Lunch at Nicholson's with Frank Chemaly
I was invited to view progress at chef Jackie Cameron's exciting new venture - her cooking school in Hilton. It's an exciting project and she's pouring into it the same passion and precision that won her such accolades at Hartford House.
At the moment it's a glorified building site, but it's functionality is evident. I'm taken through the diningroom opening onto a massive kitchen, the pantries, the coldrooms, the lecture rooms and the working kitchens where each student will have their own range.
It's an exciting project and will look great when it opens early next year.
So inbetween Jackie sorting out windows, and tiles, and modules, and accreditations, and licences and prospective pupils - and their parents - I persuade her to join me for lunch at Nicholson's Country Café.
It is, and I'm embarrassed to admit, one of the Midlands finds I had not yet eaten at. But Jackie knows it well. She celebrated her 30th birthday here. It was quite an eventful evening.
The bistro is an elegant room, double volume, with soothing colours and plush drapes. It manages to be smart and airy, yet informal and intimate. It opens onto a wide verandah that on a beautiful day would be the place to sit. Today the wind was howling, so we were glad of the take in the views of through the large picture windows.
It's a small tight menu with some interesting and creative dishes. It would change regularly.
Tanya Nicholson insists we try a small bowl of the soup - husband Jonty has a reputation in this department. "After all," she says, "It's the reason I married him."
I'd tasted one of those famed soups at a function in Pietermaritzburg recently - a lobster bisque that had been reduced for days to get a rare depth a flavour. Today's was a simple garden pea soup with a hint of balsamic vinegar. It was elegant, balanced and absolutely delicious.
Starters might include steamed mussels in a fragrant broth of coriander, mirin, lime and garlic, or a warm duck salad with shredded confit on steamed greens with pomegranate seeds and coriander aioli.
Jackie went for one of her favourites - pan-fried chicken livers in a rich tomato and bacon peri-peri with a dash of cream and fresh coriander, served with baked bruchetta. A winning dish, the livers perfectly cooked, the sauce positively lively without overpowering.
My langoustines in harissa butter with courgette rosti balls and tomato, cucumber and coriander salsa were another surprise. Flavours I wouldn't normally have put together working brilliantly.
The lunch menu has some light options like a crispy aubergine and avo open sarmie, or a crispy pork summer salad on Asian greens. There's a country pie, a stroganoff with potato dumplings and home-made tagliatelle with prawns and chourico.
I settle on the confit duck leg with olive and sherry jus on a savoy cabbage spiked with bacon. I tell Jackie how I have almost given up on ordering duck as I am so often disappointed. I get told the entire rigmarole that goes into the making of a good confit, from the rendering of the fat, to the gentle simmering, to the storing. She's confident I won't be disappointed here. After all, she knows the chef, and the supplier. I most certainly wasn't.
Jackie went for a dish she knows and loves. A fillet of trout served with crushed potatoes on a sauce of artichokes, capes, grapes, parsley, white wine and a dash of cream. I can see why. The fish beautifully cooked, and as for that sauce - I demand the recipe.
We both have no room for dessert until Jonty mentions the words lemon curd ice-cream. It comes with a warm chocolate fondant. We have to share that. I tell of how I can't get enough of good lemon curd and how I have never been successful at making it. I get some tips. It is after all only an emulsion. Maybe I'm not a "jammy" person.
Jackie shares here own non-churn ice-cream recipe. It's in her book. I shall have to try that.
The bar at the side of the restaurant is a great spot for locals to stop by for a quick gourmet pizza and a bowl of that amazing soup. It's a very sociable affair. By chance, Jackie had popped in the night before and vouched for the pizza with blue cheese, butternut cubes, pumpkin seeds and home-made onion marmalade.
I might have gone for the chourico, rosa tomatoes, caramelized onions and feta or even the Cajun chicken, peppers, guacamole and coriander aioli. But all that's for another trip I look forward to making.
PS. There is also a shop in Howick called The Cookhouse where you can catch Convenient Cuisine by Nicholson's. It's at 58 Main Street.
Nicholson’s Country Café
Garlington Estate, Hilton
033 329 5200
Open: Tues - Sun lunch, Thurs - Sat dinner
Starters R52 - R70, Mains R72 - R138, Café menu R42 - R49