Spices in all their guises at Knysna's hidden gem

Samantha Smith

MOM and daughter team Dell and Sancha Hadlow have been serving up great eclectic food for 12 years in the Garden Route holiday hamlet of Knysna, but admit that some locals still aren't even aware that their eatery, Firefly Eating House, exists.

Instead, Dell says, they have a steady stream of loyal foreigners, who return to her cosy hideaway every year to sample the duo's unique and imaginative recipes that fuse South African, Indian and Asian cuisine.

If her claims are indeed true, then the locals are the losers, because their eccentric fare is a treat – especially the Cape Malay bobotie spring rolls, which are worth putting at the top of your bucket list.

This unusual combination is a taste sensation, and is given a firm push over the edge by a mint chutney that can only be described as ecstasy for the mouth. I would pay a lot of money for that chutney recipe, but Dell and Sancha aren't sharing their trade secrets.

The two Hadlows make everything they serve from scratch – right down to the ice cream.

"When we talk about spice, people think our food is Indian. But our spices go from hot to cool and show that you can use spice in all different kinds of dishes," says Dell.

While daughter Sancha prefers to stay out of sight in the kitchen, Dell is a gracious host who enjoys chatting about her Afrikaans heritage and how childhood foods and recipes find their way into her kitchen, with a new twist.

Set just off the main road in Knysna, Firefly Eating House is an intimate and discerning dining experience for those looking for something more than the usual family holiday fare that Knysna offers.

On cold winter nights, such as the night we visited, the open-air verandah is closed off and diners are restricted to the uber-cosy and equally tiny red room, which is warm and inviting, with red fairy lights adorning the deep red walls, and a crackling fire to keep the chill out.

Feeling the pinch of the recession, as all those who rely to some extent on international tourism generally are, Dell and Sancha have come up with a novel "recession-busting menu" comprising tapa-style choices.

They range in price from R28 to R52. Two per person should suffice, three is a fun over-indulgence, that will leave your wallet slightly lighter.

Hubby Baan and I decided to over-indulge – purely for the purposes of gaining as much first-hand knowledge of the food as possible for this article, of course. As tempted as I was to try the umngqusho, which is prepared with a twist of cream, coriander, black pepper and a bay leaf, I went instead with the sweet ginger chicken skewers, the potato samoosa with a date blatjang and the bobotie spring rolls.

Baan opted for the calamari in satay sauce with peanuts, spring onion and coriander, the red leaf masala savoury beef mince pancakes and the karoo ostrich samoosas with a sultana blatjang.

Our order arrived on two platters, beautifully decorated with hibiscus, boganvillia and roses.

The spring rolls emerged the winner by a mile, while the chicken skewers were more conservative but still tasty and the potato samoosa was good, but perhaps a little bland when following on the heels of such bold flavours.

Baan – Malay by descent and a sucker for anything laced with coriander and heavy spices – devoured the calamari and pancakes with gusto, but found the sultana blatjang a little tame for spicy tastebuds. To end off, the buttermilk and pineapple sorbet was fresh and light.

It's also worth noting that equal attention to detail is paid to the beverage choices.

Firely has an extensive list of speciality teas – my roasted white tea was gentle and soothing and a great palate cleanser – as well as an array of specialist whiskies and a discerning wine list.

Firefly Eating House is open Tuesday to Sunday from 6.30pm.