A great Lowveld Tale

She bills herself, very misleadingly, as the naked chef. Admittedly there was an unseasonably chilly Lowveld wind the night we were there, which would have carved an edge to any nudity, but, with Cindy’s regretful clothes firmly on, things were cooking anyway.

“My vissie is dood” came the SMS to one of my dining companions’ cellphones. Her husband, Danie, a 6’2″ butcher, interrupted our evening to announce the demise of his Siamese Fighter named Chan (after Jackie – well, they all look the same don’t they?) and, with touching poignancy, closed the message with one of those crying smileys that looks like Nemo in distress.

“Ons sal vir jou nog een kry”. She promised him a replacement. He wasn’t to be consoled though, and replied in plaintive English “but I liked this one” so she crushed him with a “Flush it; I’ll buy you another one tomorrow.” End of conversation.

We couldn’t bring ourselves to order the trout but then we’d known beforehand, anyway, what we were going to have as a starter. Cindy’s crispy guinea-fowl spring rolls, plumped full with tasty stuff and dunked in mother-in-law Pat’s (she of Pat’s Stall) fine Sweet Chilli Sauce.

We were at Treetops in Hazyview. Not Treetops in Kenya where the Queen became Queen or Treetops in India where the tigers live. Treetops in Hazyview beats them both because they are not quasi-Alpine log cabins, they do not have horse-brasses on the walls, they do not have baths in the restaurant loos, they don’t offer you a glass of OBS when you arrive, they do not have the bespectacled, studious-looking Raephi as a Pedi waitress in white blouse and pink V-neck, and they don’t have Cindy.

Home-made bread, a bottle of white, a bottle of red and glasses like goldfish bowls (sorry Chan). We wolfed the spring rolls with all the gusto of a Siamese fighter and awaited the main course with unashamed and ill-disguised drooling. Two oxtails and a stuffed chicken breast; garnish that’s edible, not silly, and comes straight out of the garden.

My other colleague (whose girlfriend keeps cats, and a ridgeback called Shaka for the cats, entertainment, instead of exotic fish named after kung-fu experts) was entering into the food critic thing with enthusiasm and professed his chicken-filled-with-mushrooms to be moist and humid without being fetid but with a gravid depth added by its dark accompanying gravy. In other words, he really liked it.

I know many people who won’t eat oxtail because they know which part of the ox it comes from. Well, it doesn’t take much working out does it? All I can tell them is that by turning down the opportunity to eat Cindy’s oxtail (even if she won’t show them her nakedness) they are turning down the second best thing in the world. It is amazing. It is also moist and humid and far from fetid. It, too, is in a dark rich gravy. But there is more. It comes with extra butter beans if you want it to make you extraordinarily fat (me) instead of just a bit fat (fish-flushing dinner guest on weigh-less). It is gorgeous. You can pick it up and suck it clean and schlupp the lovely bone-marrow out and you’ll need a bath afterwards (lucky that there’s a bath in the loo) and Oh Yes.

Gluttony as usual getting the better of me at this stage (and never having been one to worry too much about deadly sins), I ordered the Bread and Butter Pudding which is attributed to Anton Mossiman who luckily never threatens to take his clothes off and who, I am willing to bet, does not make his Bread and Butter Pudding anything like as well as Cindy does. The apple pie, too, according to one of my grateful dinner guests, was better than mine.

We ordered a coffee, polished off the Merlot and mused back to the days when Hazyview’s only restaurants were the now sadly-defunct Tembi and the sadly-still-operating Chicken Licken. Many had come and gone in the past and many new ones have opened in the past six months and are as yet unproven, but Treetops stands out as the work of a professional.

Raephi had pulled a black cardigan over her pink V-neck and the likelihood of the chef-proprietor’s reducing her clothes-load seemed to be reducing rapidly. It was time to go home. We felt far from misled but we needed a bath.

Treetops Restaurant
Open for Dinner Tuesdays to Saturdays
12km out of Hazyview on the R536 to Sabie
Tel 013 737 8294

What’s good for the goose

Chris Harvie falls for the food of Franschhoek, but finds that his accommodation is hardly worth a mention.

There are many so-called manor houses in Franschhoek but this one was shoddy to say the least. They know who they are, four stars, no underblankets, diluted shampoo, tangles of disconnected wires sticking out of the kitchen cupboard, no servicing on Sundays and soggy soap in pools in the soap dishes.

Mrs Bauer’s suitcase labels were still sitting in my bathroom dustbin. We wondered how long ago she’d stayed and whether the sheets had been changed since.

We wondered, in fact, whether we were expected at all. Nobody greeted us. Ever. We had prepaid. The first person we saw was the chambermaid on the morning we left.

As we sat in front of the fire later, we mused briefly as to where we had gone wrong.

But we weren’t here to sleep or sit in front of the fire. We were here to test how the goose feels in the run-up to being slaughtered for foie gras, so all we needed was a bed on which to digest between extravagances.

We had planned to partake of breakfast, lunch and dinner in Franschhoek for two days; to eat until we wished we had been part of a Roman orgy, sufferers from bulimia or guests in Gaddaffi’s tent, all of which would have allowed us to have gone out, thrown up, come back and start again.

It had kicked off at iCi at Le Quartier Francais or, as someone had said to us, Icky at Le Quartier Francais.

It wasn’t bad, but somehow, frankly, it missed. My parfait was, well, parfait; the lamb burger was, well, a lamb burger, and the chips were small, like McDonald’s chips; but they forgot one of our starters, the chandeliers were too spiky, it’s all a bit red and the waitress made Vin de Constance sound like Van der Merwe’s cousin.

The restaurant’s shop had too many yellow-beaded stuffed rhinos, the nadir in curio fashion. A question of taste, maybe, but we were a little bit underwhelmed.

Reuben’s was next. We were conscious of the hype over Reuben Riffel and possibly somewhat sceptical.

I had stuck my head into Reuben’s on an earlier visit and been somewhat put off by the design.

This time I fell in love with it. The DC-10 wing that forms the bar is quite the funkiest thing I have ever seen, as are the lights marking the emergency exits.

You have to down your drink in one go, if you don’t it slides down the fall of the wing into your lap; the restaurant was sensibly warm and comfortably under-furnished; the menu taunted us, amongst other less avant-garde dishes, with all the things we couldn’t get at home, steak tartare, calves’ liver and tripe, for example.

Despite my huge lunch, I could have eaten my squid starter, with its addictive chilli zing, a hundred times, and the calves’ liver was just perfect. We had all ordered differently and passed our plates around the table to chorusing oohs and aahs. There wasn’t a disappointing mouthful anywhere.

Over a damned good coffee, we asked the waitress if Reuben was there (under the guise of wishing to congratulate him on his engagement, which one of our number had cunningly spotted in the gossip columns). He was and what a great chap he is. His kitchen is the best in Franschhoek and for all the right reasons.

We darted through the rain to the car and the dodgy sheets and the whisky and settled our stomachs for a few hours until breakfast, a morning bakery raid on Sweetmama! yielding world-class croissants (the sort that fall apart completely in light, peeling shaves) and chubby little scones with soft middles. Had it not been raining we could have walked them off but we had to collapse and read the newspapers instead.

Lunch got off to a poor start when I narrowly failed to run over a couple from Cape Town walking in the rain outside. He made an unnecessarily obscene gesture at me. The restaurant had lost our booking.

The metal, nail-studded table at La Grande Provence was vaguely reminiscent of Reuben’s wing. Even more unusual were the bronze rabbits performing bizarre acts on one another in the exhibition alongside. But from there onwards, it was up, up, up. There were comfortable armchairs at the table. I love that. And Alex, our Zimbabwean waiter, was charming and attentive and clever enough to tell us all about cuttlefish.

I hesitate to describe my starter to you. It was a sort of sausagey thing with other things, described on the menu, rather cryptically, as a ‘tian of stuffed pork with potato galette, sauce espagnole … apple jellies’. The jellies formed tiny bubbles in the sauce. It was utterly gorgeous. So was the baked leek and Gruyere tart.

The main course duck was as crispy as it promised but the roasted fish with asparagus risotto, persillade squid … tomato, saffron sauce was probably the overall winner. We liked La Grande Provence.

The service was so good that we barely noticed it. The menu made sense and wasn’t full of drizzling and splattering. The huge flower arrangements dramatically offset the girders in the ceiling and the rain poured down outside the massive windows.

It was, as Gerard Hoffnung said, at this point that I think I must have lost my presence of mind. I don’t know whether the geese of the Porigord, after a certain point, don’t know when to stop, but we then ordered puddings. Banoffi cheesecake. Blimey. Amazing. It was just as well that Bread and Wine at Moreson was closed for refurbishment. We couldn’t get out of the car without help.

We were sated and more than satisfied. Our three top chefs’ meals had all cost about the same, a very reasonable R200 per head including wine, and we had survived without injury apart from distension of the stomach.

Had the chambermaid met us beforehand, she would probably not have recognised the five, far rounder guests who left the next morning but of course, as it happened, she saw us for the first time then.

And management never met us at all, so they won’t know us when we don’t come back.

We’ll have to stay somewhere else when we return to revisit Matthew Gordon’s Haute Cabriere and his French Connection Bistro. Now, excuse me while I go and lie down for a while (on clean sheets) just at the thought of it.

iCi at Le Quartier Francais tel: 021- 876-2151.

Reuben’s Restaurant and Bar tel: 021-876-3772.

Sweetmama! tel: 021-876-4591

Le Grande Provence tel: 021-876- 8600.

The last gasp

Judging from the FATHERS’ DAY JAZZ announced on a board outside the front door and the twenty-odd empty beer kegs lying outside The Shepherd’s Crook, I am sorry to have missed the party. Two weeks after Fathers’ Day they are still obviously clearing up the debris. Unless, of course, the mess is the fallout from a demonstration against the smoking ban, which was introduced two days ago. Either way, this tiny village seems an unlikely venue for a loud statement of any sort.

They certainly aren’t having a party or a defiant moment the night we were there. There are only four people at the bar and they are having one of those inimitably English pub conversations:

“How’s your Mum today?”

“Oh, much better. At least she’s eating again now and her leg has stopped falling off.”

These few splashing out on a lager top are a sharp contrast to other parts of Britain where there have been defiant smoke-ins, dramatic demonstrations and days and days of newspaper debate about the rights and wrongs of the nanny state’s controlling the pink fluffiness of its citizens’ lungs.

At the better-known Coach and Horses in Soho over the weekend there had been a huge lung-blocking shindig of a smoking party until 6am on the Sunday morning when the ban had come into force. Outside, thereafter, a ‘Civil Rights Response Unit’, manned by an unknown comedian in the back of a hearse, provided refuge from the rain for those wishing to smoke but not prepared to defy the ban and risk landing their publican with a 2500 fine. Clubs all over the country had held last-chance-to-smoke-inside parties and pro-smoking lobby groups had tried in vain to argue that the smell of smoke was far less bilious-making than some of the more basic smells that would now come to the fore instead.

With my pint of Beechwood in hand I compare the drama of it all with this timber-beamed hostelry in the Chilterns, carriage lights, bumpkin waitresses in boots and tights (despite its being July) and a few old boys having a puff in the car park under an umbrella. Like all good English pubs none of the chairs match and the menu is on a blackboard with more than half of the items unavailable. A notice on the bar announces that beers under 4% cost 2-60/pint and those over 4% cost 2-70. A small discount, then, for the driver. Guinness is 2-90  a small surcharge for being Irish.

My scallops are outstanding. When we tell the bouncy chef she simply says “Well, I hope you like your mains.” Well, we do. The sole is soft and fluffy (like a healthy lung) on the inside and crispy and black (like an unhealthy one) on the outside and the garlic in the monkfish would drown out any tobacco smell for days. There follows a spectacular chocolate and ginger pudding. Who needs a cigarette when you can get fat on chocolate instead?

In over 1000 pubs across the country, smokers are apparently ‘defiantly lighting up’ and vowing to go to jail to protect their right to slow, painful suicide and accidental murder. They want their day in court, they crow. They refuse, they say, to be cowed like their Welsh, Scottish and Irish counterparts into taking this infringement of their liberties lying down.

Back in the bogs at The Shepherd’s Crook, though, the sobering view from the urinals of the floodlit graveyard at the back of the Norman church next door would have been enough to put anyone off an illicit smoke. Even more alarming is an advert on the loo wall for a beer called The Dogs Bollocks announcing that ‘Now you can have you Bollocks in a bottle’.

Now, nanny state or no nanny state, that’s sure as hell no way to celebrate Fathers’ Day.