New Broom to Sweep Clean
You quickly lose any sense of being in a unique environment when staying in a typical high-end hotel in the big cities of the world. These days, survival depends upon how you distinguish your product from the rest, and what it is about the way you do things that gets pulses racing quicker than anywhere else. Hartford House in the KZN Midlands has long had the unique advantage of being the only world class hotel, on a world class racehorse stud, in the world, as well as being remembered for the admiration it evoked in the writings of Henry Ryder Haggard and Alan Paton. Besides its authenticity, its architecture and its views, its sounds, its scents and its colours, its racehorses and its people, Hartford has always had the capacity to surprise. The remotest of the nation's most celebrated restaurants, tucked away some 15kms on the Giant's Castle side of the dusty hamlet of Mooi River, this little gem has had a two decade tradition of fine cooking.
Bridget Oppenheimer's personal chef, Salmon Nel, learnt his trade as Hartford's first incumbent; another to spring from the loins of the Hartford kitchen in its early years, is the fellow who defined "food" at Bushmanskloof, Floris Smit, while Aaron Maduna rose from family cook to head chef at Mala Mala; the culinary world often resembles a game of musical chairs, yet they tend to stay in the Goss family establishments, and that's what Richard Carstens did at Hartford House and Lynton Hall, on his way to being named South Africa's Chef Of The Year. And then of course, Jackie Cameron's 12 summers tenure at Hartford kicked off a year out of cooking school, and culminated with the Hartford restaurant becoming a regular feature among the nation's Top Ten.
Most inner city restaurants have the great advantage of easy access to established suppliers, but when you're as isolated as Hartford is, you become ever more reliant on your immediate environs and the ingenuity of the people in the kitchen. It may be far from the beaten track, but it happens to lie bang in the middle of Southern Africa's most fertile valleys. Hartford's reputation for culinary excellence has not only spawned a host of artisanal suppliers, it's also served as a magnet for aspiring cooks, particularly those among the younger set who are looking to make a name for themselves.
Jackie Cameron's lifelong ambition to open a cooking school becomes a reality this month, and for Hartford that means the honeymoon is over. The Hartford style has always been to invest in people with a sense of originality and adventure, who know the value of style and the meaning of hard work, and in Constantijn Hahndiek, Cheryl Goss believes she has found the ideal bearer of this tradition. "He's young, he's energetic, and he has the creative instincts of the best of the previous guardians of Hartford's reputation." As recently as a month ago, the former Capetonian was a finalist in the San Pellegrino Young Chef 2015 competition, where "genius, skills, beauty, message and ingredients were the paramount standards by which the candidates were selected. In a contest embracing the world's single largest region, Africa and the Middle East, an astonishing seven of the Top 10 were South African, a statement if ever one was needed, of the nation's status as a "foodie" paradise. For a man whose resume includes cooking stints in Spain, France and New Zealand and a couple of engagements at high-end Michelin-starred restaurants in London, it's a measure of his discovery of where he's headed, that he's chosen to forge his career in a location far removed from the hurly-burly of those environs. Whether it's a reversion to his family origins, where his mother mentored him in the basics, or whether it's the comfort of knowing he's taken the path less travelled, the reality is that like Richard Carstens and Jackie Cameron before him, now that he has the pen in his hand, Hahndiek looking to write his own script in the rich history of fine cooking at Hartford.
He knows too, that travel these days takes more than money, it takes the most precious commodity of the lot: time. Most people can buy a car, a handbag or a smart pair of shoes, but travel calls for effort, curiosity, and even bravery. Not long from now, the greatest indulgence will not be a Ferrari; it will be a fortnight in places that thrive because of their originality, that survive on account of their old-fashioned values. The more technologically-focused the world becomes, the less people want to check-in via an iPad and have their pillow preferences stored in a computer. Instead, Hartford's guests like to arrive and be greeted by their surnames; they soon get to know themselves again by their first names.