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By Brendan Seery
Durban - If I returned home from a trip overseas with a bottle of expensive perfume for my wife, she would probably demand to know what I had been getting up to.
I seldom bring back anything from trips. Not because I am tight (although that does play a role, I’ll admit) but because in most expensive shops and duty-free facilities overseas, you don’t see much you couldn’t get in Joburg. And often it is cheaper here.
However, there are some exceptions, such as in Ireland, where I bought sterling silver Celtic crosses for my wife and daughter from the tourist centre and shop in what used to be a cathedral in central Dublin.
One of the better things I’ve brought back from a trip recently was a piece of cooking experience, which I haul out to amaze those around me. I can produce, with minimal stress and maximum mess, in any kitchen, a serendipitous dish which is a sort of rosti flapjack crossed with hash browns and bubble and squeak.
To explain: it all came about as a result of an encounter with Evan Coosner, the loud, energetic and, slightly (no, let’s be honest – a lot) off-the-wall executive chef at Granny Mouse’s Country House and Spa in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands.
You can lie around and enjoy Coosner’s eclectic way of cooking, or you can get down, get dirty and get chivvied along in his hands-on cooking experience, which is an extra offered to Granny Mouse guests.
And you will be involved because Sergeant-Major Coosner will pack you into a minibus and whisk you off to a farm which provides the hotel with its fresh vegetables. There you will pick the beans, lettuce, rocket, spinach and whatever else takes the Sgt-Major’s fancy. And you will be told not to hang about: standing around for too long lets things wilt, and fresh is everything.
He will also, if you are good, take you to sample some of the Swissland goat’s cheeses with which he loves to cook.
Back at the hotel you will don aprons and scrub hands. Then Coosner will give you ingredients with which you will have to make a meal which will be served in the hotel’s posh restaurant that evening. No pressure, then… and did I mention that in our case time was running out?
Also, in our case, it was a rack of quality lamb, half a dozen potatoes and spinach.
With the help of Coosner and his excellent team of chefs (they are supposed to guide you gently through the cooking process), we decided to roast the lamb (after deboning it) and fry crumbed medallions of goat’s cheese and – my decision – make rosti out of the potatoes.
And that’s when things didn’t go according to plan. We parcooked the potatoes too long, which left them a bit mushy when I grated them, and not suitable for pure rosti.
But when life gives Coosner lemons, he makes his own brand of lemonade.
He took one look at the mess and decided to go the “bubble and squeak-meets-hash browns” route in trying to save the potatoes – “in any kitchen you don’t waste… you make a plan”, he said.
Within seconds he had diced up some spinach, thrown a huge handful of diced bacon into the grated potato and onion (which I did rather well, I think).
Then, after adding salt, pepper and mustard and a couple of eggs to bind the mixture, it was off to the stove to deep fry them. First effort: disaster, because everything broke up. Solution: Coosner threw in flour and I mulched it by hand.
(And that, in itself – the feeling of mixing using only your hands – was incredibly satisfying.)
And, in a jiffy, we had rosti-style cakes on which to stack our perfectly cooked lamb and delicious goat’s cheese crumbed in cashews (and I did most of the manual crunching of the nuts too).
Topped off with a mint jus, the dish was perfect.
Our team won and a few hours later, working to our recipe, the chefs reproduced the dish in The Eaves fine-dining restaurant.
Since then, I have produced the rosti cakes on a few occasions – remembering many of Coosner’s tricks – and all who have had them have pronounced them delicious.
The food experience is a major part of the Granny Mouse offering. In addition to The Eaves restaurant, there is the Bistro, which offers simpler but still tasty dishes, and the hotel has a wine cellar housing more than 4 000 bottles.
The menu changes weekly, “catering for vegetarians, pescatarians, vegans, raw foodies and gluten-intolerant diets”, says the hotel. Special requests are the “chef’s delight”– and I can believe that, because Coosner and his team would love nothing more than experimenting.
Coosner said: “Cooking is about trying new things – even if they don’t work at first – and there are endless variations. That’s why I love what I do and love working here because we are free to change things and our guests are the sort of people who appreciate good food and the experience of food.”
The hotel is particularly proud of its Diners Club “Diamond” Wine Award, which it won three years in a row – most recently last year – for its wine list.
There is a cool and cosy underground cellar where the bottles of local and international vintages are stocked and it is for hire for eight people.
On the Midlands Meander, alongside the Lion’s River and the Caversham Valley, Granny Mouse offers space and tranquillity.
The hotel is also able to organise trips and tours in the area, from visits to patches of indigenous afro-montane forest to battlefields.
Afterwards, back at Granny Mouse, you can indulge in a spa treatment. I didn’t because I have never been that comfortable with other people’s hands on me.
The Granny Mouse Spa offers aromatherapeutic treatments, massage and beauty treatments, spa bath and hydrotherapy and a steam room.
But, if you’re into food, get down to Evan’s kitchen. - Saturday Star
It’s easy to fly from Joburg to Maritzburg
It may seem a little indulgent or lazy to fly from Joburg to Pietermaritzburg – it’s only a five-hour drive, after all – but judging from the number of people catching Airlink’s scheduled flights, it is an attractive option for many.
Our trip down to Granny Mouse Country House was on Airlink’s daily flight (there on a smaller turboprop plane and back on a BAE four-engine jet) and was a pleasant experience. The airline still has that friendly feel you get from smaller operations, and Pietermaritzburg airport is small but efficient. It’s a 40-minute flight from OR Tambo to Oribi airport and you get wonderful views of the Drakensberg if it’s clear. On the ground, transfers to and from Granny Mouse (another 30 minutes or so) were handled in an efficient and friendly way by InStyle Media. With the cost of fuel and toll charges – not to mention the stress of driving – flying is definitely an option to consider.