The taste of Fable in the KZN Midlands

The taste of Fable in the KZN Midlands
The ’shroom risotto with white wine, a hint of truffle and sides of artichoke and slow-roast tomatoes. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

This Curry’s Post eatery, a rather extraordinary work-in-progress, is already a destination. It might be remote for some of us. But enlightenment via Fable is closer than the Camino and you don’t have to walk.

When Mark Mattinson was at a crossroads in his life a few years ago, he took a 900km walk. This walk pretty directly, if in a convoluted kind of way, led to this story. Back then, before he booked his ticket to Spain, Mattinson was working in the fashion industry in Cape Town. While walking the full route of the Camino de Santiago, Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Muxia, he both fell in love with frittata aka Spanish omelette aka tortilla de patatas. And came to the realisation that his true love, his interest, his passion, was food.

He was at that time no newbie to food, to cooking or to restaurant kitchens. And since then he has had a diverse culinary history, the pilgrim’s walk being just one twist on a long and winding journey. Come to think of it, not all that long given he’s only 35. But convoluted enough to make him interesting and engaging. And his cooking creative, self-assured and, after sitting and tasting and talking to him for this story, I’m inclined to say bloody fantastic.

His most recent crossroads saw him in exactly the right place at the right time, ready to take on, to partner in, to help bring to life, what I would be willing to wager is the most extraordinary in-development low-key big-vision culinary concept happening in KZN right now.

Mattinson is head chef and project manager at Midlands Fable way off a beaten track punctuated by a great many cavernous potholes at Curry’s Post in the greater Howick/Hilton area. Fable’s first phase and focal concept, the eatery (they don’t call it a restaurant) and gardens (four years in development, ever-changing with the seasons and full of surprises, like the food) has been open for six months. 

A taproom with craft beers and gin, charcuterie, cheese boards, sharing platters and novel finger food is ready to open in a transformed milking parlour soon as the liquor licence comes. It is across an architecturally interesting concrete-with-water-and-plants walkway from the eatery.

A kind of pantry-deli with a bakery and patisserie is planned for an adjacent ready-to-go space, which will open when the taproom is pulling pints and offer assorted fresh and local items for take-home shopping or for picnics in the gardens. A cool refurbished former shed, up from the parking area that flanks the gardens, has been fitted with bike racks for mountain bikers. A separate coffee bar will open here. And soon an outdoor area will be levelled for weddings, given that they have had many requests.

An ahi tuna poke bowl with sticky rice, edamame beans, pickled ginger and an array of fresh and tasty things. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

Let me sidetrack here and introduce Beth Kelly. Midlands Fable is her place. Her dream coming into being. Except, “My dream was a small little coffee shop, very humble,” she tells me when we sit together in the vast refurbished barn setting of the eatery, which has a trendy industrial feel with brick and metal and enormous windows. “Very humble,” she continues, shrugging and laughing. “Just something to keep me busy and because I love going to coffee shops. For me, it’s a hobby of mine, so I built this place for me.”

“But it’s huge!” I exclaim.

“It is huge,” she agrees, with merriment. “That’s why my dream had to grow with the size of the place.”

Kelly grew up down the road on a dairy farm. The Fable property she is now leasing, with its long-neglected barns and outhouses that have been transformed, was an unused part of a property bought by her dad for grazing. She gave thought to their potential when she returned to Curry’s Post from Cape Town after studying film and television production and events management and married the son of a crocodile farmer she met in Hilton.

Now a farmer too, managing the nearby farm where they live with their two kids and a third on the way, he encouraged Kelly and became her builder when architects advised she should demolish the hulking old existing structures and start anew. “The biggest job, we raised the roof, it was wooden trussed and a lot lower, and put in steel structures. But we’ve preserved the old walls and as much as possible.”

When the vision grew with the space and the key ingredient, food (and drink), entered the picture, “I thought, without going the fine-dining route, we needed a small menu with simple but special dishes that wow you with their fine-dining quality and flavour. A celebration of ingredients. An eatery, not a restaurant. A focus on offering something you’re not going to experience anywhere else close by.”

Back to how she and Mattinson are in this together. “It was synergy, energy, connection,” he has already told me, because Kelly only pops in briefly late afternoon to chat, to taste a risotto that is being tested, tweaked, before Mattinson adds it to the lunch menu, and to eat beignets she has specially requested. The story, in a nutshell: He was having breakfast at a nearby cafe with his wife and first-born. “Beth’s mom was there. We got chatting.” She told him her daughter was establishing a rather special business down the road encompassing food but didn’t have the operational expertise.”

He suggested he and Kelly meet.

“Beth had this vision. We put a six-month forecast together and we sort of brought it to life together. On December 8 we launched.”

My first visit there was two days after this launch. Midlands charcutier, Franco Esposito, who I had connected with in the Kamberg to write about (read the story here) insisted I see this “bee-you-tee-ful” new place. He drove me there, we drank Tribe coffee (better known in Cape Town) I see in my notes, and ordered the last slice of a sublimely textured almondy-with-frangipane cherry bakewell, which Mattinson, when asked about the oh-so-traditionally-English tart, told me was a recipe from his mom.

From left, assistant chef Slindile Mkhize, Mark Mattinson and his head chef, Mpilo Khumalo with some plates. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

Fast-forward six months. The gardens, back then filled with summertime colour on what was a rainy, chilly day, are now in winter wardrobe. Cold-weather flowers getting ready to bloom. An abundance of herbs, veggies, aromatic edibles. Weak sunshine filters through to where we sit warm inside – background chatter, cutlery on plates, muted sounds, conversation, laughter – talking about the menu, the intention behind the food, the chef’s journey, his ideas, near the entrance to the kitchen where his head chef, Mpilo Khumalo, and assistant chef, Slindile Mkhize, and the rest of the kitchen team are attending to orders with Mattinson popping in and out for this or that every so often.

He had come from Cape Town – his wife’s family lives in Hilton – and was in transition when he connected with Kelly.

He had previously spent six years with a Cape Town-based film catering company, general and operations manager, “feeding casts, actors you name it”, often involved with several films at a time. “Production companies would outsource the catering. We would travel from Cape Town to Namibia, Johannesburg, Durban feeding all the crew on the jobs. We had mobile kitchens.

“I love the guy I worked for to bits, he’s in Portugal now. But really, that whole business was a cut-throat game, all hours of the day, three meals a day, non-stop.”

When the company was sold in 2019 to a corporate contract catering firm keen to add a film division, he was tasked with doing the due diligence and handover. All in all gaining, he says, an abundance of useful experience to project-manage Fable’s launch.

That they pour Tribe coffee is one tangible spinoff. “We used their Crucible blend on the film sets. Had branded memorabilia. People went crazy for it. I asked Jake (Easton, the owner) if he would like to come and push the brand in KZN. He came up and spent 10 days training our baristas before we launched and was back again in May to give refreshers and he has introduced a Fable blend for us.”

Among the cakes, a lemon curd baked cheesecake and this Basque cheesecake. Could you resist? (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

Back to that cherry bakewell. The recipe from his mom. “My love for food, my interest in cooking, started with my mom. She was an absolute bomb in the kitchen. Before and after my parents divorced, she would cook every day. French food, Italian food, authentic and wonderful food that I’d watch her cook and eat with her.”

When he was 16/17 living in Cape Town, “I would have 16/17 friends round for dinner and make a little bit of money off it as well. School mates, girlfriends, everyone would chip in and I would cook.”

After the divorce, his mom was back and forth to the UK, “so I was back and forth too”.

At some point she settled there and opened “a small corner sort-of bistro café called the Wild Damson (listed “closed” when you Google) where she did the breakfast and lunch trade and by bookings, evenings, in Cropredy, a quaint village not much bigger than Curry’s Post, outside Banbury in Oxfordshire.”

On a visit there in his early 20s, after a stint in the kitchen of a little bistro in Amsterdam where he didn’t get to cook but would watch the chefs in action and go home and reproduce things like hasselback potatoes, Mattinson took over from the departing chef at Wild Damson and worked there for his mom for three years. “She created dishes she loved, put those on the menu.”

He can’t understand, he says, why he detoured, “actually in a complete opposite direction. At about 19 I wanted to be a tailored menswear suit designer and I spent three years doing that and got a BA degree in clothing design from Cape Town’s Fedisa Fashion School. It was very un-useful. I worked briefly in menswear design for the clothing industry. I didn’t enjoy it. Bombed out after nine months.”

Which put him back on the culinary path. The Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Muxia long-walk wake-up. Amsterdam. The UK. Then three years back in Cape Town at a café in Claremont, before that shift into the culinary world of film and TV.

“In a sense, I’d say I’ve taken a bit of Cape Town and transported it to the Midlands,” he reflects. Not just with the coffee but the Cape Town ethos. “Everyone uses locally sourced produce there.”

First thing he did at Curry’s Post was find local suppliers, “like Franco” (the charcutier). Looked for what he could source from Howick, Hilton, Kamberg, Nottingham Road. And at what was being offered by way of breakfast and lunch in the area. “What these guys were not doing or not doing well.”

For instance, “many places around here use packaged hollandaise sauce. I am exceedingly proud that for our Benedict range (there’s a bacon, a smoked salmon and a vegetarian – spinach – option) we burn off white wine and tarragon into our hollandaise creating a lovely velvety texture with the butter from Gourmet Greek down the road.”

He gives credit to the different local suppliers. Butter and cream from Gourmet Greek. Bread from Millstone bakery in Hilton. Dry cured smoked bacon “from a local meat man down the road at Meander meats. Salmon and the freshest tuna from Gilly’s Fish Co in Hilton.

“Currently we’re using Finchley Farm Barn eggs, just up the road from us, who also provide us with our free-range livers,” for his “beautiful brandy-soaked chicken livers where you get the warmth of the brandy and the Gourmet Greek cream infused with sage, grown out front here.” This comes with poached eggs “done the simplest way, in water with a little white wine” and a sourdough muffin. He gave the kitchen crew two-and-a-half days training on eggs. “We did the English way, the French way, the American way and poaching three ways.” Part of his kitchen focus is training and instilling confidence. 

Rump chimichurri with whole roasted garlic and melty bone marrow-infused butter. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)  

Mattinson manifests a palpable delight when sharing some of his practices. The garlic for instance, served with the Argentine-inspired rump chimichurri and seen in our pic behind the chips, which are triple fried. Briefly steamed then pan-fried cut side down, then seasoned with olive oil and salt and slow-roasted in the oven, cut side up, for eight minutes then slow roasted, cut side down, for eight minutes then finished off, eight minutes, cut side up again. A method he came up with through reading and experimenting. “It takes out the acidic sharpness and you get the full flavour with a hint of charred…”

He describes himself as a homely cook. He whips up lots of frittatas at home in Hilton for his family. And while he is convinced he could make “really the best boeuf bourguignon you’ve ever tried, with a litre of gorgeous red wine, that will cook over coals for nine hours,” his “sideline passion” right now, at home, is vegan experimentation. Working on potato milk, as in trying to extract milk and sweeten it “with molasses and things”. And making cream cheese from cashews for vegans.

Suitable for vegans, although served as a side with other dishes, are his slow-roasted tomatoes. “The first thing I noticed when I came to the Midlands is everyone is doing Balsamic glazed cherry tomatoes as an accompaniment to their breakfast items.

“What I do is locally source jam – Roma – tomatoes. They’re big-egg shaped. Halve them, deseed them, coat them in brown sugar, olive oil, thyme, salt, cracked black pepper and slow-roast them. Somewhere under 100℃ for four-and-a-half hours.

“I’m giving you all my tricks,” he laughs, but keeps going. “What you get is this lovely sweet tomato with a crisp edge. Looks beautiful on the plate and absolutely moreish. We serve that with our breakfast range and have even created a dish where we put them on toasted sourdough rye with cream cheese, honey and toasted almonds on top. The sweetness of the tomato simply blossoms with the aniseed on that rye.”

One thing he finds a little perplexing. “Some of the dynamics out here are quite interesting,” he ponders. “When I try to explain what a Kewpie mayo or a Hoisin sauce is or a chimichurri sauce, there are people who seem to get confused and ask for tomato sauce.” Perhaps hankering for a McDonald’s or Wimpy in Curry’s Post?

Beignet, anyone? Chef Mark Mattinson in the eatery at Midlands Fable. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

When Kelly arrives we plough into the waiting beignets. Taste the “heavy, rich” mushroom risotto, infused with white wine and truffle oil, perfectly al dente chewy, served with gremolata, there for flavour balance and to cut the richness, the parsley and garlic finely chopped as it should be and not whizzed.

She’s been pleasantly surprised at Fable’s reception to date. “When we opened we didn’t know who, if anyone, would come. Covid was still an issue.” But people came.

“A huge amount of credit to Mark,” she says. “He’s amazing and I feel so lucky to have met him and to have got him on board. I often say to him, you just get some people who understand where you are in your head. And him and I, I feel we understand each other. I can describe the kind of food I was thinking of and he nails it.

“So what I wanted to do – and want to do going forward – is create something special, open to everybody, so everybody can come here and enjoy it but offering something just that little more authentic and different and special.”

It’s already a destination and will be more so in the months to come. It might be remote for some of us. But enlightenment via Fable is closer than the Camino and you don’t have to walk. The eatery is open for breakfast and lunch. Evening “pop-ups” coming soon. DM/TGIFood

Visit the Fable website and follow Midlands Fable on Facebook and on Instagram.

Follow Wanda on Instagram @wanda_hennig


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