Hartford House is, quite simply, breathtaking. Unassumingly nestled in Mooi River in KwaZulu-Natal, the five-star boutique hotel is steeped in history and was home to the family of Sir Frederick Moor, the last prime minister of the Colony of Natal. Set in an English country garden and flanked by a magnificent stud farm that breeds racehorses, Hartford House’s guests are indulged with bespoke food and luxurious accommodation in a stunning setting.
Executive chef Jackie Cameron reigns supreme and her kingdom is a beautiful one. A sterile, industrial kitchen has been forfeited for one that embraces Hartford House’s stature and country surroundings. The wooden floor is original, while large sash windows filter soft, golden light. Back doors allow easy access to the herb garden and Jackie regularly escapes to pick rocket and spinach. “In summer there are 60 different varieties of herbs and vegetables here,” she says over her shoulder as she gingerly tries to avoid the sprinkler.
Jackie describes her style of cooking as modern, global French cuisine. “French teaching and interpretation is what feels right to the heart. I feel so often today that people are moving away from techniques. As a result, my style has evolved,” Jackie says, sounding mature beyond her 24 years. As such, her résumé is brief. Having graduated from the Christina Martin School of Food & Wine in Durban, she spent a year at the Mount Grace Country House & Spa in Magaliesberg before being appointed as head chef at Hartford House in 2002.
This responsibility would have been daunting to most 20-year-olds, but she took it all in her stride. “One of the things I have learnt at Hartford is management skills… caring and treating everyone as individuals.” Jackie describes herself as “passionate, driven and a perfectionist to the point of being painful”. When I throw competitive into the mix, her response is a facetious one. “Did you pick that up? That’s been embedded in me from the day I was born.” In her early teens she had notions of becoming a pilot because she wanted to be the youngest female to fly commercially, but when someone beat her to it, her focus shifted. Cooking has been part of her life from a young age, so the progression to chef was a natural one. “I grew up baking cakes and cooking with my mother.
My grandfather was a butcher so I love to cook meat. One of my first memories is of standing on a chair kneading bread and my grandmother telling me to put my back into it!” It is said that the kitchen is the heart of a home – an adage that is equally relevant to Hartford House – and the pulse is an all-women team. The camaraderie is evident and with Jackie celebrating four years at Hartford House this month, she has decided to cook for her loyal and dedicated staff. To encourage teamwork, she regularly asks her staff to suggest an ingredient or flavour around which a dish can be built. This time, humble puffed rice cereal is the inspiration behind the starter.
The breakfast cereal is used to batter prawns that are served on a poached egg and cucumber tagliatelle, and finished with a prawn sauce and caviar. The focus of the next dish is chicken livers, which, aside from strawberry daiquiris, are Jackie’s nemesis. “So often people overcook them. Poaching gets the cooking process going and doesn’t dry them out and then you pan-sear them.” The result is soy-glazed chicken livers on potato crisps served with Parma ham, pickled ginger and orange segments.
Her love of meat is evident with a spinach-wrapped springbok spring roll served with a mini springbok pie and a thyme-polenta topping and red wine jus. Dessert is an intensely rich and fulfilling chocolate bread pudding filled with liquid orange Belgian chocolate ganache and served with a fresh orange sorbet on chocolate tuille. Young chefs are often seen as “promiscuous” as they search for career opportunities that offer maximum experience and exposure, but Jackie remains resolute. Despite her age, she can’t be swayed by bright lights and big cities, and remains intoxicated with the familiar mix of fine dining and country living.