Capitalising on Pietermaritzburg’s singular culinary assets

Capitalising on Pietermaritzburg’s singular culinary assets
Jaswant Singh at Tandoor, which is in a converted house, with his winning butter chicken, chicken saag and naan. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

KwaZulu-Natal’s capital city. Where to eat was the question. Rolled eyes was a common response. But seek and you shall find: hidey-holes, whimsy and surprises. And not to curry flavour but did you know, once upon a time Pietermaritzburg was a dining destination? 

Caviar. Crocodile. Chateaubriand. Clay-oven chicken. A dead duck. A peacock named Percy with a fondness for lemon meringue pie and thieving tendencies. Charming oases of calm for cake, coffee and creatively prepared nosh. Just some of what bubbled into the mix on dipping into the food scene in eccentric, idiosyncratic, in many parts down-at-heel Pietermaritzburg, KZN’s capital city. 

In Durban, fortune is favouring those of us still stoutheartedly living within the city. The tide of eateries moving north to Umhlanga and beyond, or up the Highway, has stemmed. In Pietermaritzburg, however, it is a given that Hilton and north into the Midlands is where you go for good grub. 

But seek and you shall find, to quote the lyrics of the Marvin Gaye song. He was looking for love, more elusive and intangible and not found by the end of the melody. Everyone has to eat, though, which makes for a simpler quest. Although some laughed and others rolled their eyes at the idea of finding eateries to love in Pietermaritzburg.

An unlikely sequence of events conspired to bring Maritzburg into my culinary focus. It started with an invitation, from the eponymous chef herself, to the Jackie Cameron School of Food & Wine 2023 graduation a week or so ago. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Chef Jackie: A legend creating a legacy

This seemed a good excuse to invite myself to stay for the weekend with a fun person of my acquaintance in Hilton, home to Cameron’s school. Then I got a call from my journo friend, Di, way across the country in Cradock to ask, could she come spend a couple of nights with me in Durbs? Di is a good friend. A long-time friend. And the friendship is one that dates back to our childhood. In Pietermaritzburg.    

It didn’t take too long for one thing to lead to the next. I would meet her in Hilton after the weekend, on Monday morning. Bring her back to Durban. 

Should we do a “down memory lane” and drive through Pietermaritzburg en route? I ask.

Great idea! she enthuses.

From there my mind turned to: Let me write about Pietermaritzburg, definitely not a food capital, but surely as a provincial capital there must be some good spots. Not least because, did you know that once upon a time – in fact twice upon a time and maybe I missed others – Pietermaritzburg was a dining destination? 

Always on a Sunday it is brekker all day in halaal Rosehurst’s pretty garden setting. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

Word-of-mouth in any city is the place to start for good nosheries. If it’s to do with food, goes without saying, the mouth must be attached to good taste buds. And to sensibilities that go beyond to mall and chain options, which are fine, each to our own. But hey, one man told me with gusto that whenever he goes to Pietermaritzburg he heads for a pizza joint at a casino…

With luck and persistence I connect with Louise Mitchell, a resident of Pietermaritzburg and a graduate of the erstwhile Christina Martin School of Food & Wine. So legendary was Martin that by association, you become a kind-of a lifetime member of a gold-standard club. 

Mitchell is the chef who changed the menu every second day when she was running the kitchen at Pietermaritzburg’s historic Rosehurst Café, a small eatery in a house with a Victorian garden and an antiques and collectables section near the centre of Pietermaritzburg. Although I walk inside and it’s like no city exists. 

Mitchell left Rosehurst three years ago to be a full-time mom. “The busiest and hardest job I’ve ever had; being a chef was a breeze by comparison.” 

Subsequently Rosehurst was sold, changed hands and got a different menu. More standard with pizzas, pastas and shakes and macon rashers where appropriate as it is halaal. And still the lovely garden setting plus a pretty chalked breakfast menu, brekker being available, according to friendly waitress-in-charge Ameerah Vather, all day on Sundays. 

No Percy the peacock, just the pretty-as-a-picture vegan nourish bowl at Tea on 23 with granadilla juice from a tree in the garden. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

It was thanks to Mitchell that Tea on 23, Carrie Ballantyne’s place in Scottsville (serving Brustar coffee from the Midlands), made it onto my radar. Two signs greet you when you walk up the path and into the garden of the house she was born in and, after a round-about career adventure, turned into her lifestyle business run in an agreeable partnership with ex-husband Rob, who before Covid had the coffee shop at the city’s Tatham Art Gallery

One sign lists specials, which change depending on weather and seasons. Lamb shank with mash and a creamy prawn pasta on the chilly day I was there. Also the “vegan nourish bowl” we photographed, which comes with falafels, couscous, cranberries, roasted veggies, blueberries and hummus with roasted beets to give it an artsy crimson hue. Also a selection of raw juices because she is near the university and lecturers and students frequent the place. 

The other sign says: “Please don’t feed the peacock.” Which is where Percy comes into the picture. He lives at Tea on 23 with his harem of three peahens. He has a fondness for the eatery’s lemon meringue pie. “When people feed him, he gets overly friendly.” Sees the lemon meringue and steals it off the table. Not difficult for a large bird with good reach but alarming for the folks who order it. “So we say, if someone really wants to feed Percy, ask us for peanuts.” And all is well. 

Ballantyne learnt to love cooking and baking from her mom, which is where many of her tried-and-trusted recipes originated. “But when I left school, cooking wasn’t the career it is now.” She was talked into a BCom and afterwards got a job in an office. “It was awful. A friend, working for a safari company, said she was sure I would die if she didn’t get me out of there, so she got me an interview.”

And that’s how Ballantyne started cooking professionally. “I’d pack my kitchen and off we’d go.” A challenge, especially early on. “I couldn’t really cook, or phone my mom.” It was pre-cellphone days. “But it was sink or swim. I had to make a plan. I read a lot of books.”

She cooked in the bush at safari camps the length and breadth of South Africa for going on five years and it was the company’s owner who directed her next step. “He said, to have a good life you have to turn your passion into a career. And I loved drinking coffee.”

So Ballantyne resigned, went overseas and worked as a carer for three years. A means to an end, specifically to open a coffee shop. Which she came back and did, initially in a shopping mall in Pietermaritzburg, where “you have to focus on getting bums in seats to pay the rent…” 

Then, in 2011 she decided to open where she is now. Growing herbs and lettuce in the garden. Pouring fresh granadilla juice from the tree. “Unpretentious, a place where people can come and relax.” Everything fresh, seasonal, made in-house, reflecting the tagline on the menu: “Happiness is homemade.” 

For something different they do a monthly round-the-world special Friday menu. “We’ve done Morocco and Italy. Next is Brazil as my niece is there now and will bring back ideas.”

Raphael Tsaurayi and Nomthandazo Mkhize with assorted crocodile delights at his small-house ‘krok’ shisanyama cum butchery. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

As soon as the idea of food in Pietermaritzburg stirred the pot, Raphael Tsaurayi entered the picture; his Krocodile Dheli in a small house on Boom Street. Same street as Rosehurst but a way away, in an industrial part. 

It was back in 2019 that TGIFood ran An unlikely crocodile adventure in KwaZulu-Natal. The story spotlights Tsaurayi, who has worked with crocs for more than 20 years, having started from school in admin at a crocodile farm. This was before he opened his Pietermaritzburg croc butchery cum shisanyama.

The article talks about the decline of the luxury crocodile skin trade. Also, croc as “delicacy” served at upscale KZN restaurants over the years. And the current growth in demand for crocodile meat, which Tsaurayi has been party to. Its health benefits, both physical and psychological. Men can drink the soup boiled from the meat for potency, many of his customers believe. Conversely, if a spell is cast on one’s manhood, the oil, which he sells in small containers, can counter the spell. 

But most of his customers buy it for the flavour. “I love it. It tastes like a combination of chicken and fish,” a woman shares as she leaves with her ready-cooked dinner.

When I arrive at our appointed time, Tsaurayi’s marketing assistant, Nomthandazo Mkhize, has a platter of freshly grilled tail meat (the best part), and body meat, and wors, ready and waiting on a platter under cling wrap. Also two robust croc-dogs. And a good-looking green salad with tomatoes, a dish of coleslaw and a bowl of chakalaka that didn’t make it into the pic. 

After we’ve caught up, I’ve got my pics and am ready to leave, I don’t understand why Tsaurayi is stalling me, while customers wait to be helped – until he graciously thrusts a container into my hands. “You have to try or how will you know?” he insists. 

Just to mention, in that 2019 story I had bought frozen croc. It sat in my freezer for an age till finally, sometime during Covid, I invited a friend for dinner and adapted and slow-cooked a crocodile casserole dish found via a Google search. He deemed it delicious then, cautious nosher that he is, looked a little shocked when told what he’d just eaten.

Bird sanctuary reflections, burger and beer at Graeme and Katerina Pratt’s Lakeside Café. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

Here are three more eateries initiated by Mitchell, verified by others, and each a delight in its own way. 

While I’d eaten a couple of times, happily, at Tandoor: The Clay Oven in Hilton (once the best tandoori chicken ever), visiting the original Tandoor, in a double-storey house in Pietermaritzburg, was a first – and a trip. “We do not have WiFi. Talk to each other. Pretend it’s 1995,” a sign on the wall inside reads. Suggesting someone with a sense of humour?

And I imagine Jaswant Singh, the elderly owner, is laughing at me as I quickly try to read articles, framed on the wall, with stories about him and his food, from northern India’s Punjab region. Meanwhile, wanting to sit down and talk about Sikhism, soon as I see him. Which doesn’t seem appropriate. So I ask if I can purchase a chicken saag and a naan and if we can photograph this before it is packaged for me to take away. 

I pay by credit card. Then watch as much muttering goes on between Mr Singh and the waitress, who finally comes and tells me she has undercharged me R10, which I give her in cash. Then Mr Singh advises the kitchen staff to add a butter chicken for my photograph. Confusing encounters. Good food. The only place on my list that is open evenings, for take-out or eat-in.

It is a long and winding drive through Pelham to find the Beanbag Café, an eatery where, I’ve been told – and also read – one can wander through a nursery, sit by a lake and feed the ducks. “A happy place people can hide away all day,” is how Belinda Talbot, who opened it in 2014 with her partner, then making beanbags, describes it.

I ask her what’s special on the menu, which has quiches and toasties and soups and a Cadillac burger, beef or chicken or vegetarian and savoury pancakes and homemade pies. “The place, being here, is the selling point,” she says. 

In fact, so remote does it feel, and peaceful, it’s hard to believe one hasn’t been dropped off in some remote Zululand reserve. 

Where are the ducks? I ask Talbot. 

No ducks, she says. “Something ate one and the second, injured in the attack, is recovering at our home.” Perhaps it was a genet. “Years ago a python burrowed into our former duck house. We built this new one on a plinth.” Safe. Till now.

Lakeside Café is on the edge of and overlooking the Pietermaritzburg bird sanctuary lake. Everyone I ask loves the place. This in spite of the freeway noise drifting across the watery reflections; those nightmare N3 trucks. 

And here, there are ducks. And food for sale to feed them.  

Mitchell had talked about the Greek couple who run Lakeside. They are Graeme and Katerina Pratt. “I married into a Greek family,” Graeme, friendly, genial, welcoming, laughs when I comment on the name. The pair were doing farmer’s market for eight years, cakes, baklava, muffins, before they found themselves in this family business, way back. Here, remarkably, since 2005, given that it all looks so new.

Specials on the chilly day I’m there include oxtail, lamb shank and pork belly. “The menu is too big, I know,” he says. “We’ve gathered dishes along the way.” And he can’t let any of them go. “We’re a destination, in a sense. Buns, tramezzini, wraps, pies, muffins, health breads, baklava, we make them all, from scratch. The white-chocolate cheesecake is baked for four hours, by the ladies in the kitchen. That’s a favourite.” 

A stream and weaver birds set the scene for Sagewood’s Sunday morning forest pizza with spinach tempura. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

On Sunday morning I stop in at Sagewood Café, as do many others. A place with a creative menu. That, while hustling and bustling, looks and feels tranquil and remote. 

This likely has to do with the setting, also in a nursery, so you wander through the plants. Then, where I’m sitting on the deck, dozens of yellow-breasted weaver birds are chirruping and chatting, weaving nests in the tree almost arm’s length away. Also, there’s the river, more like a stream, that runs through it. 

And what seems to be a favourite, as I see many carried through from the pizza oven out back: the artisan forest pizza with artichokes, mushrooms, garlic, spring onions, olives, feta, avo, spinach tempura, tomato. 

Sarmies, salad bowls, sides and snacks, waffles and omelettes. Umbrellas under trees by the stream. Wooden tables with bright green stripes. And good coffee. What could be better to get up for on a Sunday morning? crosses my mind.

Milk-fed pig, turkey forestière and sole Walewska on a Christmas Day menu reflect times gone by — and gone the way of PMB’s Ansonia Hotel. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

I pick up Di, my friend, in Hilton on Monday morning and we head down the hill to Pietermaritzburg. Sleepy hollow was its name long ago. Still sleepy in places. Hectic in others. 

First stop is Finishing Touch, which I’ve been told is a décor shop with a tiny café serving excellent brunches, cheesecake, good coffee and that ubiquitous, it seems in Pietermaritzburg, lemon meringue pie. All this in a little old house with a lovely garden and water features on Victoria Road. 

Well, it is a first for both of us. And we’re astonished. Initially by the maze of rooms to browse. Then, right in the middle somewhere is the said tiny cafe. “Windows” designed and built to look like windows, because we’re in the centre of the house. In a spot  you would never find in a million years, except by word of mouth. Wicker chairs. Scads of greenery and pretty detail.

And here comes a man for brekker, so the waitress lights a standing gas heater and et voilà! Instant sun indoors, if you close your eyes and feel the heat. 

We decided not to stay. Head off, instead, to the old Ansonia Hotel, which we both knew so well. And which we both know, before we get there, is no more. I snap a pic of a row of palm trees in front of the once-familiar old front facade, way down behind a closed gate. Near the city centre but deserted.  

It is where Di was living, with her folks, when we met. Where my dad, at the time, was manager. Long after the hotel was sold and my dad left, to come back to Durban, and long after Di and her folks moved on, and moved out, I spent holidays there. With Di. 

She lived in Pietermaritzburg for years. Can name the old bakery, the slap chips shop, the café that served the best milkshakes, the stuff of memories and past times. And can point me to the routes we used to walk, through Alexander Park with the trees we used to climb. But enough…

I was reminded of many things by the small pile of menus I recently found when clearing stuff. The Christmas menu, above, among them. With four different potato dish options. And don’t I wish I could ask who, then, was breeding the milk-fed pigs? And the turkeys. Getting good beef I expected was easy. And good lamb. And those soles. Imported like the Cognac?

Caviar, foie gras, crayfish, Baked Alaska: options on the French-flavoured olde-world long-gone La Mirabelle menu. (Photo collage: Wanda Hennig)

So, on to the times, two that I know of and perhaps there were more, that Maritzburg was a dining destination. First there was La Mirabelle, which I was far too young, when my dad was running the show, to have known other than it – late nights working – was the reason he had to sleep for two hours every afternoon. I have a memory of sometimes creeping around in awe when it was empty. And the occasional chocolate eclair my dad would bring me. 

At home on off-days he would make zabaglione and crêpes suzette and baked Alaska, so those didn’t seem so exotic. But looking at the menu: the different types of caviar. The foie gras. The… well, see for yourself. And I have a picture in an album from the farewell party, when the hotel was sold, of my first croquembouche – profiterole tower.  

I am aware that La Mirabelle reputedly, in its heyday, ranked right up there for its fine dining. 

With its classic old-style French menu, this is found among the stash of never-throw-anything-away memorabilia. 

Fast forward quite a few years and more people might remember La Provence. I ask retired food writer and friend Anne Stevens for her thoughts. “La Provence was the best in its day and Anne Pearson headed the kitchen, with Tessa van Aardt running the restaurant. We ate there often. We used to make special pilgrimages to Maritzburg and stay nearby for the night, sometimes with other chefs. Blowed if I can remember what we ate though.”

Pilgrimages to Pietermaritzburg. In a sense I guess that is what I was doing. We were doing, Di and I. A pilgrimage, kind of to past times, but in the present. Not wanting to go back. Rather, where to now? No reason, really, to roll those eyes. DM

Follow Lakeside Café on Facebook, Krocodile Dheli on Instagram, Tea on 23 on Facebook, Beanbag Café on Facebook, Rosehurst Café on Instagram, Sagewood Café on Instagram, Tandoor: The Clay Oven on their website, Finishing Touch on Facebook

Follow Wanda on Instagram wanda_hennig  


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