, Krotoa, was the sister of one of the wives of Oedasoa, an important headman of a group of Khoi people living in the area we know today as Paarl. At the time, Krotoa brokered a deal between the Dutch and the Khoi, resulting in the local tribe supplying cattle and sheep to the Dutch in the Cape. Oedasoa seems to have been on good terms with van Riebeeck, and even agreed to capture ‘wild horses’ for the commander. These weren’t horses at all, but the now extinct Berg Kwagga.
“Be that as it may, poor Oedasoa unfortunately had a bit of a scrap with a lion during this escapade and was seriously injured. Van Riebeeck must have felt bad about this for he sent Angela to nurse the chief back to health – which she did. As a token of his gratitude, Oedasoa granted the right to farm on a portion of fertile land to his nurse – on a farm known as Wittenberg. Here the freed Angela started making wine, an endeavour that proved to be rather successful. Apparently she married a cooper from Brussels, one Jan van As or Aschen. Their son, Jacobus van As, registered the farm in his name, where he continued producing wines of a superior quality.
“This history, you see, makes Angela van Bengale the first woman winemaker in the country. The slave girl and the roving cooper helped to establish an industry which thrived through the years. Humble beginnings, to be sure, but a proud heritage.”
Vetfaan still doesn’t agree with Gertruida about her statement on women and wine, but he enjoyed the story so much that he forgets to argue his point. And who can blame him after Gertruida quoted one of the most famous of the veuves, Lily Bollinger : “I drink it when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company, I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it when I’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise, I never touch it. Unless I’m thirsty.”
This, he has to concede, is unquestionably the words of an extremely wise woman. One should never argue about something as important as that. Electricity? Who needs that? Wine is essential, electricity only a convenience. It took twenty years of democracy to teach us that.