Whenever I return home to South Africa for a holiday, I keep a little mental list in mind of the restaurants that I would like to visit – some for the view; some for the cuisine; some for theambience. But, of course, between family demands and trying to find a few days of peace and quiet to actually have a holiday (!), the list never seems to get any shorter! So when an invitation landed in my inbox to attend a dinner in London hosted by one of the establishments on the abovementioned list, I accepted faster than you can say amuse bouche.
Le Quartier Francais is a small independently owned auberge in the French Huguenot village of Franschoek, in the heart of the South African winelands. The hotel is renowned as a luxury destination (it is a Relais & Chateaux establishment) and has two restaurants on the premises: The Common Room is a more casual venue; while The Tasting Room is the hotel's flagship restaurant and regularly features on the annual San Pellegrino World's Top 50 Restaurants list. The far more relaxed Bread & Wine restaurant is also part of their stable but is actually situated a short drive away on the Môreson wine estate. There, Chef Neil Jewell serves up artisanal fare such as soups, salad and gourmet sandwiches, as well as more substantial main courses - but the real attraction is his home-cured charcuterie. The function I attended last year, held at The Loft Project in East London, was to be an evening of Neil's food paired with Môreson wines. How could I refuse?
After a walk from Liverpool Street station and a surreal encounter with a VERY unhappy fellow-attendee who loudly told everybody who mattered that her very LIFE was endangered by having to walk the 3 metres from the cab to the door of the Loft Project (!), the evening got underway. Neil was on hand to talk us through each of the eight courses and the enthusiastic young Môreson winemaker Clayton Reabow explained the wines, each of which had been matched to two courses. Here's what we had:
The menu was to be my favourite sort – classic European dishes with a South African twist – I was ready to be wowed and I was not disappointed. Things kicked off with a single oyster served in its shell with a shot of curried butternut soup/foam. I loved this – the lightly curried soup made a fantastic companion to the shellfish (oysters actually pair susprisingly well with odd partners – witness the oyster & passion fruit jelly I had at the Fat Duck). Next came a pretty plate of poached calamari with chakalaka, sweet potato gnocchi and a sweet potato crisp. I don't know why more people do not poach calamari – the sweet cubes were butter-soft and a great match for the spicy chakalaka relish; and the gnocchi were delicously squidgy orange bites. These two courses were matched with the 2009 Môreson Miss Molly Viognier Chenin Blanc, apparently a blend of slightly over- and under-ripe grapes to get a balance of flavour and alcohol. It has a lovely oaky nose and full, toasty mothfeel. Its match with the oyster was inspired and one of my favourite pairings of the night. Incidentally, Miss Molly is the farm's beloved Weimaraner who is always the first suspect when something tasty disappears from a kitchen or a table!
The next course was a favourite: Rooibos tea smoked chicken croquette with marinated aubergine and Parmesan ice cream - absolutely outstanding. The croquette was crunchy without being greasy; the subtly smoky flavour of the tea lingered on the palate, and the Parmesan ice cream was an unlikely little scoop of heaven. The next dish was a salad of barracuda (would be snoek in South Africa!) patê and carrot & artichoke salad - beautifully plated. The flavours worked well here: the saltiness of the fish, the sweetness of the baby carrots and the earthy wedge of artichoke. Both of these dishes were paired with the 2009 Môreson Premium Chardonnay, made with wild yeast, wild malolactic fermentation and admirably low sulphur levels. It had a deliciously woody nose like freshly sawn wood; a balanced palate with grapefruit & toasty vanilla flavours, and a very long, lingering finish. A textbook oaked Chardonnay! It was also a phenomenal match for the chicken croquette dish, where its forthright and creamy flavours were the perfect partner to the smoky chicken and tangy savoury ice cream.
From there, we moved onto the heavier dishes and the red wines. Oxtail wrapped in bacon with buerre noisette vinaigrette was a revelation – a plate full of butch, meaty flavours and unctious textures to really bring out the flavours of the wine that it was served with. I also loved the second meat dish, not least because it featured an ingredient that I had never tasted and one of Neil's specialities: lamb biltong! Feast your eyes on the slow-cooked lamb neck and lamb biltong on quince & buchu, with potato pasta. The lamb neck was fall-apart tender and wonderful with the sweetness of the quince; and the lamb biltong at first bite seemed not very different to beef biltong… but a few chews reeased the deliciously rich lamb flavours. The wine served with both of these was the 2006 Môreson Magia (a deeply-flavoured and complex Bordeaux blend) and I have to say that it was a pheomenal match for the oxtail. Somehow the meat brought to the fore hitherto unglimpsed berry flavours which were heady and addictive.
Up next was yet another delicious twist on South African cuisine: tuna boerewors on sweetcorn & pap with chilli jelly. Boerewors is a traditional spiced South African sausage packed with coriander seed and normally made with beef and pork, and I loved this unusual version made with tuna. It was served on pap (pronounced "pup") – a maize meal porridge similar to polenta – and creamy sweetcorn, both of which provided a sweeter foil for the spicy sausage and chilli jelly. Outstanding! For some inexplicable reason (possibly related to excellent conversation and generous glasses of wine!) there is no photographic or scribbled record of the next dish: the chilled apple soup, walnut crushed potato, shallot confit and camembert ice cream. All I recall is being surprised at what a good match the savoury ice cream was for the soup. These two dishes were matched with the 2008 Môreson Pinotage, a big alcoholic wine with a surprisingly deep ruby colour and an almost savoury, "raw meat" nose. Once again, it was an inspired choice as partner to the tuna boerewors.
Desserts, however, is where Neil's quirky sense of culinary humour had the most chance to shine, as he took old favourites and pre-conceived ideas and turned them on their heads. The first plate of small bites consisted of guava ice cream; honey banana cake; junket with saffron, a small square of some sort of crumble, a slice of open fruit tart, and scattered green grape halves. The junket was the only thing I did not much care for – the rest (particularly the banana honey cake) were delicious – and I am a sucker for small bites! The final course was a plate of petit fours, namely Ricoffy marshmallows (Ricoffy being a cheap brand of chicory-dominated instant coffee that is inexplicably popular in South Africa) coated in baobab powder; brandy & Coke jellies (brandy and Coke being an old favourite in South Africa); and Hertzoggies (traditional puffy pastry tartlets with an apricot jam meringue filling, named after former South African prime-minister General Hertzog). Despite not being a brandy & Coke kinda girl, I LOVED the jellies, and I promise you that Ricoffy never tasted so good! All of this was washed down with Môreson Solataire NV MCC sparkling wine.
Both Neil and Clayton were knowledgeable, personable and great company, clearly enthusiastic about that they do and keen to share their enthusiasm. I was also fortunate to be seated at dinner next to the outspoken and entertaining Richard Friedman, one of the owners of Môreson and Le Quartier Francais, as well as meeting the Le Quartier Francais manager Linda Coltart. It was a lovely evening and one that left me with a lasting impression of a bunch of people filled with passion for what they do, and for doing it as well as possible. If my small slice of the Le Quartier Francais / Môreson experience was anything to go by, I urge you to make your way there as soon as possible for a meal, a wine tasting or a little well-deserved break. Sincere thanks to everybody who helped to organise the evening!
And in other news…
It is with great pleasure that I announce the 2011 Food and Wine Blogger Indaba! This event was held for the first time in 2009 and I was honoured to be asked to speak. The good news is that I will be speaking again and hosting workshops on kickstarting your writing (together with my talented friend Jamie) and photography at this year's event in Cape Town! Bookings are streaming in and tickets are selling fast – so if you are a food or wine blogger or if you are interested in becoming one, the Indaba is the place to be on 20 February 2011. Book now!
Dont forget to check out the series of posts we are running on the Plate to Page workshop blog featuring writers and photographers we adminre – Lael Hazan is the current featured writer. The May 2011 Plate to Page hands-on food writing and photography workshop is now sold out - but register now if you are interested in attending Plate to Page II in Tuscany, Italy in Autumn 2011.
My 2011 calendars are now available! They are A3 size, printed on high quality heavy paper and make the perfect gift – for foodies, for those who love London or Italy or the beach – or those who simply love my Saturday Snapshots! And at £15.51 each they are an affordable luxury.