Debbie McLaughlin

Lamb is delicious in Darling: the grazing has always been good in these green hills. That’s how Groote Post Vineyards got its name: it was the largest guarding post in the area in the early 1800s, established to protect cattle and sheep from marauding stock thieves.

In the days when Hildegonda Duckitt lived at Groote Post and wrote the books that would establish her as South Africa’s Mrs Beeton (she started writing after she was left by her British fiancé), nothing was wasted in the kitchen – they even used the lamb fat to make candles.

Nowadays, Darling cooks like Debbie McLaughlin buy their candles at the supermarket and the lamb for their pies at Darling Vleismark. Like everything in this village, the butchery is a minute’s walk from Trinity Lodge, the traditional old Cape guest house that Debbie and her husband bought seven years ago, having fallen in love with its sweet little shady garden. But it was the lodge’s herb and veggie patch that became important when Debbie opened Hilda’s Kitchen about 15 kilometres away, in the 300-year-old manor house at Groote Post Vineyards.

The restaurant has five rooms and a courtyard, so on occasion Debbie has found herself feeding 120 people – and the nearest supermarket is half an hour away in Malmesbury. “You have to be resourceful when you live in the country. Like Hildegonda, we source a lot locally. If you hear of someone growing something special, you rush off to get it and then come up with something a bit different for the menu. When figs are in season, we do a stunning fig tart. When we get a springbok, I do springbok carpaccio which we serve with a delicious plum relish to go with the smoky flavour of the meat,” Debbie explains. “Pretty twirly-whirly things are not our style.

We do that modern country thing – food that has been around for years, to which we’ve added modern touches. Instead of serving lamb pie with mash for example, we do it with polenta and a red wine jus, and we make the polenta with milk and Parmesan so that it’s creamy. Our cannellini starter is really an up-to-date variation of baked beans on toast. You can soak the beans [as Hildegonda would’ve done in the late 1800s, calling them haricot beans of course], but it’s quicker and easier to use a tin, and it tastes just the same”, she says. “Our steak roll is not an ordinary steak roll. We do it with fillet, balsamic onion relish, garlic crème, roasted plum tomatoes, lots of rocket and big chunky chips. We call it the Old Man’s Steak Roll, to go with Groote Post’s Old Man’s range of wines,” Debbie says. The old man in question is Groote Post patriarch Peter Pentz. “We’ve kept it on the menu ever since someone who’d read about it came here wanting it, and we didn’t have it that day.”

Trotting out of the kitchen in her apron to greet restaurant guests on a hot West Coast Sunday afternoon, this small, slight, self-effacing blonde certainly doesn’t look like an internationally-trained chef, let alone a mother of two. But she’s a cook to be reckoned with, who grew up in a foodie environment. Her mother was a Silwood Kitchen examiner, and her aunt runs one of Darling’s other consistently popular eat-out venues, the Marmalade Cat. A stint in the kitchens at Chalfield Manor outside Bath in England inspired her to do a Cordon Bleu course in Johannesburg, after which she worked at the Coach House in Tzaneen with chef supreme Lucas Ndlovu.

For four years Debbie ran Nissan’s executive catering kitchen in their Sandton, Johannesburg, head office, entertaining clients at golfing estates all over the country. Nissan sent her to study overseas, first with cookbook author and teacher Giuliano Bugialli in Florence, and then with celebrated South African cook Prue Leith. “Studying with Giuliano was a wonderful experience. He used to bring out the chianti in the kitchen at 11am and take us to eat things like wild boar in the private game lodge of the Italian president, in the middle of nowhere. We ended up eating with the game rangers,” she laughs.

While running her own catering company with a friend (“We gave it such a naff name, The Perfect Pear!”), she met Shaun, who was working in advertising, married him within six months and moved to Cape Town. There she helped Melissa van Hoogstraten set up the kitchen in Kloof Street that would become Melissa’s The Food Shop, before having a daughter and son in quick succession. “One day we were lunching with a friend in Darling when she mentioned a guest house that was for sale. That was on a Friday. On the Saturday we bought it,” she explains. Now the McLaughlins are a local institution, the restaurant is even attracting visitors from Cape Town, an hour’s drive away.

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