It's hard to believe, but it's verging on eighteen years since Cheryl and I vacated Hartford House to make way for the pleasures of what has become a devoted public. If that sounds like a sacrifice on my part, it was, not so much for the public benefit but for a frustrated wife who understandably wanted to do something to create her own legacy. You see, I was quite comfortable in a residence which had once served the families of the colony's last Prime Minister, and the converted stable block at the other end of the farm was an unlikely substitute for the opulence of the old manor house. I have to confess though, with the benefit of hindsight, the joys Hartford has brought to travellers from far and wide and the reciprocal satisfaction it has given us, has reminded us that we only live once, and if we do it right, once is enough.
Those early years were a bit hit-and-miss, as neither of us or our immediate family had known the hotel trade, though it's fair to say, there's probably a little farmer and a tiny hotelier in most of us. Hospitality is a hard business, particularly at the top end, where guests expect and are entitled to get the best bang for their buck. But if you think that's tough, you should try your hand at the culinary business, as long as you can stand the heat in the kitchen. Our cooks (you'd hesitate to call them "chefs" at that stage) were lucky in the early years to enjoy the encouragement of a legendary assembly of mentors, the Victor Strugos, Joss Bakers, Mechtild York-Mitchells, Anna Trapidos and Derek Taylors of the world, critical doyens of the culinary arts, who probably saw in us a lot of enthusiasm and determination, but not much in the way of finesse and style. Without their support and guidance, none of what you see in the 2014 version of Hartford House, would've been possible.
Just recently, we hosted one of our old favourites, the formidable former Food Editor of The Mercury, Anne Stevens, who's been as fundamental an inspiration to our team as any, even if that was driven in part by a fear of falling on the foul side of her columns! Anne tells it like it is, no matter who you are, and her unique mastery of the English language is an added advantage in expressing her likes and dislikes exactly as she intends them. Jackie Cameron remembers her first week in charge of the kitchen at Hartford, after she'd taken over the reins from another celebrity of the time, Richard Carstens. He had just taken on our other new venture, Lynton Hall, which he took to the top of the South African cooking pile after his stint here. The opening of Lynton literally threw Jackie to the wolves; first Joss Baker, then Victor Strugo and then Anne Stevens in a matter of seven days, for a 19 year old. The sense of enterprise that marks her cooking to this day was her saving grace in what to most of us, might've been the longest week of our lives.
Jackie was out in the picking garden, trying to work out what she was going to make for Mrs Stevens' dessert that evening, when Anne was greeted by the "welcome" gang at the carpark under the old oak tree. The penny dropped when an irresistible cluster of ripening gooseberries had already found its way into her basket; she fashioned in her head a miniature baklava replica of the same basket, laden with fresh gooseberries and an accompanying sauce. That Anne Stevens loves a bit of "tart" in her dessert, was the catalyst that exemplifies the mutual admiration the cook and the food critic share to this day. It's apparent though from Anne's most recent column, that the "cook" had obviously overlooked this vital piece of "intelligence" in formulating this year's menu with Frangelico Dom Pedro and Gooseberry Jam, Milk Biscuit, Brioche Rusk and Berry Sorbet for "pud"; the veteran's suggestion that "something light and citrussy" might've done the trick, tells us Anne still has "tart" imprinted on her mind, though Jackie's retort is that with the gooseberry jam, she was only trying to demonstrate how far she'd come by dishing up the gooseberries in a new form! Either way, it's a compliment to Anne's status as a writer, that a chef of Jackie's modern-day renown, should still recall what she made for dessert on a particular day those twelve years ago.
This is what she had to say: "It's not entirely flowery nonsense to say that Hartford House near Mooi River provides the ideal hothouse to nurture the talent of its award-winning chef. Jackie Cameron has, in the eleven years she has been there, been afforded every opportunity to grow her skills, and every chance (thanks to owners Mick and Cheryl Goss) to travel the world and sample some of its best food. The result is that she continues to rack up awards, largely being regarded as one of the country's top 10 chefs - a distinction she alone in KwaZulu-Natal has apparently merited.
Keeping a talent like hers alive in a country setting is not easy, and every year to 18 months I return to Hartford, waiting to hear that she has been lured to the big city for more money or glory, or to find that she has lost her edge. Not so. The chefs who resided before her at Hartford did so briefly, and often with no distinction. She has proved the exception. Whether she could still bloom in the strict confines of a commercial city restaurant is a matter for speculation, but her food is extraordinary.
Very little is done purely for effect. Every dish evokes some memory for her, and is layered with thought as to what the whole will become, what will make sense to the tastebuds. Sliced raw scallops marinated in Japanese miso sauce and served with a swirl of julienne cucumber, asparagus, spring onions, celery and leeks, blobs of avocado puree' and miso paste was a simply delicious combination, each little element adding to the whole. And on the side was clever semi-set globule, a mojito flavour. I'm very much over the whole molecular gastronomy thing, but Jackie used it here as just a side issue, something to wake up the palate.
And the palate already needed wakening, after a platter of breads on the table that included patha bread, made with madumbe leaves and chilli (bringing together two cultures as Jackie says), health bread, chillibites and mealie bred with a spinach dip on the side. It was too easy to dive into that with abandon.
The scallops were followed by a smoked mussel soup which had nothing to do with smoked mussels. Fresh mussels and little pieces of nori (seaweed) were given crunch with thin, crisp, fried potatoes and garlic chips bathed in a broth served separately and poured over. For a fellow diner it was the piece de resistance. Next came the sliced meat and "coq au vin" dumplings, with a light jus poured over. Once again, everything worked in perfect harmony. But nothing could have been as harmonious as my favourite dish of the night, which was rather unpromisingly labelled as samp and beans. That was just the base though, a sophisticated take on the staple starch, studded with nuggets of meltingly tender, slightly crisped chunks of tongue, cooked sous de vide for 35 hours (which is, not to put too fine a point on it, boil-in-the-bag cooking).
With crisp roast carrots, fresh horseradish and crunchy cabbage, it was a dish to savour. I found myself longing for a plate of just that the next day. After all that richness, the dessert was just not for me. Something light and citrussy might have done the trick, but a mix of something with Frangelico liquor, gooseberry jam, milk biscuit, brioche rusk and berry sorbet I could not do. Particularly with a chocolate topping.
And I could not even dip into the plate of home-made chocolates, Turkish Delight and other goodies passed around with coffee. It was a dinner to remember, a memory to savour for another year. And by then, maybe Hartford will have moved beyond the old choice of tableware. Dishes of such style are not improved by being served on tiles and half-bricks, or in the case of the dessert, in a petri (laboratory) dish. I was glad the sommelier had pointed out the latter to me: I might have spent some time trying to crack what seemed like a particularly recalcitrant sugar crust".