Hartford House is Cooking with Frank Chemaly
By now Constantijn Hahndiek should need little introduction to the food fundis of KZN. The Cape Town lad who fell into food when he first tasted his mom’s homemade pesto as a kid, worked in seaside hotels in Devon, boutique hotels in France, at cutting-edge Pacific rim cuisine destinations in New Zealand and a top culinary eventing company in London before returning to SA and being lured to the Midlands from Franschhoek.
His attention to flavours is exceptional, often pulled from quite ordinary or humble ingredients. It’s the pesto story. Luke and I took a drive out there for Sunday lunch recently, and had a truly fabulous meal. It was later winter, and the famed gardens weren’t yet at their spring best, but on a warm late winter’s day it was pleasant to sit out on the veranda and enjoy some superb food. We moved to the new tea house for coffee. It’s in a beautiful slate building, and there can be few more idyllic spots than next to the fountains and canals amid the herb garden, enjoying the late afternoon sun. High teas are a feature here. Lunch was sublime. We started with a goat’s cheese croquette dusted with truffle oil. Croquettes are so often bland, stolid affairs, served cold and lumpy. This was light, crisp on the outside and packed an explosion of flavour. I opted for the roast sweetcorn soup, again delicious, while Luke’s terrine of ham, pork and quince was a beautiful creation, served with a pretty side salad. Mains took in a very good melt-in-the-mouth pork belly on a lentil ragout served with natural pan juices. Luke, who was feeling pork deprived, was in his element. My fish was another testament to good cooking, served with a pea purée, fresh peas and petit pois, a celebration of the humble pea. It was a delicious and delicate dish. We weren’t going to have dessert, but the chef insisted, and I’m glad he did. We shared a chocolate cigar filled with blueberry cream, with fresh blueberries and chocolate sorbet. The sorbet packed a punch few sorbets do, and would convert even the most hardened ice cream fan.
Recently Anne Stevens and I were invited as guests of Hartford for a dinner after a Heritage Day Land of Legends awards function at Fordoun. The gardens were in magnificent bloom and it was a pleasure to walk them and work up an appetite for the evening meal. Two dishes here stood out. After soup and a beautiful piece of geelbek served on gnocchi, was a chicken dish. Put chicken on the menu and we both have some trepidations. After all, it’s so often the safe dish, and even when perfectly cooked, it’s often fairly bland. Well I was blown away.
The chicken roulade was moist and flavourful, and topped with a beautiful softly fried quail egg and a crisped rasher of streaky artisanal bacon. A lovely testimony to good Midlands produce. Then came the lamb ravioli in a beetroot jus. This was simply magnificent and certainly the best take on lamb I’d had in a long time. The beetroot gave it a slight sweetness which was unexpected. And picked up by the wine. A winning combination all round. I’m the wrong person to properly assess desserts. I am always happy with a slice of good Midlands cheese after a meal, but cheese curd? Well, let’s try something new. It was paired with fresh rhubarb and a rhubarb coulis. But somehow – for me – the texture of cheese curd didn’t quite work. Hahndiek finished the evening playing with fire. Coffee meringues were made at the table in a bath of liquid nitrogen. It has everyone breathing smoke out of mouth and nose, even ears. It’s great fun.