It’s the garden of KZN with its lush pastures, fields of herbs, its relaxed country life and friendly locals, and with so much fresh produce right on the doorstep, the Midlands is increasingly becoming something of a culinary stop over.
It’s an environment in which good local chefs are thriving, offering the best in country hospitality, good creative cooking using fresh seasonal ingredients, in pleasant relaxed quaint surrounds.
Here you’ll see chefs going into the vegetable garden to pick your salad, speciality producers of gourmet deli products and many tempting treats. And us city slickers are finding out what we’re missing, and on weekends are heading for the rolling green hills.
It would take a good week or two – and many an extra kilo or two – to properly explore the Midlands, but here’s a taste of its many hidden gems. So hit the road to Johannesburg and take a left at the Currie’s Post turn off. You’re now in the heart of the Midlands.
French at the River Bank Bistro
First up is the River Bank Bistro, a charming new establishment opened by Johan Swiegelaar and Michael Smit that specialises in French and French Indo-China styles of cooking. Yet it has quintessential Midlands charm. Cows graze by the river bank in front of this old converted shed.
With its striped table clothes and large fire place it’s ideal for those chilly evenings, while a romantic verandah is perfect for summer. The menu is based on the best of local and changes almost daily. So expect the likes of French Onion soup, interesting terrines or tarts with tomato roasted onions and goats cheese. Then there’s Pork fillet stuffed with tomatoes and basil, chicken and leek pie or lamb in a fig and red wine glaze. For desserts go no further than a traditional tart tatin. An antique shop next door completes the picture.
Country cooking in Caversham
Now its time for a slow meander through rolling hills as one takes the dirt road to Caversham. Good food and warm hospitality is the hallmark of Peter and Cathy Halls Cooking Bear. And they’ve won accolades for their country cooking.
It’s quaint and cosy inside, while on the outside terrace you can drink in the traditional English country garden. Expect an eclectic mix of hearty traditionals mixed with flavours of the East. So expect anything from potted kippers, pea and ham hock or Smoked kudu salad and Warm pork pie to Thai fishcakes, Red chilli beef or bobotie. Regular daily specials, especially fish straight from the Durban market, add interest.
Further up the road is a little bit of Tuscany in La Lampara. With its warm earthy colours, its herb gardens and open sunny courtyards, it caters for families and the children are free to roam. With fresh home-made pastas and traditional delights like osso bucco and rabbit, it’s a cut above you average Italian diner.
Caversham Mill is a real picture postcard setting and a favourite for city slickers looking for their day in the country. Here one is more likely to bump into old friends you haven’t seen for a while, than in your neighbourhood supermarket back home. Languish on the wide verandah overlooking the river cascading rapidly into the pool below. Hosts Terry and Diana Acres offer a friendly Midlands welcome with good comfort cooking. You’ll find them everywhere from the kitchen to busting tables.
So think starters like Butternut and litchi soup, Fishcakes with coconut and lime sauce and Duck in a sesame crepe. There are plenty of options with fresh Midlands trout and the likes of oxtail, home-made pies and burgers and even a veg shepherd’s pie. The orange crème caramel laced with a boozy orange sauce is inspired. Child friendly menus complement the picture.
German fare at Gunters
Further down the road is Gunter’s – it’s something completely different. Once up the treacherous road you enter the home of Gunther and Carmen Janz and the simple hospitality of their native Switzerland. Both are refugees from the rat race in Johannesburg, a move neither regret, especially when you wake up to a fabulous Midlands view every morning.
Now they serve a steady diet of bierwurst, bratwurst, franks and kaasgrillers, served simply in a roll, with sautéd potatoes and sauerkraut on the side, with plenty of good German mustards, and naturally, German beers. Some may find it twee, but this is felt hat territory, complete with cowbells, Bavarian ompah music and a lazy St Bernard. It’s packed on Sundays.
Avant Garde at Granny Mouse Country House
Back on the tar, the meander takes on a more avant garde overtone at Granny Mouse’s Country House. Here acclaimed chefs Kim Williamson and Anthony Roberts produce their cutting edge creations with fresh local seasonal produce, the limited menu changing frequently.
Sit in the shade of the cool thatched verandah peering into the mists around the Lions river below and relish a hearty oxtail soup, or novel ways with duck, game, fowl or Midlands cheese.
Think Ballotine of chicken with goats cheese with spinach, braised puy lentils and sauce vierge or Fried lamb kidneys with portabello mushrooms, red wine jus on potato and parsnip dauphinoise or Trout tossed through a green curry sauce on basmati rice with tomato, brinjal and apple chutney. And don’t sniff at the trio of brulees. That’s vanilla bean, butternut and cinnamon, and chocolate. An award-winning wine list is a bonus. (Although not if you’re driving further up the meander.)
Nottingham Road was once something of a one-horse town. But no longer. It boasts a number of family restaurants, pubs – it even has its own brewery – and health spas. There’s the Bierfassl, a German themed pub renowned for its hearty eisbeins and log fires; the calorie counted meals at Fordoun, a five-star spa famed for its treatments and traditional healer.
There’s even Horizons Gourmet Picnics, where you and the family can relax under the trees and drink in the charms of the Rosetta Valley complete with the likes of smoked trout, fresh baguettes and a bottle of the best bubbly. But it’s at Nottingham Road that I found the only decent coffee between Berea and Norwood.
Café Bloom is a collection of sheds around a formal courtyard with clipped hedges and a cascading fountain. It’s an easy relaxed vibe. Indoors it’s comfy sofas and old dressers displaying the pick of today’s baking, outside it’s scrubbed kitchen tables and country chairs.
There’s a decorating shed and a furniture shed, but it’s the simple, squeaky fresh, mostly vegetarian options at Bloom that have the mouth watering. Think scrambled eggs with a myriad of different herbs to choose from, or with creamed spinach and fresh bread, tantalising salads and wicked desserts. The gingerbread muffin packed with preserved ginger and doused in maple syrup was a winner.
Last stop on the slow road is one of the jewels of the Midlands stable, Hartford House. This romantic old Midlands farm house with its enchanting gardens is the setting for one of the most talented young chefs in the country.
Jackie Cameron has not only won awards, but five-course set menus have gourmands coming back for more. Think Roast onion icecream, saffron jelly, exciting sauces and foams, all executed with pinache. Desserts are wicked, breakfasts a treat.
Fresh goodies at the Rotunda
No trip out to the Midlands would be complete without a stop at the Rotunda in Hilton on the way home, to pick up many of those Midlands gems you’ve feasted on that day – fresh farm butter and cheeses, pickles, preserves and confectionary, and even a pint or two of the Whistling Weasel Pale Ale. It goes well with the sausages.
By Frank Chemaly
Granny Mouse Country House
033 234 4071
Open daily lunch and dinner
033 266 6320
Open Monday to Sunday lunch and dinner
033 266 6118
Open breakfast lunch and afternoon teas Monday and Wednesday to Sunday
033 234 4524
Open Lunch daily, dinner Wednesday to Saturday
033 234 4933
Open lunch Thursday to Sunday, dinner Thursday to Saturday
033 234 4171
Open daily 10am to 5pm (closed Tuesday and Wednesday except school holidays)
033 266 6079
Open daily breakfast lunch and dinner
033 234 4225
Open lunch Thusday to Sunday, dinner Thursday to Saturday
033 263 2713
Breakfast lunch and dinner daily
River Bank Bistro
033 234 4036
Wednesday to Sunday lunch, Friday and Saturday dinner
Horizon’s Gourmet Picnics
033 267 7027
Open lunch Saturday, Sunday and public holidays
Other Midlands areas
The Corner Post
033 330 7636
Open lunch Monday to Friday and Sunday, dinner Monday to Saturday
033 343 1750
Open Friday and Sunday lunch. Wednesday to Saturday dinner
033 330 2461
Open lunch Tuesday to Sunday, dinner Tuesday to Saturday