Cowhide, horns, and the best malva pudding ever

Cowhide, horns, and the best malva pudding ever
Malva pudding at the Camdeboo restaurant with the fireplace in the background. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Camdeboo restaurant at the Drostdy Hotel in Graaff-Reinet is a vast and impressive space where serious money was clearly spent on its furnishings and decor. It also offers a splendid malva pudding.

Slipping through the doors of some country hotels is like stepping back in time. Your familiar old world dissipates behind you and you’re in another era, when manners were important and people conducted themselves with restraint and a lack of presumption. The brash old modern world disappears as you step inside.

Being in Graaff-Reinet at all is something like that, let alone its famous Drostdy Hotel. Parts of the town at least. One of the four oldest in the country, it has managed to retain its old-world charm, certainly in the older parts of the village.

Today, the hotel plays the role of front-of-house, as it were, for the SA College for Tourism, whose students man the reception desk, play porter from car to room, and serve you at the tables of the Camdeboo restaurant. Almost as one, they display that certain sweet reticence that characterises the student thrust into a professional role. An eagerness to please, like the new pet in the house seeking the approval of its owner. It makes for a pleasant environment and is preferable to the often crisp, aloof manner of some professional establishments. Snooty is not a good look, and it’s surprising that certain hotels don’t seem to grasp that.

There’s lovely personal attention, then, at the table side in their Camdeboo restaurant for dinner and breakfast. Being in this vast room helps too, of course. It’s one of the fine spaces of the Karoo and Graaff-Reinet is famously at the centre of it. This was one of the coldest winter’s nights, and the flames of the roaring fire were casting warm light on the brown leather upholstery, the occasional cowhide rug, delicate framed bird prints and the horns of wild animals long deceased. This is hunting country, big time, and the motif fits.

And if it’s the Karoo, there must be lamb. I scanned the menu and my eye fell on “traditional lamb pie served with carrots, potatoes and garden peas”. To further assuage the lamb lover, there were lamb chops on offer too, served with green beans, baby potatoes, pumpkin bake and “pan jus”. Nothing could say “you’re in the country now” more than these modernised takes on lamb with three veg, though back in the day your aunty Mabel would have asked what a pan jus was.

Ouma’s bean broth. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

There was pork belly too, and a Wagyu beef burger in a nod to contemporary trends. Much more besides on the mains menu: beef fillet, oxtail, chicken supreme, cauliflower steak (another nod to current fads), line fish of the day (do you really come to the Karoo to eat fish?), and lamb again, this time a curry. But we had just been to KwaZulu-Natal and were all curried out.

The soup of the day was a luscious green pea broth, while my choice was “Ouma’s bean broth” and that is what you come to the Karoo for. Its ingredients included red kidney beans, butter beans and bacon, it was rich in colour and had a wonderful consistency. Other starters choices had included a cheese soufflé, salmon tartare (an odd choice for the Karoo), chicken liver pâté, tomato gazpacho and venison carpaccio, the last being ideal for the location.

Lamb pie. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

I chose the lamb pie. The filling was served inside a cup of a pastry crust, deconstructed if you like. There were peas in the lamb filling. There was a delicious savoury biscuit and butternut mash. I would have preferred an old-fashioned, conventional pie but the filling and pastry were good.

The hero of the evening, though, was the humble malva pudding, served with a brandy snap and homemade custard. The little round pudding was a joy to behold and to eat, syrupy and lusciously soft. Possibly the best malva I have eaten anywhere. I was told in the morning that it was “Mrs Rupert’s recipe”.

You always know the next morning whether or not a hotel has given you one of those fine country moments you long for. There was that familiar pang of happiness, mixed with regret that you’re leaving, as we drove out of the boom gates and back onto the road. DM

Dinner was paid for in full.


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