Back To Basics
The Hartford Estate smothered in icy powder, August 2012
(Photos : Leigh Willson)
"I found muscles in my body I'd forgotten I had while whisking, kneading and beating, and producing choux pastry for profiteroles for a more-than-a-metrehigh croque-en-bouche with no electricity was no joke."
Driving in the relentless snow through the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands in August showed me just how reliant I was on one of our most widely-used forms of energy - electricity.
The saga began on my return trip from Jo'burg. Usually it's quicker - and easier - to drive from Mooi River rather than to fly from Pietermaritzburg or Durban, but this trip back was a 9 1/2 hour nightmare through the heaviest snow storm I have ever experienced. During the drive home, I experienced such longing for the cosy ambience my home offers with under-floor heating and a warm bed, not knowing that for the next six days I'd be deprived of the luxuries I had come to take for granted. My saving graces that night were three duvets and my cat Mallow.
The next day wasn't much better - the deafening thud of snow from the trees above my cottage falling on to the corrugated iron roof kept me awake most of the night and at sunrise the dawn chill went straight through my bones. However, the biggest challenge for the day ahead wasn't the cold or the lack of sleep and cold - we were low on staff and not only did I have cooking demonstrations and an International Food and Wine Society dinner, but we had the day-to-day kitchen chores to accomplish.
Clad in my chef's whites I stepped out of my house and sunk almost knee deep into the snow. Clearly, this wasn't going to be a day for sissies. After extricating my car from the snow, I eventually arrived at work after midday to find that Hartford House had also suffered the ravages of the snow storm; my sous chef Elaine was late for duty as two trees in her garden had landed on her car.
I was taken back to my training over the next six days when as much as possible had to be done by hand because we had very little electricity. I found muscles in my body I'd forgotten I had while whisking, kneading and beating. And, producing choux pastry for profiteroles for a more-than-a-metrehigh croque-en-bouche with no electricity was no joke.
Everything took so much longer to prepare because time was spent on simple tasks that were normally far quicker with electricity. Thankfully we were incredibly impressed with how successful our gas-cooked scones turned out to be.
To top it all off we had a wedding at Hartford House that weekend - and the bride had chosen an unusual dinner menu with a lot of homely platters of food. Normally our mains wouldn't require an electric oven, but we had hundreds of Yorkshire puddings to make and just before service, the generator died. This took cooking by candlelight to another level. That evening I thought the universe was seriously testing our culinary skills, but we took the challenges and overcame them. We were all working harder, faster and cleverer than before.
The kitchen team was put up at the hotel over the six days but we couldn't even enjoy the five star luxury properly because, with no electricity, we couldn't have a relaxing post-service bath! Having to adhere to a bath-time roster was a small issue really, but by day six we were all desperate to bath in our own homes. A happy chef means happy guests and this irritation was taking its toll on our usually happy kitchen team. You can imagine my joy when finally on day six, the warm glow of lights welcomed me home to my cottage.
The week delivered a record amount of snow for the area, as well as an action-packed, trying time for the Hartford House team. But as we reverted to the basics of cooking and serving, we were glad to have the fundamental principles and techniques of cooking up our sleeves. Clearly, you never know when you may need them.
Extract from Chef! Issue 32