FOODSTUFF: Fresh eating in Elgin

dsc_0028.jpg I never understand it when country restaurants overcomplicate their offerings. Enthusiastic customers have made the decision to drive out of the city, admiring lovely orchards and vineyard scenery. And then somebody tries to impress with bought-in ingredients cooked fancily with dots, froths and foams. When I’m in the country I want simple food that shouts freshness, and gives me a taste of where I am and who is cooking it. It doesn’t have to be perfect; each dish should merely offer personality.

At Fresh restaurant at Paul Cluver wine farm in Elgin, you’ll find exactly that. Joan Lancefield’s daytime restaurant operates on modest principles. Two years ago she moved from Joburg to open a coffee shop. She started cooking for the love of it and isn’t professionally trained. Her foodie sister, experienced country caterer Elizabeth Wood, readily shares ideas and techniques, and Joan spends holidays working in restaurant kitchens overseas. Her secret weapon is daily access to a plethora of herbs, vegetables and fruit that big name city chefs would fight each other to get their hands on. It’s the experimental vegetable and fruit garden started by Dr Cluver at the encouragement of Andreas Vistad, TV host of New Scandinavian Cooking. dsc_0023.jpg

As an avid gardener, Joan was delighted to take over the running of the Paul Cluver herb and vegetable garden, and she’s responsible for planting many of the interesting items I observed during a walk last weekend. Five types of lettuce, spinach, beans and basil. At least 20 types of tomatoes, some of them heirloom varieties in green, yellow or with zebra stripes. Five different mint species including the Asian mint Vietnamese use in springrolls, and chocmint. Tree tomatoes, regal bushes of prehistoric-looking artichokes, and around 30 different types of citrus including an incredible octopus-like ladyfinger lemon. Joan leaves the tending of the pomegranites, figs, quinces and other fruit trees to the accomplished teams employed on this large fruit and wine farm.

dsc_0032.jpg It’s all of this that forms the basics of Fresh restaurant. Seasonal stuff picked that day. Elgin chickens. Everything else comes from a supplier in Villiersdorp. Eating from the blackboard menu in November means starting with steamed artichokes, leaves plucked and dipped into a delicately creamy lemon butter. A robust chunky tomato and fresh herb soup, alive with pungent sunburst flavour. In fig season, from December onwards, you’ll be able to have grilled black figs, stuffed with Gorgonzola and wrapped in Parma-style ham…

More substantial lunch fare in the R50 to R100 range: homemade pies, salads with unusual flavourings – a Mandalay chicken salad uses perky Asian elements in the marinade, and the leaves are from the garden. A juicy gourmet burger with a smear of pesto, bacon and strong cheddar, topped with onion marmalade. A delightful Thai green chicken curry pungent with a homemade paste, and bobbing with green beans, mange tout and mini squash. The menu is small, the cutlery antique.

dsc_0032.jpg You’ll drink freshly squeezed orange, Elgin cider in the bottle, or Paul Cluver wines without much of a mark-up. Perky Sauvignon Blanc (R75), Pinot Noir (R160) or a deliciously fruity find not usually sold, their unlabelled Cab Franc (R75).

Desserts are priced at around R30, much like the starters. There were two on Saturday. A stiff dark chocolate mousse with cream, and a lemon meringue with a difference. It was an imperfect meringue disc, topped with whipped cream and homemade lemon curd, served with slightly crystallised lemon ice-cream. A new ice-cream recipe that flopped, it added to the charm. The curd was sour-sweet and fabulous.

FRESH, Paul Cluver Wines, Elgin. Tel 071 563 6020,Fresh. Open Tues to Sat for breakfast and lunch.