Down the Rabbit Hole into the hutch of culinary bliss
In the deep old Garob, far from the cities and not even all that close to Karoo dorpies, a seven-course degustation feast is laid out in a small converted shed. Welcome to the Rabbit Hole.
The haunting roads of the Karoo disappear into purple-blue mountains like bruises in the sliver of space between the land and the sky. Your car rumbles past set-in-their-ways windmills and perplexed cacti wondering how they got here, spewing dust that soon settles in the rearview mirror.
A stranger trudges along the long road somewhere far from anywhere, unfathomably. No one knows where he has come from or where he is going, but his gait suggests he knows and doesn’t mind how far he has to walk to get there. You may pass him next time you venture this way.
Past conical koppies and mysterious mountains with rugged chimney-pot summits, on you go, knowing that while everywhere in the Karoo looks the same, everywhere is different. Sourveld here, sweetveld there. A plain of antiquity here, a Methuselah mountain there. Merino here, dorpers yonder.
Here and there a barn, a shearing shed, a farmhouse in need of paint, a farmworker’s cottage with washing on a ramshackle line, red shirt, blue pants, yellow skirt, speckled doek. Everywhere, a story, and not far away, another.
The old Garob, where everything is the same but different.
It’s a Sunday, and we’re on the long road to somewhere we’ve never been before. Down the Rabbit Hole we go in search of a desultory Sunday adventure.
Bakkies where once were horses
In the old Karoo, people take long roads to escape their routine and find their fun, happy to trek to get their break from the relentless toil of the land.
Once upon a time, they rode their horses over mountains and across broad, sweltering plains. Today they climb into their bakkies and cars to turn off the farm track and onto the road to town, then beyond to their destination.
A place worth going to, where the graft of the land is set aside for once for the mind and soul to be nurtured by other things.
There are occasional glimpses of another life for the farm-bound in our modern world.
These excursions mean the world to me, says the Cowboy in the back seat, replete of belly and aglow with satisfaction. Replete of wallet too, this having been his shout.
It’s the end of the day now and we’re rumbling home. It’s been the furthest he can go, mostly, and it’s barely two hours’ drive away from the farm.
It’s been an utterly fascinating day in the wilds of the Karoo in the middle of which we had found nirvana.
He had invited us, knowing that the Townie friend writes about food and the Cowboy himself having once, in an earlier incarnation, had a stint at a fancy chefs’ academy and a year in a five-star hotel restaurant. Would we be his guests? We surely would. You don’t say no to a degustation menu in a shed in the Karoo.
So the Townie volunteered to drive us there and earlier that Sunday we had boarded my blue Japanese charger, Picasso, and driven off into the beckoning unknown, on tarred roads and then on dirt, further and further away from anything I could recognise.
Fossils in the river, treasures in the mountains
We are on Hillston farm, somewhere in the vastness between three Karoo towns, Hofmeyr, Middelburg and Steynsburg. Cradock, which is home, is far south of us, Graaff-Reinet somewhere to the south-west.
In the middle of this beautiful emptiness is a hamlet called Schoombee, but I miss it when I blink in the hovering dust Picasso’s wheels are kicking up.
Juddering on gravel that is oblivious of our presence, we finally come to a halt outside a low, small building with a kitchen garden laid out before it.
It’s called The Rabbit Hole Karoo Venue and was once a shed housing a rabbit breeding venture that didn’t quite capture its intended market.
A scion of the family, Adrienne Southey, who like the Cowboy is chef’s academy trained, stepped in with the plucky idea of turning it into her own tiny piece of culinary paradise: a compact but versatile venue that can be used as a restaurant, venue for small functions, and cooking classes. It has an open-plan kitchen and stylishly rustic decor, where she spoils her guests with her exquisite way with food.
Hillston farm is also a Karoo farmstay, offering their 19th century ironstone Hillston Cottage, a remote country house called Northmead, and Hopewell farmstay, 27 km away.
There’s deep history here.
There’s a Boer War blockhouse and the shearing shed was a former barracks. A river runs through it where you might find fossils. Koppies that hold treasures of bushman etchings. A night sky so deep and vivid, so far away and yet so near, that they provide a telescope for you to get even closer.
You might hear the still night broken by the cry of a rare blue korhaan, or try to catch a shooting star.
Build it and they will come
This is one of those rare occasions of build it and they will come, says the Cowboy between morsels of exquisite meringue and almond blossom honey. It is the sixth course of seven, and we all agree that it is the best of a meal that has had no flaws.
Adrienne Southey, descendant of an original 1820 Settler clan, is on her feet for hours while we’re there, but it is clear that she has been busy for many long hours before we arrive. And even longer.
We’re to discover that she happily spends days making stocks and grinds her own flour, let alone the time it takes to grow the vegetables and fruit she cooks with.
The first course is straight out of the garden, a black slate tile of elegant simplicity: tomatoes from the garden have been turned into tomato chutney; there are fresh baby tomatoes too, alongside rocket and a handsome scoop of wonderful goat’s cheese from Middelburg, one of the nearest towns.
In the kitchen, Adrienne stirs a large soup pot and has a taste. When it’s served we see that it is a rich yellow-brown in colour. It’s cauliflower soup well laced with turmeric, an odd combination, but one spoonful and you know that this cook has a perfect palate. It’s garnished with black onion seeds and was made with coconut cream rather than dairy cream, to make it lighter. Alongside it are slices of her homemade bread made from stoneground wheat flour she milled herself. There’s cardamom in there somewhere too.
A miniature bamboo steamer is placed before each of us next. Once the lid is lifted, it reveals a playful take on sushi. It’s not really sushi (nori is not abundant in the Karoo, Adrienne remarks dryly), it only suggests it: curls of cucumber enwrap trout, herbs and cream cheese, with a fennel garnish. It’s my play on sushi, she tells us.
The next course is the most flavourful, Southey’s way with food being subtle and restrained, with occasional peaks of tang. It’s chicken that has been minced and made into a forcemeat abrim with spikes of piquancy. It’s the Rabbit Hole Chicken Salad and has a wealth of garden gifts: baby broccoli, red pepper, lettuce and carrot, with lime, coriander pesto, and a tiny viola flower. And black onion seeds “which enhance your memory”.
There had to be a meat course and here it is. Textbook-rare beef that our knives slid through, with potato mash that I’d watched her make from my kitchen-view perch, mashing and mashing until finally a taste had her nodding her head. It was ready. And the sauce: this was a reduction sauce worthy of the best fine dining establishment. Veal stock that she had made over two days, then reduced further with red wine.
And then. Oh my. I had sauntered over to the kitchen to ask if I could photograph her at work between courses. I had seen this course laid out on the table. Couldn’t quite pinpoint what it was.
This meringue was the one you’ve always wanted to turn out. Perfection. Just the right size portion too lest it become cloying. Cut by a simple yoghurt dressing. Little rectangles of homemade nougat. Slim slivers of pecan. To bring it all together in the mouth, almond blossom honey. Manna from Karoo Heaven.
How do you end a perfect meal? She didn’t try to top that meringue dessert; rather, she presented us each with a little glass of her naartjie jelly, soft and sensuous, just a few more spoonfuls of bliss before driving away again into the reality of your Karoo life.
‘Creativity is the defeat of habit by originality’
It’s a quote by the late Hungarian-born writer and journalist Arthur Koestler (a friend of George Orwell) and is chalked on a blackboard near a window of Adrienne Southey’s culinary hutch.
We were the defeated ones: any doubt we might have had that there could be a feast of this calibre in the middle of nowhere was defeated by perfection, creativity and a chef’s elegant take on originality. There’d be only a snack for supper later that night.
We decided that we would gladly make a habit of returning to these fine Karoo repasts by an especially gifted cook. DM