Hartford House is set on the grounds of a thoroughbred stud farm just outside Mooi River, KwaZulu-Natal (KZN). The hotel and restaurant are housed within a 19th century, sandstone house that once belonged to the last prime minister of the Natal Colony. With its wisteria-lined walk ways and gooseberry-laden gardens, the location is (as novelist Alan Paton once wrote of the KZN countryside) “lovely beyond any singing of it”.
For over a decade, chef Jackie Cameron presided over the kitchen at Hartford House and her name became synonymous with the space. During her reign she produced a series of iconic degustation menus which gave voice to the taste of her terroir. Her efforts were rewarded with various local and international awards. And then, in 2014, she left. There have been several chefs at Hartford since Cameron’s departure – the most notable being the deliciously skilled Constantijn Hahndiek who moved on in early 2018 – but the hotel has yet to set out a clear culinary identity in the post Cameron period.
Chef Chris Papayannes, arrived at Hartford in February 2018. He is self-taught and relatively new to behind the stove kitchen work having previously performed various front of house hospitality functions. In 2014 he took on the role of chef at Zevenwacht Wine Estate and says that ”it was then that I knew I had found my niche. It felt like it was where I belonged.”
Despite his lack of formal training and relatively short service Papayannes is undoubtedly talented and technically skilled. His six-course tasting menu offers many moments of beautiful, bold and imaginative cooking.
The best plates are brilliant. Local rainbow trout topped with roe and accentuated by pickled rhubarb offered a superb sense of place. The rhubarb (grown in the garden at Hartford) was charmingly retro-chic in line with the hotel’s history. It’s garnet-hued pickled acidity cut through the rich, fat fish and sparkled up against the pop of bursting fish eggs. Pleasing contrasts of colour, taste and texture were everywhere apparent. Sommelier Kathryn Rae ’s choice of Cederberg Bukketraube brought just the right ratio of floral: fruity: crisp acidity to the plate.
There is a fine line between individuality and egotism and young chefs often get it wrong but the subsequent lemon-scented duck consommé dotted with spring peas and tiny black lentils was an impressive expression of deliciously mature emotional veracity. In the menu preamble Papayannes made mention of a Greek grandmother and the inspiration of Avgolemono but the light, fresh, beautifully restorative soup that came to the table had been reconfigured beyond Hellenic comfort into an exquisite and unique exploration of the chef’s past, present and future. Again, Rae hit the wine pairing hot spot with the citrus and ginger notes in Black Oystercatcher White Pearl.
Next, a crumbed and fried chicken croquette with a lovely texture – crunchy on the outside and soft within – but flavour was somewhat absent. As it was in the accompanying tumble of chickweed salad. Imifino wild greens can be wonderful and definitely deserve a place on posh nosh menus but in this dish they failed to deliver. A congealing puddle of cauliflower custard seemed curiously disconnected. Fortunately, a tranche of grass-fed Midlands reared Angus beef sirloin saw the chef find his groove again. Almost maroon in colour and edged with distinctive yellow fat, the meat offered flavours of great depth, complexity and length. Topped with amasi curds and paired with Marras Cinsaut Shiraz it was profoundly beefy, luscious and compelling.
Sadly, the chef seemed to lose interest as we got to the sweet stuff. A half-hearted mousse-textured cheese cake quenelle was joined by mushy kiwi and liquorice sorbet which seemed in danger of splitting the aforementioned wobble of dairy. The ambition and skill found in the previous plates was lost. None of the elements on the pudding plate spoke to me or each other. Even the wine pairings petered out. At the risk of whipping my hobby horse yet again, ending strong is important. Meals that fail to deliver a decent dessert are unfinished. They are statements of epicurean intent without the vital piece of punctuation. Which is sad and unsatisfying. Lots of chefs do this but chef Papayannes is too good to be allowed to fall into becoming one of them.
Overall, however, this was a very pleasant meal with moments of brilliance and the promise of more to come.
Hartford House: Hlatikulu Road, Mooi River, KwaZulu-Natal; 033 263 2713; www.hartfordhouse.co.za; six-course tasting menu is R620 per person (with optional wine pairing at R400 per person)
• Dr Anna Trapido was trained as an anthropologist at King’s College Cambridge and a chef at the Prue Leith College of Food and Wine. She has twice won the World Gourmand Cookbook Award. She has made a birthday cake for Will Smith, a Christmas cake for Nelson Mandela and cranberry scones for Michelle Obama. She is in favour of Champagne socialism and once swallowed a digital watch by mistake.