Wining & Dining with Diners Club
Hartford House, the fabled five-star boutique hotel set in the almost impossibly picturesque Giant’s Castle valley just outside Mooi River, has a reputation for warm hospitality and culinary excellence going back 140 years – to when it was the home of Sir Frederick Moor, the last prime minister of the Colony of Natal. More recently, it’s become a magnet for foodies from around South Africa and the world. Several tables of international guests were present the evening I visited, everyone drawn by Hartford’s consistently innovative fare, which incorporates top-quality locally sourced ingredients.
So, when I drove through the understated stone entrance gates and started down the tree-lined driveway accompanied by my teenage daughter and son, I explained that we were almost certainly in for something truly special. What I didn’t know was that we were also about to witness the passing of the establishment’s culinary reins from one head chef to another – an apt analogy, given Hartford’s location in the heart of the famed Summerhill Stud farm, the birthplace of many a champion thoroughbred racehorse.
For more than a decade, fine dining at Hartford House was synonymous with head chef Jackie Cameron. Between 2002 and 2014, under her expert guidance, the restaurant won a slew of awards, including a spot in the Eat Out Top 10 no fewer than four times, as well as Diners Club International’s coveted Diamond Award for its wine list for five years running.
Cameron bade farewell to Hartford last July to pursue her dream of starting a culinary school, leaving the restaurant in the able hands of protégé Travis Finch. Despite his youth, Finch was no novice, having worked under Peter Tempelhoff at The Greenhouse in Cape Town, as well as in Europe. The winning ways continued under Finch’s watch, and Hartford scooped yet another Diners Club Diamond accolade for its wine list last October.
As we were shown by General Manager Duncan Bruce to our table on the splendid wrap-around veranda, we heard we were to be present at yet another changing of the guard, with Constantijn Hahndiek taking over from Finch and presenting his own menu for the first time that evening. Though he’s travelled extensively, working in Michelin-starred establishments worldwide, this must have been a nerve-racking time for Hahndiek, with a full house of discerning diners, including owners Mick and Cheryl Goss and a fussy food critic.
He needn’t have worried. Right from the pre-appetiser of artisanal breads and dips, it was clear that we were in for a rare treat. As you would expect from a restaurant of this calibre, the breadsticks were more akin to tiny, fresh mini-baguettes than the sad, stale specimens that are so prevalent these days. And I was genuinely astonished by the cranberry and molasses roll, which was subtly smoky and delightfully airy, when I had been expecting dense and chewy. So, perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised again when the brioche was similarly light, and pleasantly fruity but without a hint of cloying sweetness.
A similar lightness of touch was evident in the ‘dips’: an emulsion of Mooi River butter and olive oil, and a jelly of balsamic vinegar and olive oil, both from Morgenster Estate; and a herb emulsion made with parsley, basil and other fragrant greens I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
All this was before we’d even started our journey through the five-course main menu, where each dish was based on one of the elements the ancient Greek philosophers believed made up the universe and all that is in it: earth, water, fire and air.
‘But wait, that’s only four,’ I hear you say. Well, it would seem that Hahndiek is a disciple of Aristotle, who posited a fifth essence (or quintessence, as in quintuplets), ether – a mysterious substance in which the stars and planets are suspended. Earth was represented by goat’s cheese and beetroot with honey and a lavender dressing. My daughter is an adventurous
eater, but she finds most goat’s cheeses overly sharp for her palate. Hahndiek’s treatment may just have converted her though, somehow transforming the raw ingredient (produced at the award-winning nearby Swissland Cheesery) into a smooth and inoffensive, yet still deeply flavourful cream cheese. It perfectly complemented the earthiness of the locally grown beetroot and the sweetness of the dressing.
Hartford has a great track record when it comes to impressing the toughest critics with its food and wine pairings, so I had high expectations in this regard. I wasn’t disappointed. Hahndiek had cleverly chosen a Neil Ellis Groenekloof Sauvignon Blanc 2014 as the first course’s accompaniment – the crisp, tropical fruit flavours picking up both the creamy sweetness and the earthiness of the dish. The second element, water, was billed ‘Fluid’ on the menu. It came in the form of seared tuna in a nasturtium wasabi ‘pond’. Another of my daughter’s aversions is to fiery fare, so it came as a relief to discover the ‘pond’ actually comprised nasturtium leaves, stalks and blossoms blitzed into a refreshing, emerald-green soup with not even a hint of horseradishy bite. It was a strikingly effective contrast – both visually and in taste – to the pink tuna and the jewel-like orange trout roe.
If the food for this course was a lesson in confounded expectations, the selected wine – the 2012 Reisling from rising star Howard Booysen – was a masterclass. With its hints of coriander and lingering nectarine flavours, you’d traditionally pair it with spicy dishes like bobotie and curry. - www.dinersclub.co.za