Hartford House

The Home of Good Conversation, Fine Wine and Classic Horses

Award-winning hotel and restaurant situated at Summerhill Stud on the picturesque KwaZulu-Natal Midlands Meander, South Africa.

High Praise from Derek Taylor

hartford house breakfast

Breakfast on the verandas, with their garden and hill views, offers around 40 dishes including Hartford's variations and accessories.
(Photo : Sally Chance) 

"THEY DON’T GET MUCH BETTER THAN THIS"

Derek Taylor, one of the nation’s foremost food critics, was a recent visitor to Hartford House. He took a shine to Jackie’s offering. A real shine.

When I win the lottery I’m going to buy a new Hardy’s trout rod and talk Clare into coming with me to live en pension at Hartford House.

That’s about as near to heaven as I’m ever going to get – for as long as Jackie Cameron remains at this unique heritage hotel as executive chef. And that looks like a very long time indeed, thank goodness.

She’s already been there for years, the youngest executive chef in the business, richly creative and a self-admitted “obsessive perfectionist”.

Having made this careful decision, I must also pay tribute to the Goss family who have restored this enchanting hostelry, now into its third century, in all its beauty and character for so long and so meticulously. Cameron’s food comes to you within its elegant Victorian dining room and the wide verandas with their huge bowls of fresh roses on the tables.

Although you could probably get any dish in the world from Cameron, giving her enough time to fly in the yak leg from Tibet and the blue potatoes from Peru or whatever, but there is no need here for a traditional á la carte menu with its ranks of old reliables.

Cameron’s irrepressible creativity changes her menus faster, almost, than the printer can follow. Her cuisine is solidly based on quality materials from twelve distinguished Midlands suppliers of every kind of meat to dairy, cheeses, chocolate and trout.

Someone wrote that Hartford House is unique in being the only world-class hotel neighbouring a world-class Stud Horse Farm (Summerhill). I think you can add the world-class talents of Jackie Cameron to that combination’s uniqueness.

My only worry about going to live there, courtesy of the Lotto people, would be that after a few weeks I might have to be transported between table and trout streams in a heavy-duty wheelbarrow by two or three very strong men.

Verdict: Superb creativity, cooking, materials and atmosphere. Outstanding good value. Highly recommended.

IF YOU’RE CURIOUS, READ ON ……

Part II

Breakfast on the verandas, with their garden and hill views, offers around 40 dishes including their variations and accessories. The full deal offers the lot to choose from for R150 (including Jungle oats with dash of Jameson whisky if you like and known locally as the Killick special).

Dinner is a feast of five courses for R325, a menu that changes every day. Here’s a typical combination: Jerusalem artichoke soup with smoked salmon ice cream, herbed croutons and crisp sage leaves.

Balsamic seared chicken livers, Erwin’s Parma ham, Swissland’s goats’ cheese and kiwi with red onion. Pepper corn crusted Springbok with onion-flavoured polenta, baba ganoush, wilted lettuce and ruby port syrup.

Dijon blackened beef fillet, shitake butter, a potato cream infused with truffle oil and similarly sauced, fresh broccoli tips.

Chai latte with summer fruit compote, spiced doughnuts, Belgian chocolate sauce and “crackle” pop-icecream.

The wine list is an intelligently varied, award-winner.

Lunch is a clever offering of some 25 dishes in which mains can be starters and starters mains. It’s the kind of meal where you can choose two or three starters or a single, main or any combination – whatever you fancy. Well-briefed waiters tell you which dishes can be shrunk or enlarged.

Prices range from R32 (oven-roasted marrow bones with vegetables, capers, fresh lemon and chives) to R135 (Shitake-crusted beef fillet with caramelised onions, Amandine potato rolls and mushroom duxelles with red wine sauce). Portions are satisfying. The service is informed, warm and cheerful.

We lunched there this week with our highly impressed God-daughter Catarina from London and three roaring appetites on a polished-bright day of 15C with a gentle waft from a patio-heater on the veranda to keep us from any little breezes.

We had two soups of the day: magically reduced flavours of mushroom and onion, infused with truffle and textured with central “ice creams” of intensified tastes. Served in deep bowls with home-made breads on the side they produced ladylike gasps of satisfaction.

I reluctantly passed over the home-made brawn with brioche, cherry tomatoes glazed in balsamic with rocket and an English mustard aioli until next summer. (How often do you see good brawn on a menu, these days?)

Instead I took the Gorgonzola capalletti – hat-shaped ravioli containing the cheese – with more of the cheese dotted about, smoked olives, green beans, fried apple, toasted walnuts and walnut oil. This was a great warmer and a real feast of flavours. The “campfire” olives were new to me and a great taste.

Catarina’s 19-years-old appetite, dealt with the formidable slices of shitake fillet of beef in style. Clare, fulfilling a long-held ambition, enjoyed big, meaty frogs’ legs. They had been poached in a Chinese master stock and then seared with Chinese five-spice and were accompanied by pan-seared spinach, asparagus, crisped potatoes and a sauce reduced from the stock.

My five-spice confit of duck with candied onions and Asian vegetable spring rolls came with a red wine sauce and was delicious. Confit is a much abused word in many restaurants these days and can often turn out to be bits of meat stewed to paste in fat.

But this was a true confit, the duck tender and full of flavour.

Despite their excellent desserts of the day -- tiramisu and espresso parfait with marscapone and cinnamon ice cream; fresh berry-frozen cheesecake with nutty biscuits, berry sorbet and a coulis with hot berry tea – Clare and Catarina rather forcefully volunteered to share my cheese platter.

It was the best I’ve enjoyed for years. Six excellent local cheeses came in absolutely perfect ripeness with citrine candied onion, cheese and herb chutneys, pickled ginger, lemon sage, biscuits and the delightful house health bread. Why is it most restaurants serve unripened cheese, fridge-hardened and with about a tenth of its flavour potential?