Cooking from the Heart

By Malu Lambert

The dense scenery of Mooi River zips past the windows of our rented car. The terrain is hilly and tropical, saturated with green, and spiked with gold grain. We’ve been travelling through the Midlands for a few days now, winding our way from farm to pub to restaurant; soaking up the strangeness of this mysterious place.

The valley unfolds, rural and quiet. The first thing to greet us as we arrive at Hartford House is a horse, its tail lazily flicking in the air. Not much can prepare us for the entrance to the estate though; as we drive through the wrought iron gates, I feel like Orphan Annie arriving at the Warbucks Mansion; it’s so positively sweeping and grand.  

In the centre of this sprawling thoroughbred stud farm, is the multi-award winning five-star boutique hotel and restaurant, Hartford House (as its name suggests it evolved out of the property’s stately home). We pause at the top of the steps to the patio, and take in the manicured gardens, the towering willow trees, the sea of green lawn, the burbling fountain. (I’m told later by the general manager that the cupid statue overlooking the pond is actually one of Leonardo Da Vinci’s designs, and that only three like it were made from the mould before it was destroyed.)

Jackie Cameron bounces through the doors of the main entrance. The pretty chef was born and bred in the Midlands, petite and blonde; Jackie has that certain something that makes you immediately like her. She radiates positivity.

“I cook from the heart,” she says when I ask her to describe her style. “I put plates together that I enjoy; and all my new dishes reflect mine and my staff’s childhood memories.”

A champion of Midlands produce Jackie says that 95 percent of her ingredients are local. 

Our table is on the edge of the covered stoep overlooking the garden; diaphanous curtains hang down from a railing, billowing and romantic, and oh-so colonial. I could be happy in this setting with a pot of Earl Grey and a plate of cucumber sandwiches, but one glance at the menu confirms I’m about to taste Kwa-Zulu Natal on a plate.

Lunch gets off to a swinging start with an onion and roasted garlic soup paired with a sticky wine, a brave choice for an introductory meal. We follow this with a ‘Midland’s Caprese Salad’. Halves of sweet, seared cherry tomatoes are served on a square of mirror with a local yoghurt in place of mozzarella, finished with rooibos vinegar, basil pesto, pecan nuts and avocado purée.

We also share a trout terrine with ‘Wayfarer’ Trout Mousse. The Wayfarer Trout farm, says Jackie is a ‘picture-perfect haven’; and the Brookland’s pristine waters running through the property create an ideal environment for the fish. 

“I enjoy cooking for guests who know about food and wine, so I assume that as a supplier it must be gratifying to supply a chef who appreciates every little bit of effort spent on developing perfect produce.”

The picture-perfect terrine is presented with marinated North Coast palm heart, caviar, and tomato essence espuma, topped with ‘Kathy’s Sous-vide Quail Egg’. 

Before our main courses arrive, I venture into the main house. It’s beautiful inside, colonial, yet contemporary, more African than Brit. There are of course, the grand chandeliers and the gleaming antiques; but also curiosities, like the line of wooden dogs. The kitchen flanks the inside dining room—a relatively small, but appropriately sumptuous space—and I’ve never seen one quite like Jackie’s, each corner has a window with light and greenery streaming in, it’s airy and bright: a boon I’m sure in the sweltering summers.

I’m shooed back to the table for the rest of my lunch. Simply plated pan-seared crispy Dargle Valley duck breast is served, paired with potato spaghetti, butternut purée, hot roasted hazelnuts and a cinnamon infused red wine sauce.

“Going to Dargle Ducks is an education and it puts most farms to shame,” says Jackie. “They’ve gone back to what really matters. They call their ducks ‘open range’ because they are free to roam day and night. The feed is grown specifically for the ducks and includes sunflowers, mealies, cabbages, cauliflowers, broccoli, spinach, wheat, rye grass, beans and kikuyu.” 

My date has an artful dish of ‘two-hour poached Midland’s rabbit hot terrine’; which comes with Parma ham rosettes and potato cylinders. 

We linger over our plates, entranced with the scenery as well as the stories being told through the unique Midlands produce. 

The afternoon light is turning a gold-pink by the time we’re ready for dessert. It comes served on a slab of red brick, an unusual creation called ‘Cream Cheese Fruit Cake Mince Balls’ with crispy ‘Kamberg’ ham, cherries, Gorgonzola and Parmesan ice cream and liquorice. 

“I’m bringing together sweet and savoury, hot and cold, cheese and dessert—all into one. Really just keeping the palate excited and interested until the last mouthful. Desserts don’t have to be same-old,” explains Jackie. 

The creative cook knew from ‘a tiny tot’ that she wanted to be a chef. “I use to spend most holidays baking next to one grandmother’s side; and roasting and cooking up multi-course meals with my other grandmother. From a young age I had an understanding and appreciation of good food.”

Before we take to the gardens to walk off lunch, or perhaps to dream under a tree, Jackie has some parting words of advice: “Get to know the area in which you live. Visit the farms, shop at the farmers’ market and local farm stalls. Taste, ask questions, and get to the root of ingredients. Meet the baker, the cheese-maker and the farmer behind the various products you use, and ask to see the methods adopted. This ensures an understanding of the process and a different eating experience.”

Visit www.hartford.co.za for more information.

Jackie Cameron Cooks At HomeThe bubbly chef has just released her first cookbook: Jackie Cameron Cooks At Home, we chat to her briefly about it.

What’s your cookbook about?

I find a lot of recipe books are trying to prove to the world that the authors are creative and well informed regarding food, so they present items that impress on paper, for example ‘a stewed fruit with rose syrup’ this, and a ‘lavender essence’ that… In my book you’ll find a delicious stewed-fruit recipe just how my grandmother made it. No bells and whistles, just interesting and tantalising flavours. I’m not trying to prove to the world that I can cook; I’m aiming to help the home cook improve her/his day-to-day cooking with a how-to recipe book filled with recipes that work. I believe if people are cooking better at home they will expect a higher level of food in restaurants and in turn the entire food industry will step up a level.

 What went into creating it?

I set a goal to write and have a book published by the time I turned 30. I wrote a column for The Witness years ago and those articles gave me a base to work from. As well as from the comments sent to me, I was able to judge which recipes were popular, and which didn’t impress the readers. Everything I do is thoroughly researched before I throw myself into a project.

 Your favourite dishes?

That’s like asking a parent which child is their favourite! I have a connection with every recipe in the book and there’s a little story to go with each one. They are all special in their own way.