The Cock House comes of age

The Cock House, which has hosted many well-known personalities, is celebrating its 21st anniversary as a guesthouse and restaurant.

Text: Louise Liebenberg
Pictures: Salvelio Meyer
IT’S a much-loved local landmark whose name invariably brings a naughty smile to some visitors’ faces and whose intriguing history is intrinsically linked to that of Grahamstown.
The Cock House in Market Street has stood for many more years than it was even known by that name – and this week it is celebrating a major milestone in its more recent history.
It was exactly 21 years ago yesterday (June 15) that a history-loving (and arguably slightly crazy, given the scale of their venture, or adventure!) former British couple, Peter and Belinda Tudge, first opened the Cock House as a guesthouse and restaurant.

Former owner Belinda Tudge, who established the Cock House in 1991, with manager Jean-Louis Fourie.

Having nearly been driven bonkers during the period of renovations that preceded the opening, with their two boisterous Labrador pups adding to the chaos of the time, the Tudges nevertheless succeeded in turning the Cock House into a tourism industry leader not only in their own city but also in South Africa. It offered unfaltering service and comfortable country accommodation in a city rich in history and tradition – and Belinda’s gift for fine dining sweetened every stay.
Soon everybody who was anybody was checking in at No 10 (some even had their bras nicked by the naughty dogs, local legends in their own right). Among the many famous visitors none was more so than Nelson Mandela, who called at the Cock House not once but three times, including once as president.
Others who stayed over and sampled the excellent cuisine at the restaurant on the premises included the likes of another former president, Thabo Mbeki, as well as former ministers like Kader Asmal, Irish poet and Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney and his wife, Marie, and a number of ambassadors and diplomats.

Elegant dining at its best at Norden’s Restaurant at the Cock House. The artworks are from owner Richard Anker-Simmons’s personal collection.

Peter, who had been schooled in Grahamstown as a boy, sadly died in 2003 and Belinda then sold the Cock House to a businessman turned cattle rancher from Limpopo in 2005. But what hasn’t changed one iota is her extraordinary commitment to this by now quite famous landmark – that dedication is as unfailing as ever, so much so that she is still closely involved as a consultant both in marketing the property and mentoring its staff.

Margaret Boko with a smoked trout salad starter with ginger dressing currently on the Norden’s menu.

Some, like Margaret Boko who cooked the fine dinner enjoyed by the Explorer team on Monday night, have worked here virtually since the beginning.
The new owner, Richard Anker-Simmons, took over in 2006. Like Peter who had worked as an accountant in the Persian Gulf and Belinda, a travel agent, Richard also had no prior experience in the hospitality industry. But like them he was driven by an almost immediate love of the Cock House and its history.
Richard divides his time between Johannesburg and Hoedspruit but visits Grahamstown and the guesthouse at least every two months. He has made several clever changes, such as buying the block of flats next door and transforming them into four spacious self-catering apartments.
The original nine guest rooms – four of which overlook the garden – are still a vital part of the establishment and these are booked on a bed-and-breakfast basis, with dinner a highly recommended extra.
Our room was spotless and comfy, with wi-fi and limited satellite TV, and the electric blanket was a great countermeasure for the Grahamstown chill.
There are two additional guestrooms upstairs in the main house and three cottages across from the parking area at the back. Two of the cottages have a separate lounge area and one has an extra loft area for sleeping, making it especially suited for families.
Under Richard’s guidance the bathrooms of the four garden suites (rooms one to four) have been revamped in recent years while the drawing room has also been nicely spruced up.

Assistant manager Oswald Kate was charming throughout our stay. We loved the Cock House’s intimate little bar where local resident Jock McConnachie introduced us to the Gilroy brand of artisan beers.

My husband Salvelio and I were joined for drinks and dinner by well-known local, Jock McConnachie. Just back from a Graaff-Reinet trip, he said he fancied little more than settling in by the roaring fire to enjoy some excellent Gilroy stout, which he promptly introduced us to.

We had a delicious starter of provencal vegetables with goat’s cheese bruschetta and basil dressing.

In the entrance hall of the guesthouse we pored over pictures of the Cock House’s illustrious past owners. The place has a fascinating history, the original plot granted in 1826 to Benjamin Norden, a Jewish merchant from London and one of Grahamstown’s best-known citizens. Norden, after whom the Cock House restaurant is named, later moved to Cape Town where, in 1841, he helped establish the Jewish tradition in South Africa by inaugurating the first Jewish congregation.
In 1835 he sold the plot and premises to Dr John Atherstone, a district surgeon of Grahamstown whose son, William Guybon, authenticated South Africa’s first diamond. During Atherstone’s tenure at the property it is believed the stable – now guestrooms one and two facing the garden – served as a grain store for a mill in town. The Hon William Cock, after whom the house would later be named, was another prominent owner. He died in 1876 and lies buried in Port Alfred where he had been instrumental in dredging the mouth of the Kowie River and putting in place the infrastructure needed to establish a thriving harbour. “Sadly Cock’s enterprise came to naught when the government eventually abandoned his scheme in 1880,” Belinda said.
The Webber family then lived at the Cock House, which they called Adelphi House, for some 40 years. John Henry Webber, mayor of Grahamstown in the early 1900s, transformed the front of the house by adding the Burmese teak and trellis work verandah so characteristic of the property today.
Between 1971 and 1981 the noted South African author André P Brink also lived here and was responsible for much of the initial restoration work. “The present drawing room was his study, wall to wall with bookshelves, where he wrote four of his books, including A Dry White Season and Rumours of Rain,” Belinda shared.
She said a large measure of the Cock House success story was thanks to staff members from the local community who’d had no previous experience or training.

Grahamstown’s most famous guesthouse has had an eventful 21 years filled with many special memories, not only for the Tudges but for all who have dined and stayed here.

Many former staff as well as guests and Grahamstown locals who have supported the Cock House over the years have been invited to two special anniversary dinners being held on Wednesday and Friday. On the menu will be past dishes such as coq au vin and chocolate brioche-and-butter pud.
With the National Arts Festival around the corner a “festival menu” is now in place, with Belinda as usual having had “a bit of fun” using some of this year’s productions as inspiration for the dishes.

Recipe: Rack of lamb with dauphinoise potatoes, aubergine puree and rosemary jus

The rack of lamb of which not a scrap remained on Louise’s plate! It was perfectly pink and I adored the aubergine puree on the side.

Margaret, a staffer  for more than 18 years, was responsible for the excellent dishes the Explorer team enjoyed while overnighting at the guesthouse this week. She has agreed to share a recipe for rack of lamb served with dauphinoise potatoes, aubergine puree and rosemary jus.
Lamb Stock for Rosemary Jus
2kg lamb bones; 2 sticks celery, cut into large dice; few sprigs fresh rosemary; 4 Carrots, cut into large dice; few sprigs fresh thyme; 4 bay leaves; 4 whole garlic
Place bones and all ingredients in a roasting pan; roast in hot oven till brown.  Remove and place in a stock pot with some good quality red wine, tomato paste and cold water.  Bring slowly to the boil, skim off any scum rising to the surface and simmer for 3-4 hours, skimming off the fat as necessary and topping up with water if the level gets very low.  The longer it simmers, and the more the liquid reduces by evaporation, the stronger the stock will be.  Strain, cool and lift off any remaining fat.
Rosemary jus
Place strained stock in a saucepan, add some rosemary and garlic to your taste and reduce till desired texture. Strain and leave aside to garnish dish.
Aubergine puree
Cut aubergine in half, sprinkle with salt. Place in hot oven for 4 min.  Remove, add olive oil, pepper and thyme, put back in oven till soft. Take out and cool.  Peel aubergine, mix flesh with fried onion and place in food processor. Add cream to create a smooth texture; add salt and pepper to taste.
Dauphinoise potatoes
Cut thin slices of peeled potatoes and layer in roasting or gratin dish. Add salt, pepper, nutmeg, garlic, chopped rosemary and cream. Bake in oven till golden brown.
Rack of lamb
Ask your butcher for a rack of lamb containing three portions on the rack. Trim off as much fat as possible from the meat.  Season with salt and pepper; seal quickly in hot oil in a pan.  Place in a hot oven and cook for about 20 min. Remove and let rest.  This will give pink, slightly underdone lamb.
To Serve
Remove rack and slice into three portions.  Place portion of dauphinoise potatoes in centre of each plate with aubergine puree on side.  Place lamb on the potato and place cooked seasonal vegetables around the plate.  Pour warm rosemary jus over the lamb and serve.

Win a two-night stay at the Cock House

ONE Weekend Post reader and their partner can win a two-night stay at the legendary Cock House in Grahamstown.
The prize includes accommodation, breakfast and dinner.
Excluded are costs such as drinks, laundry and telephone calls. The winners must also make their own way to Grahamstown and back.
The prize must be taken up before December 31 and is subject to availability.
To find out how to enter get your copy of Weekend Post today – hurry because entries close at noon on Tuesday!

Where to find the Cock House

The Cock House is at 10 Market Street, Grahamstown. Bookings are on (046) 636-1287. 
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One Response to The Cock House comes of age

  1. Liza Wright says:

    Just had another awesome weekend at the Cock House. Food is amazing. We love the art, tinus and gabrielle, and the yellowood floors and the enourmously thick walls, the log fire, the new bathroom in no 4, the pansies in perfect rows. It’s been a perfect stopover when visiting my kids at Kingswood. Liza Wright, East London.

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