Last year I visited Hartford House for the first time, better known to me over the years as the leading award-winning restaurant in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) when it was headed up by Chef Jackie Cameron. I found a young passionate chef in Constantijn Hahndiek, and an excellently run boutique hotel by GM Duncan Bruce. On my return visit this month, I found that the bar had been raised even higher at Hartford House.
Duncan came to greet me at the car, a warm welcome with a hug, and took me to ‘my’ room, the same one I had last year, with wifi, to enable me to write in-between the spoiling. Similarly, it was a joy to see Chef Tijn (as he is called by his colleagues) again, who has grown in self-confidence in the past year. I arrived on his birthday, but there was little time for him to celebrate, there being lunch and dinner to prepare in his busy kitchen.
My room had had a decor upgrade, having been painted, new upholstery on the chairs and headboard, as well as bed cover, and the shower upgraded. In my room was a glass jar with pink macarons, and a heart-warming ‘welcome home‘ note!
At Hartford House I enjoyed three dinners, a lunch, and the breakfasts. I was also spoilt with a High Tea at the new Tijnhuis Tea House (photograph), which had recently opened. I have already written about the unusual High Tea, and the pride which Zee takes in baking for the Tijnhuis, and in running it.
The highlight of the dinners was the one just before my departure, which was a sold-out Winemaker Dinner with Laibach, its winemaker Francois Van Zyl being a passionate speaker about his organic wines. I was lucky to sit at his table with his wife Marietjie, and my friends Dave and Gaynor King, who had driven to visit me from Kloof, enjoying the High Tea, and then staying on for the dinner, before driving back home after the dinner to a wild storm with torrential rain.
Duncan welcomed the diners, saying that Hartford House had been built in 1875, and opened to the public in 1996. Initially it had little life and soul, but now this has changed, the patrons bringing life to the boutique hotel. I would beg to differ, in that it is the very friendly and caring staff that makes the difference at Hartford House!
I had met Francois and his wife and daughter in the bar the evening before, and enjoyed his fresh and unusual perspective on the wine industry. Like Chef Tijn is passionate about his food, so too Francois is about his wines. He has worked at Laibach for 17 years, a self-proclaimed ‘rebel‘ who ‘does things differently‘, and does not follow the wine industry conventions. He is a passionate golfer, hates watching rugby, and travels regularly to personally market his wines. The Laibach farm was bought by the German Laibach family, and they gave him carte blanche to develop the farm, located next door to Kanonkop, and close to Warwick, and Simonsig. Francois told us that their The Ladybird Red, a Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec, and Cabernet Sauvignon, was the first organic certified wine in our country, and launched in 2004. It is the most popular organic wine in our country, now selling 100000 bottles per year, and is the best known Laibach wine. Their exports were 95% in 1999, and have decreased to 25%. Woolworths is their best customer, where they sell their five wines under their own labels, being one of the retailer’s five best-selling red wines.
Francois explained that every year is a ‘new canvas, a new beginning‘ in making his wines. His wines never taste the same from one vintage to the next, the weather and terroir conditions being different every year in the time that he has worked there. 95% of their production is organic-certified, organic wines having the advantage that they do not give one a hangover! Since farming organically they have owls and many other bird varieties as well as mice on the farm, and their soil is ‘alive’, he said. In addition to his Laibach job, Francois has done eight vintages overseas, including in Serbia, Spain, and in France, countries specializing in red wines. There are a maximum of two additives (in a bad vintage) in his wines, relative to the 88 allowed additives, Francois shared. They do not irrigate their vines, forcing the roots to grow deeper, up to 4 meters underground. Laibach makes the only organic MCC. They buy in 5% of their grapes, from Joostenberg and Scali.
Chef Tijn has been at Hartford House for about one and a half years. In this time he has created a vegetable and herb garden outside his kitchen, and has built up a dedicated kitchen team. Every night he creates a new dinner menu, usually five courses, and sometimes with an extra surprise course. He opens the evening dinner with a reading of his menu, explaining some dishes in more detail, and identifies the origin of his ingredients, predominantly sourced from nearby suppliers in the Midlands. He is well-liked by his suppliers, as I heard from Rosemary Dimitriades, when he and Duncan took me to The Gourmet Greek on the Midlands Meander during the week. Chef Tijn said he was grateful for the rain, which had started falling earlier in the afternoon, and was much-needed. He said that he had created a unique menu for the dinner, using unique Midlands produce, and that he and his team had worked all day to create the dishes.
An artisanal bread basket with white rolls, brown wheat and cranberry bread, as well as lavash was brought to the table with Mooi River butter. The first course was raw Delilah cheese ice cream, served with blueberry coulis, foam made from pine needles foraged at the entrance to Summerhill Stud on which Hartford House is located, and rye crumble. Chef Tjin explained that Delilah is the cow on Richard Haigh’s Enaleni Farm on the Meander, her unpasteurized milk being used to make the cheese which is aged for eleven months, and goes into the special ice cream. Richard is well-known for his contribution to protecting the Zulu sheep species, and practicing Biodiversity on his farm, and has received recognition for this from the Slow Food Convivium in KZN, Dave told me, being the KZN President. This dish was plated with a pine tree twig, and was paired with the Laibach Pinotage 2014, a bush-vine organic Pinotage which was made in a Pinot Noir style, matured in French oak barrels, and had been chilled at 18ºC.
The second course was a beautifully plated one, with Natal deep-sea crayfish, kob with cream and herbs forming the basis of the dish (prepared in the Mediterranean Brandada style, reflecting Chef Tijn’s time worked in Spain) and served with cucumber and Chinese cabbage. This dish was paired with Laibach The Ladybird White 2014, a blend of Chardonnay, Viognier, and Chenin Blanc, naturally fermented and 50% wooded.
From Blue Orange Farm Chef Tijn sourced cured duck breast ham, which was served with a duck liver parfait, duck bitterballen (reflecting Chef Tijn’s Dutch heritage), cocoa nibs, and fennel. Blue Orange Farm is on the Midlands Meander, a family run farm producing open range Pekin ducks and chickens in a ‘stress-free‘ environment, enhancing their taste. The wine pairing was with Laibach Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot 2014, a blend with Cabernet Franc added too, 75% matured in new French oak barrels.
Chef Tijn is a proud advocate of Midlands lamb, wanting his patrons to perceive it as being as good as Karoo lamb. He served a lamb loin, with sweetbreads, roast cauliflower, coffee, and cloves, the wine pairing being with Laibach Claypot Merlot 2013, which has a small percentage of Cabernet Franc. Francois told us that Laibach supplies eight of thirteen branches of the Michelin-starred Hakkasan restaurant group with this wine, but only for three months of the year, there not being enough stock to supply them throughout the year. He said that he loves red wines generally, and Merlot specifically. For this dish Chef Tijn made a port jus, and Duncan opened the bottle with a tong which had been specially made for them, allowing Duncan to take the head off the bottle with cork and all when heated!
The dessert was named in honour of the granadilla vine outside Chef Tijn’s kitchen, which offered its last passion fruit of the season for the dish, to which was added lemon curd, double fermented aerated Itakuja Valrhona chocolate, pink macarons, Moroccan mint tea granita, and violet dacqois made from almonds and egg white. The Laibach Noble Late Harvest 2016, with only 7% alcohol, was served with the dessert. This wine is supplied to Michelin-star restaurants in Belgium, being far more affordable than that from Sauternes.
One of the highlights of my dining at Hartford House was a surprise course created by Chef Tijn and his team. He uses liquid nitrogen in a number of his dishes, and the ultimate one was blood orange mousse stuffed fresh tulips, which he had frozen with the liquid nitrogen, and served at the table. One had to crack open the frozen tulip with the spoon, and blow onto it, it releasing smoke/steam as one did so, warming up the dessert. It was deliciously refreshing, and so clever!
I was lucky to briefly connect with Summerhill Stud owners Mick and Cheryl Goss, who were rushing off to Durban, and had just returned from Johannesburg. Both are passionate about their farm and Hartford House, and are gracious and generous hosts. Cheryl is a very talented decorator, her skills showing throughout the hotel.
It was a sad departure from Hartford House, with such spoiling from Duncan, Chef Tijn, and their teams. The interest in their guests was reflected in Duncan and Chef Tijn’s joining me for a Midlands Meander trip, first stopping at The Gourmet Greek cheesery, and then at The Farmer’s Daughter in Howick, where we had a fun lunch. I skipped dinner every second night, but would receive What’s App messages from Chef Tijn with concerns about my well-being, and sending a treat from the kitchen to my room! I look forward to seeing Hartford House on this year’s Eat Out Top 20 Restaurant list! I cannot wait to return next year.
Hartford House, Summerhill Stud, Mooiriver. Tel (033) 263-2713 www.hartford.co.za Twitter: @HartfordHouse Instagram: @HartfordHouseHotel
Laibach Vineyards, Klapmuts Road, R44, Stellenbosch. Tel (021) 884-4511. www.laibachwines.com Twitter: @Francoiswineman Visits to the winery by appointment.
Chris von Ulmenstein, WhaleTales Blog: www.whalecottage.com/blog Tel +27 082 55 11 323 Twitter:@WhaleCottage Facebook: click here Instagram: @Chris_Ulmenstein