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Food and Travel: An early taste of Christmas

FOOD  writers and diplomats were fortunate enough last week to be invited to sample, comment on and criticise, if warranted, Meikles Hotel’s proposed Christmas/New Year festive menu.

It was a fairly boozy, bonhomie-filled get together; Fourth Estate members long outlasting the corps diplomatique in what turned out to be a veritable gastronomic assault course.
Two restaurant reviewers freshly back from a breathtaking whistle-stop Bumi Hills facility trip were full of stories for a third writer, who’d declined the educational visit as she suffers “sea-sickness”.
I thought the mal-de-mer madam was having a starter oddly featuring strawberries, until refocusing on the menu and realising it was a mélange of melon cocktail (fruit scooped into balls) smothered with port wine and chopped fresh mint.
It looked light and cool and I’ll have it on my next visit instead of a quite delightful, but perhaps over-filling, Yorkshire pudding filled with ginger-flavoured ham and mushrooms.
Third option was smoked fish mousse with horseradish and crème fraische garnished with capers, lemon segments and an exotic garden salad.
Two soups were on offer. My companion raved about a clear oxtail soup with cheese flakes (but left quite a lot); whereas I used a still warm brown roll to enthusiastically mop up the very last dreg of a mouthwateringly fine festive ham-and-pea soup with croutons.
Fish course was a rather splendid presentation by executive chef Chris Gonzo of a fresh herb-crusted tilapia (bream), served on a bed of garlic-flavoured mashed potato, topped with a buttery white wine sauce. Under normal circumstances that would have done it for me, but this was a Christmas try-out and we weren’t going to get away so comparatively lightly!
Tinselly tottering tower main courses are now a bit passé in Europe, where the fad started, but we still go for them in southern Africa’s better restaurants and Meikles is no exception.
My companion complained that her turkey wasn’t the real McCoy but part of a processed turkey roll, those which come, I think, from France, Brazil or Uruguay following the wonderfully successful land redistribution “programme” and our own inability to produce speciality poultry.
It came stacked with sugar-glazed gammon (which could be from Colcom, Croatia, the Cayman Islands or County Down!) and sage and onion stuffing (my favourite) with chipolatas, croquette potatoes, cranberry sauce and seasonal vegetables.
I have been largely leaving red meat alone in recent weeks, but slipped on Thursday suspecting (rightly) that the whole roast beef fillet Wellington, with roast potatoes, horseradish sauce and Béarnaise sauce would be truly delightful, if not the most typical Yuletide dish.
The medium-rare meat and wonderful crust was melt-in-the-mouth excellent. I couldn’t manage the second spud.
If vegetarians celebrate Christmas, there’s mushroom strudel and chickpea dhal, which doesn’t sound too over-the-top bunny-hugging, even for me.
I don’t know which would be less filling: traditional Christmas pudding, served with home-made pecan nut ice-cream and hot brandy sauce (my choice) or a tall knickerbocker glory glass duo of orange pannacota and chocolate mousse, which my companion opted for.
Either way, following pudding, no one at our end of the table even looked twice at the handsome platter of local cheeses with biscuits and fruit compote and when the coffee and overflowing plates of mince-pies arrived, the trusty Swiss Army officers knife had to be located in my camera bag to cut one in half so two critics could criticise.  Just superb!
It may be too late to change the turkey roll into “proper” turkey in time for the festive feast to be served to the public from December 1 until early January in various restaurants in the hotel.
We ate in the discreet, fairly private Livingstone Room, just off the flagship La Fontaine Grill Room. I’ve already booked it for the exclusive use of Greendale Good Food & Wine Appreciation Society’s Xmas lunch on Friday December 11.
Cost per head is $25, including fairly upmarket Christmas crackers, party hats and other novelties associated with the Feast of St Loneliness! I, personally, will not be at Meikles over Christmas/New Year. I would love to be there for the stunning New Year’s Eve jollities, but as I can’t be in two places at once, Christmas and Hogmanay with family in Kirriemuir, the Gateway to the Glens, in the fair county of Angus and “Auld Reekie” (Edinburgh) have their own counter-attractions.
US$25 for six festive courses plus coffee and mince pies in a 5-star hotel confirmed my original opinion that $8 for bangers-and-mash at blue@2 Wine Bar, 2, Aberdeen Road, the previous night was slightly pricey.
However, I was at blue@2, enjoying an Irish folk band some of my chums loathed and not at La Fontaine.  If I wanted to eat it was growlers, or nothing. I didn’t fancy nothing!
There were two good-sized pork jobs (Colcom, I suspect) which, while not full of flavour in their own right at least weren’t unpleasant on the palate.
But what went with them made the impromptu supper memorable. Carrot had been boiled thoroughly and folded into wonderfully creamy mashed potato; a little less thoroughly cooked carrot decorated this near Colcannon-like presentation.
(Overseas now, mash almost invariably has “something” added to it, from celeriac or swede [rutabaga] to tiny bits of black pudding or crumbled haggis.)
There were steamed al dente courgettes and broccoli, roasted onions and cooked beetroot, a magnificent piquant and pungent home-made creamed horseradish sauce I’d leave home for and thick, dark, dense, rich onion gravy.
Bangers-and-mash in a sports club would usually cost (I suppose) about five-bucks. This de-luxe, Rolls-Royce, man-sized helping, of the classic comfort food, served in a rather up-market venue, fairly late at night, was probably worth the extra $3: especially when feeling pressing pangs of hunger and drinking — otherwise — foolishly on a very empty stomach.



Dusty Miller

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