“I’ve been thinking…” he said. “Oh no…” she said. And so an eclectic open plan house on the Seven Passes road outside Hoekwil became a weekend bistro where the kuier is as good as the food.
WORDS Athane Scholtz PHOTOGRAPHS Desmond Scholtz
When Julio and Susan Agrella first saw the property, it was so overgrown with wattle it was difficult to see the mountain on the doorstep, but the couple recognised its potential right away.
“At school our son, also named Julio, told everyone his dad bought an estate with four houses and three cars. I had to explain the ‘estate’ was an abandoned smallholding, the ‘houses’ a workman’s cottage and dilapidated outbuildings, and the cars rusted wrecks dumped there,” Julio Snr says with a grin.
On the stoep of their barn-like, double-volume face brick home, the wood-fired pizza oven sizzles as the sun sets over the Outeniqua Mountains. Kids play on the lawn beside a fish dam and among fruit trees and veggie boxes. Four Weimeraner dogs momentarily go ballistic when Susan walks to the budgie cage.
The couple bought the property in 2000 and spent time there on and off until 2011, when they packed up in Cape Town and moved into the renovated worker’s cottage on the small holding. After clearing the alien vegetation, they started thinking about what they wanted in a house.
“We had some ideas about living in a church, or something that resembled a church. We liked stained glass windows, high ceilings and the idea of one large space made up of grouped sitting areas,” says Susan. “It also had to be large enough to house the furniture, art and trinkets we had collected on our travels. We are ‘crows’ and like to collect things with character and a story.”
The house design grew organically with their ideas of a place that would reflect their easy-going lifestyle, space for Susan’s leather workshop and her fencing exercises, a large kitchen and a wide stoep where time could be whiled away in easy conversation. They called it Celeiro de Agrella, which means ‘Agrella’s barn’ in Portuguese.
Not long after the couple moved into their church-like barn, Julio sat on the stoep with a cup of coffee appreciating the view and thought what a pity it was that others could not enjoy it too. Then he started thinking…
Surprisingly, his wife was quite open to the idea of sharing their house and hospitality with others. Susan, an instinctive and innovative cook, liked the idea of opening their house to visitors for cake and coffee during the summer holidays. The turnout far exceeded their expectations and the humble teas initially intended when they opened doors in December 2013 turned into three-course Sunday lunches – but by appointment only and on their own terms.
“When leaving here, people feel as if they have visited friends at their house, which of course they have,” says Susan. “We only take one sitting per meal and never overbook. Initially we felt too bad to turn people away, but learnt the hard way that overbooking is not worth the experience for the guests or us. It is important for us that it feels intimate and like a second home. If people are going to drive more than 20km from the N2 to get to us, it must be a destination worth lingering at.”
The entrance to the Agrellas’ house reflects Julio’s Portuguese heritage and interest in the icons of the different denominations within the Christian faith including Catholic, Protestant, Russian Orthodox and Ethiopian artefacts.
Patrons are greeted at the door by an apron-clad Julio and Willem Smith, a long-time friend and experienced restaurateur who helped the Agrellas set up the bistro and stayed on to host and serve.
Guests are seated at tables in the family lounge, on the stoep and lawns. They are welcome to don any of the many hats on the hat stand, and read the books and magazines on shelves all over the house.
The décor is cheeky, imaginative and homely – a fake rat peaks from an old upholstered chair, a butter churner shares space with books on a shelf and parts of a piano are nailed to the wall. Susan’s fencing gear and swords hang alongside works by world-renowned leather artist Beatrix Bosch. Retro couches are covered in leather and velvet, and Persian carpets adorn rugged floors. If you pay attention to detail, you may also spot mounted dentures, a dodgy garden gnome, sewing machines and Russian samovars.
Julio and Willem walk among the tables and, between orders, take some time to chat. “While there are always new faces around, locals support us throughout the year, and in summer particularly we are booked at least two weeks in advance.”
Another summer treat is the fish dam in which kids, and even dads, have been known to swim. “We just hose them off when they are done,” says Julio.
The menu varies from week to week depending on what is available in the garden, specialist shops and the Wild Oats Community Farmers’ Market outside Sedgefield, where most of the ingredient shopping is done. Susan’s innovative salads are a case in point. “A salad need not be predictable when there are peaches, nectarines and pomegranates growing outside the door. It is fun to combine flavours as we go along; whatever is in the garden is probably going to land up on your plate.”
Even dessert promises to be interesting. Homemade ice cream flavours include date and chai, and red fig and Amarula. The cheesecake is like nothing you have tasted before: butternut dark chocolate, fresh pear and white chocolate, orange and white chocolate, salted caramel, cardamom and saffron, and mint, lemon and smoked chili. Susan has also been collecting teas from around the world, and hosts an unforgettable tea tasting with pickings from nearly 50 flavours.
In October 2014, Julio and Susan asked their French qualified chef son, Julio Junior, to join the Bistro Celeiro team. “Junior’s experience in Europe has given us even more reason to experiment, using methods and tricks he has picked up in his studies and work.”
More recently the family extended their invitation into their home to Fridays in summer when a pizza oven is fired up. In addition to standard Italian toppings, the team has devised innovative gourmet pizzas topped with imported cheeses, cured meats, fresh herbs and more. Burgers and quesadillas are also on the Friday night menu.
As if two nights a week of visitors are not enough, the Agrellas are likely to agree to hosting small functions on Saturdays. “We have hosted weddings, a funeral and birthday parties. It is a privilege to share profound moments in other people’s lives and a compliment that they feel comfortable to do so in what is essentially somebody else’s house,” says Susan.
Open Fridays (except winter) for pizza, burgers and quesadillas from 4pm onwards.
Open Sundays for á-la-carte lunch from noon. Booking is essential and recommended long in advance. 044 850 1026
Bistro Celeiro is not licensed, but also don’t charge corkage for glasses and ice.
Get there: turn inland from the N2 at the Hoekwil turn-off east of Wilderness. Drive about 19km and look out for signage on the right.