Charcuterie board at Abingdon Wine Estate.
Charcuterie board at Abingdon Wine Estate.

Great country cooking forces the big city to up its game

By Frank Chemaly Time of article published Oct 23, 2021

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Abingdon Wine Estate

Where: D369, Lions River, KZN Midlands

Open: Lunch Friday and Saturday, public holidays, and select Sundays

Call: 083 463 8503

I’d been wanting to go back to Abingdon Wine Estate for some time. Some of the more memorable meals in the Midlands had been served here.

Abingdon is the family-run farm of Ian and Jane Smorthwaite, who, following their passions, planted their first grapes in 2004, creating the first certified wine estate in KwaZulu-Natal.

Jane had soon developed a reputation for her simple, authentic, robust country cooking, produced in a setting that was comfy and cosy, yet reflecting her style and grace.

So I gathered up a party of two fellow foodies, we got out our passports, and planned an expedition to Lions River.

Things have changed since my last visit. The restaurant has been extended and the bar where wine tastings were held has been better incorporated into it. Yet it retains its warmth and charm. Recently Constantijn Hahndiek, perhaps best known in Durban for his stint at Harford House, has joined her in the kitchen. It’s a collaboration that’s paying dividends.

Beef short rib pithivier with roasted root vegetables.

The simple one-page menu offers an array of tapas or small plate options taking in a veritable feast of the best Midlands produce, each dish sounding as exciting as the next. While we enjoyed the wines from the estate, we shared a charcuterie platter (R190).

This was a fine selection of cold meats and a really beautiful Scotch egg with a perfectly soft yolk. In fact this was so good we ordered another. It was complemented with olives, a lovely aubergine and chilli jam, and sun-blushed tomatoes ‒ that’s tomatoes that have only been semi-dried. It was served with hearty home-made bread and crisp lavash crackers. It could be a feast all of itself.

Salmon, nori and leek roulade with asparagus and caviar.

Some of the menu items worth investigating included whole baked camembert with honey, rosemary, figs and thyme, or a salad of toasted chickpeas, fried curry leaves, labna and butternut. There’s tempura prawns in a honey and soy dipping sauce, or slow roasted pork belly with apple, fennel and crispy crackling.

We chose four dishes which we ended up passing around the table, relishing the array of different flavours. The salmon, nori and leek roulade with asparagus and caviar and a side salad (R120) was a beautiful dish, and tasted as good, every ingredient playing its part. My braised short-rib pithivier (a traditional round “humped” pie from Orleans in France) (R120) had a meltingly tender and deeply flavourful filling under a light crisp pastry. It was complemented with roasted baby heirloom beets and carrots. Another winner.

Mushroom gnocchi with crème fraîche, truffles and pesto.
Oxtail bitterballen

The oxtail bitterballen (R95) are a tribute to Hahndiek’s Dutch roots. These are traditionally made from a rich meat stew thickened with roux and beef stock and rolled into balls before being breaded and deep fried. Now Jane had always been renowned for her hearty oxtail, so why not use that, only now it could be in a portion easily shared. Delicious.

Perhaps the highlight though was the mushroom gnocchi (R95) with crème fraîche, truffles, toasted nuts and pesto. It was delectably rich yet the gnocchi were meltingly light. It was Adam Robinson of the Glenwood Bakery who once said that “even if you add truffles to mashed potato, you may not actually taste the truffles but you know it’s the best mashed potato you’ve ever eaten.” Well the same could be said for Jane’s gnocchi. Superb.

Citrus tart with crème fraîche and fresh berries.

More than well fed, we still found room for dessert, sharing again. The citrus tart with crème fraîche and fresh berries (R95) was a thing of beauty, in both the looks department and in its simplicity taking in real flavours. Chocolate crèmeux (R65) with estate figs and a coffee nut crumb was another interesting dessert. Meaning creamy, it’s richer than a chocolate mousse, almost closer to a ganache in intensity but without the latter’s density. A good coffee rounded it all off.

On the drizzly trip back to Durban a satisfied silence descended over the car, each of us reflecting on the year’s culinary highlight.

Food: 5

Service: 4 ½

Ambience: 4 ½

The Bill: R1 391 (for three)

The Independent on Saturday

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