Anyone who knows me will not be surprised that this weekend I flew to Pietermaritzburg and drove 45 minutes to Hartford House for a meal. I have been slowly eating my way through the 2013 Eat Out top 10 restaurants in South Africa and while I don’t think I will get through the list this year, I have managed to eat at six of the top ten restaurants. Jackie Cameron, the chef who made Hartford House a culinary destination, left in July and the kitchen is now helmed by two (extremely) young chefs who trained at the Greenhouse in Constantia. Initially I was disappointed by the news, but I was also blown away by several of the dishes that the kitchen produced and I have no doubt that this young talent will continue to keep Hartford House on the culinary map.
Hartford House is on a gorgeous property just outside of Mooi River in the Midlands. The property was originally granted to the last governor of the Colony of Natal by Queen Victoria and is now the site of Summerhill Stud, a premier stud farm in South Africa. I arrived late on Saturday afternoon and was booked into a traditional Zulu style cottage by the pond. If I return, I think I would request one of the verandah rooms located in the former stables on the property and named after famed racing horses from the farm.
The meal took place on the verandah of the manor house and I was glad that I only had to stumble down to my cottage after seven courses and a wine pairing from Lanzerac Wine Estate. Dinner started with drinks in the parlor at 7:00PM and guests were seated by 7:30PM. Everything kicked off with a detailed menu reading that was an informative explanation of the dishes that were to come. The kitchen tries to source the ingredients from a 50 kilometer radius and for food geeks like me who enjoy knowing that the honey comes from down the road, I enjoyed the theatricality of the reading. Normally I get annoyed when waiters stand by the table and do the same thing.
The first course was a bread board. I had to stop myself from slathering the brown butter emulsion on every piece of bread on the platter. It was honestly one of the best butters, ever. The wait staff kept trying to clear the bread board and I kept insisting it remain on the table. The meal started with kob cured in molasses with linseed crackers and roe; followed by trout with potatoes, pine, and lavender; then on to duck with marog (indigenous African green), berries, and hazelnuts; my favorite savory course was next – two pieces of pork belly on either side of a pork terrine with a hint of garlic and fennel; next was beef with beets and amadumbe (taro). I barely had room for the last two sweet courses, but I couldn’t pass up the “coffee” course with cauliflower pannacota and condensed milk ice cream. The last dish was light and served in a hollowed out Grandilla (passion fruit) with vin de constance foam.
It was a decadent meal that had me wishing for a few more vegetables, but overall everything was fantastic. The Le General, a cabernet blend, was my favorite wine of the evening, although all the wines were superb. After the four hour meal, I couldn’t manage another morsel and left before they served two Pinotages, the vineyard’s best known wine.
The next morning after a three course breakfast, I toured Summerhill Stud farm. It was foaling season and I visited the stables where foals had been born the night before. There is something amazing about watching a several hours old foal trying to stand and learning to suckle. At this time of year, there are nearly 1,000 horses on the farm. I have never been to a horse race and I know nothing about breeding race horses, but after the tour, I am ready to book a trip to the Durban July Horse Race – South Africa’s biggest race.
On my way back to the airport, I asked the driver if we could stop at Ardmore Ceramics. While they have some functional pieces, the majority of their ceramics are elaborate works of art that are intricately sculpted and exquisitely painted with African animals. I walked away with three small egg cups that will never see an egg and which have earned a prominent placement on my dining room table.
It was an incredibly relaxing night away from Joburg. It’s amazing what long strolls through horse pastures, whipping through 400 pages of a book, and gorging on a decadent meal can do to restore the soul.