Hartford House

The Home of Good Conversation, Fine Wine and Classic Horses

Award-winning hotel and restaurant situated at Summerhill Stud on the picturesque KwaZulu-Natal Midlands Meander, South Africa.

AFRICAN ELEGANCE AND SUPERB HAUTE CUISINE

View from Hartford's Ezulweni Suites / Sally Chance (p)

View from Hartford's Ezulweni Suites / Sally Chance (p)

"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!

Extract from Artsmart - Art News from KwaZulu-Natal