The senior food critic at America’s leading business newspaper, The Wall Street Journal, was among the judges for Eat Out’s Top Ten restaurants, and it was one of his remits to take a plane ride all the way to KwaZulu Natal to test the offering at what he imagined to be an “isolated tourist trap” which had had its time. “Big mistake!”, he exclaimed, nominating Hartford in the top three country restaurants on the planet, alongside Sweden’s Fäviken and Australia’s Royal Mail.Read More
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Twelve years ago, a blue-eyed, blonde-haired 19-year-old stripling was handed the keys to the Hartford House kitchen, and told to run. Jackie Cameron had big shoes to fill. The man who interviewed her for his job, was being redeployed to our new venture, Lynton Hall. A legend already, Richard Carstens was on his way to new-found stardom as South Africa's Number One chef, and the hole he left behind at Hartford was going to take some filling.
Undaunted by the challenge of facing the doyens of the critical media in her first week at the office, our young lady greeted the formidable forms of Victor Strugo, Metchild York Mitchell, Anne Stevens and Jos Baker through a door once darkened by the former Prime Ministers Winston Churchill, Jan Smuts and Louis Botha. It wasn't long and she'd attracted the encouragement of Abigail Donnelly, Anna Trapido and Derek Taylor.
In the dozen ensuing years, she has made the Hartford restaurant her own. In between, she's enjoyed the acclaim of an adoring fan club, she's festooned the pages of the culinary weeklies and she's survived a couple of critical accidents. A regular feature in Eat Out's "Top Ten", Hartford is now "bucket list" for any self-respecting gastronome, not the least of whom, Bruce Palling, The Wall Street Journal’s senior European food writer: "I had imagined this was a charmingly backwatery sort of place that was suffering from being there too long. Big mistake. I would put Hartford House in the same league as Faviken in Sweden and the Royal Mail in Australia as one of the very best remote places to eat anywhere on the planet". Doesn't get much better than that, unless you're talking about Eat Out's Top 5.
Jackie Cameron intends opening her own exclusive cooking school in Hilton in the new year. As good as she is as a cook, she's as adept at teaching. Her legacy at Hartford includes the elevation of three young Zulu ladies of limited qualification, from the scullery to representing South Africa at cooking exhibitions in Zurich, Prague and Shanghai.
Her leaving is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. It is just the end of the beginning. Cheryl Goss, Hartford's originator and the hand that's blown the wind up Jackie's skirt, has twice helped chefs to the mountain top. Richard Carstens was Chef of the Year, Jackie Cameron is now the leading lady. Who's to say we can't do it again?
The greatest compliment we can pay to the past, is to preside over a seamless transition to the future, preserving the things of value and building on the base that's thrilled so many ever since the doors opened here. The tradition of good cooking is as old as Hartford itself, and our graduates have populated some of the best kitchens in the land. Aaron Maduna, once the Goss family's private cook, became head chef at Mala Mala before returning for Hartford's opening as a hotel. Salmon Nell became head chef and private housekeeper to Bridget Oppenheimer, while Floris Smit is the man behind Bushman's Kloof's reputation for fine food.
This time, we're handing the baton to one of Jackie's protégé’s, Travis Finch, whose pedigree includes an insatiable curiosity, boundless ambition and a sense of je ne sais quoi, a globe-trotting CV at several leading European eateries, and especially a stint under Peter Tempelhoff at one of Cape Town's "temples", The Greenhouse. Travis is joined by another Greenhouse graduate, Brendan Ryan, whose move from Singita to KwaZulu-Natal was spurred by the adventure of doing something extraordinary in a remote location, where you're not just one of several in the same street, and comes with the strongest commendation of the legend himself. That's what brought Carstens and Cameron here, and look where they ended up.
Magnus Nilsson of Faviken
(Photos : Faviken Restaurant)
"Call of the Wild"
Most of our readers will know of Bruce Palling's recent proclamation of Hartford House among the top three country restaurants on the planet. That's a helluva statement about any eatery, but it's all the more so coming from a journalist of his standing, considering he is the European critic for one of the world's most influential newspapers, the Wall Street Journal. We were obviously intrigued to know who our "clubmates" were, since he'd courted Sweden's Faviken and Australia's Royal Mail as the three making up the trifecta.
Our "horsey" followers might ask what, besides the word "trifecta", "this has to do with Summerhill and horses, and the answer resides not only in the fact that so many of our visitors to the stud have intimate memories of Hartford, but also, both these businesses have adopted excellence as their benchmark, and any celebration for Hartford is a celebration for Summerhill, and vice versa. And let's be honest, most of us live to eat, we don't eat to live.
Introducing his critique on the Hartford restaurant, Mr Palling opened with "I can't say I was looking forward to this journey, as it was more than a thousand miles round trip for what looked like a bit of a tourist trap in the middle of nowhere. I had imagined that this was a charming backwaterey sort of place that was suffering from being there for too long. Big Mistake. I would put Hartford House in the same league as Faviken in Sweden and the Royal Mail in Australia, as one of the very best isolated/remote places to eat anywhere on the planet".
While we haven't yet had the honour of visiting the Royal Mail, we have at least discovered its whereabouts. It's located in a tiny hamlet called Dunkeld, about 300 kilometres north west of Melbourne. Faviken is even more remote. On any journey there, unless you go by helicopter, you're obliged to hire a limo or a taxi; in either event, you're going to need a driver, and at some point on the journey, he's going to tap his brakes, cock his head over his shoulder, and ask "Have you got everything you need for tonight, like a toothbrush?" he asks "Because this is the last village. After here there is nothing". Forty minutes of empty road later, the car will pull up at its destination: a small crop of copper-coloured buildings on a seemingly-endless 18th century hunting estate, surrounded by a wilderness of forests, mountains and valleys. But, remote though it is, travellers from America to Estonia, France to Japan make this same trip every day, because in one of these buildings, a chef by the name of Magnus Nilsson runs a restaurant which seats just 16 patrons. And, like Hartford, because of its intimacy and location and for what it aspires to, it's the future of fine dining; in Faviken's case, it's aspiring to become one of the most influential dining establishments in the world.
Nilsson was born 170 miles away in the small town of Selanger. At 19, he signed up to work at Pascal Barbot's 3 Michelin-starred restaurant, L'Astrance, in France. On his return to Sweden, he joined Faviken's owners as an advisor on their wines, and in 2008 decided to overhaul the estate's restaurant, which at the time catered to skiers, specialising in moose fondue. It didn't do well. Five years on, the restaurant pulls as many people as the skiing slopes which used to fill the aircraft.
Here's the Faviken routine. Guests arrive around 5pm and are shown to their rooms, which have light wood walls and thickly blanketed beds. Next you spend an hour sipping cold beer in a hot sauna overlooking the hills. At 7pm, having shared a state of virtual nudity with your fellow diners, you converge for drinks and the first of 20 enterprising courses, from an amuse-bouche of wild trout's roe in a crust of dried pig's blood, to raw mussel and wild pea pie, served by the restaurant's four chefs. For the marrow-based course, Nilsson saws open the moose bone, right there in the middle of the dining room.
Tonight's menu is light on root vegetables; ninety-five percent of the ingredients are grown, foraged or reared on the estate (when Nilsson goes for a walk, he takes his gun in case he spies game). This year, the roots came up late, so diners eat whatever's ripe that day. Get the drift?
"That doesn't cut costs though, it's super-expensive to produce this food". The restaurant is necessarily site-specific: not ideal. It can't relocate or expand without ceasing to be Faviken, with so few covers. Like Hartford, you don't want to grow it; for fear of losing one of your greatest drawcards: intimacy. And since we're both operating with the finest ingredients, it will always, in a remote environment likes ours, be difficult to get the ingredients. "If you have a restaurant that needs 500 langoustines a week, you would struggle to get the quality we work with. I want it to be like this because one of the good aspects is that I like to do the cooking myself. I don't want to train a 100 people to do my stuff," says Nilsson. Those that know Jackie Cameron, will understand what he's saying.
If that sounds like artistic protectiveness, it's because it is. Both of us prioritise "hands-on" over perceived culinary wisdom. Cooking is not an act of science; it's silly to think that just because you know the temperature at which coagulation occurs in a piece of meat, by simply applying the temperature, it's going to be perfect every time. Every piece of meat is different. Similarly, Nilsson prefers beef from 5 to 10 year old dairy cows, rather than the 2-year-olds most butchers use. They have better marbling and more concentrated flavours, and patrons are not critical of ingredients. "They just believe what people say".
Along with Noma in Copenhagen, (according to San Pellegrino and Aqua Panna's power list, the best restaurant in the world, Faviken, has reasserted Scandinavia's presence on the gastronomic map. The question is, will it prove a flash in the pan?
"I think this huge interest in Scandanvian food will mellow down", he says. "What frustrates me today, you can go to a number of high profile British restaurants, and they've been fed the aesthetic language of Noma, which is awesome, but which doesn't belong there. They should focus on their own area. Such places would do better to imitate in spirit rather than the letter. The most important thing is that we are, I think, showing how things could be". Although historically, Sweden has had a decadent cuisine, much of the knowledge has been lost over the generations, with the move to what one might term "westernization". To reinvigorate the culinary's regional traditions, they need to showcase ingredients in their purest form, much as Cameron and her team at Hartford do. The result is that most of what comes out of Nilsson's kitchen, is raw.
Critics are billing Faviken as the new Noma. Unsurprisingly, that makes it harder to get a table, and now, there's the Faviken cookbook, equal parts local history, photo essay and instruction manual, designed to bring the world a taste of the little restaurant in the hills. In true Nilssonian fashion, it omits timings and measurements from the receipes. Is he concerned that it might render the book uncommercial? "Not at all. Who buys these books to cook from anyway? There are going to be a few who are willing to try the tough receipes, but the point is that they read the history, and get inspired by the way we work, and pick up things. Then they can do something nice themselves".
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