"A VISIT TO HARTFORD HOUSE"
By Michael Green
Not the way you would want to dine every day, but as an occasional treat, oh yes! (Review by Michael Green - former Independent Newspapers Editor)
About half a century ago, when I was a young journalist in London, I lived for a time at Miss Moor's Private Hotel in Craven Hill, Bayswater. I wasn't there for long; it was fairly expensive and I soon moved to more modest quarters.
Miss Moor was rather a grand lady. She sent for me on my first day at her hotel, checked on my appearance and manners, and offered me a sherry as an introduction to London. I later discovered that she was a daughter of the last prime minister of Natal, Sir Frederick Moor (1853-1927), who held office before the Union of South Africa was formed in 1910.
Sometimes a wheel turns full circle, albeit very slowly. Recently I visited for the first time Hartford House, the celebrated boutique hotel and restaurant near Mooi River, 160 kilometres from Durban. It was once the country home of Sir Frederick Moor (and, presumably, of Miss Moore of the private hotel, one of his seven children).
This gem of the Natal Midlands was built on land granted by Queen Victoria to Frederick Moor's family in the late 19th century. Today it is part of a large estate embracing Summerhill, the racing stud where many of South Africa's champion racehorses have been born.
Hartford House itself has been splendidly preserved and modernised where necessary. It is a stately story late Victorian building with heavy sash windows, big rooms, high ceilings, brass fittings, teak and mahogany cupboards.
In terms of accommodation Hartford has 15 suites, but most of these are in additional more recent buildings standing amid the garden's immaculate lawns. My wife and I spent the night in the main building, in the Ellis suite, named after a famous racing family who owned the property from 1939 to 1990, when they sold it to the present owners, Mick and Cheryl Goss.
The furnishings were intriguing. The suite had a very big bathroom with an old-fashioned bath standing on its four feet more or less in the middle. In a corner, however, was a modern shower. The brass taps at the two hand-basins looked as if they had been installed by Sir Frederick himself, but there was plenty of hot water. In the bedroom was a fireplace and the widest double bed I have ever seen, one that would fit those old hill-billy stories: "When pa says turn, we all turn".
Victorian space and elegance, but with electric wall heating panels and a television set and a refrigerator and a well-stocked bar.
It is, however, largely the restaurant that attracts visitors from all over the country, especially at weekends, when Hartford's 30 beds are all taken. Meals are served in the house's capacious old dining room or on its wide verandah.
We dined in the dining room and it was a two-hour, five-course event. Hartford's chef is Jackie Cameron, a very good-looking, trim blonde who is still in her twenties. She was a student of Christina Martin, who died recently, and she has been at Hartford for nine years, in which time she has earned great praise from critics who know much more about food than I do. She appeared at the start of the dinner to explain what we were having, and she later returned to chat to the customers.
It is a set five-course menu for dinner, and this is what we had: roasted tomato soup with coconut sorbet; duo of trout with avocado, deep-fried seaweed, caviar, lavender flowers and frozen apple; shiitake crusted beef fillet with caramelised red onions, pommes amandines and exotic mushrooms: Midlands cheeses; tart marshmallows. Pommes amandines are potato croquettes with an almond flavouring.
It sounds a vast meal, but helpings are nouvelle cuisine; you have room for all of them in the end. It is all delicious, and quite adventurous for a conservative diner like myself. I mean, when did you last eat seaweed, or have coconut with your tomato soup? If you tell them about special dietary requirements they adjust to the situation.
Needless to say, all this is not cheap; Hartford House is not economy class. The dinner costs R370 a head. Breakfast the next day is wonderfully varied and elaborate but this is included in the hotel's B&B rate, which ranges from R550 to R2,030 per person per day.
The dinner wine list is appropriately upmarket, with imposing items at imposing prices. Wines by the glass are R40 to R65 for reds and R30 to R55 for whites. Here are some of the prices for white wine by the bottle: sauvignon blanc R160 to R320 (the latter being Shannon 2007, from Elgin); chardonnay R160 to R390 (Springfield Methode Ancienne, from Robertson).
And for reds by the bottle: cabernet sauvignon R210 to R550 (Kanonkop 2008, from Stellenbosch); shiraz R180 to R290 (Hartenberg, from Stellenbosch); merlot (R190) to R430 (Veenwouden 2007, from Paarl). I ordered a bottle of De Grendel shiraz for R180 and we were very happy with it.
Almost all the wines on the Hartford list are rated four or five stars in the Platter wine guide. Four stars means "excellent", five stars "superlative, a classic". The wine glasses were beautiful, long-stemmed, wafer-thin, and the service was first-rate.
There is plenty to do at Hartford apart from eating and drinking. By arrangement you can visit the Summerhill Stud, which includes the stallions of the Rulers of Dubai. You can ride horses yourself (but not the stallions). The estate has splendid gardens, a swimming pool, tennis courts, conference facilities and a chapel. Other attractions within reasonable distance include fishing; a game conservancy; a "wellness centre" offering body treatments, facials and a sauna; tours of Drakensberg sites such as Giant's Castle and Kamberg; hot air ballooning; helicopter flights; Zulu dancing. Many of these activities are of course by arrangement.
I would guess, however, that the biggest attraction is that elegant old dining room and its superb haut cuisine. Not the way you would want to dine every day, but as an occasional treat, oh yes!