Durban - For those of us fortunate enough to spend our halcyon childhood running wild over undulating green hills, to the ululating of Zulu songs, like the yearlings of Summer Hill, one knows inherently, the Midlands is ultimate countryside.
It produces good food, good fodder, fast athletes and champion bloodstock - be it bovine or equine.
Hartford House, the original Victorian home of Mick and Cheryl Goss, top South African horse breeders turned hoteliers, has become as sought after a hotel destination for “foodies”, as the surrounding stud, upon which it nestles, is for elite horse owners. The two are intrinsically entwined.
Hartford keeps winning top restaurant awards and Summer Hill keeps producing winning horses - testimony to the demands of their most discerning clients and guests, the rulers of Dubai.
I floated red carpet style through soft mist, down the imposing avenue of plane trees and pin oaks, with white beacons marking the already indelible names of champion stallions, past pristine stable blocks and swathes of immaculate green pastures, brimming with brood mares, to the landscaped English gardens and wide welcoming verandas of Hartford. If the cherry blossoms, wisteria and roses were not yet in full bloom, the roaring fires, fresh vases of tiger lilies and bright smiles of Nombulelo and his team within made up for the deficit.
With minimum check-in delays, I was quickly whisked back down the driveway to wallow in the fairytale warmth of my lakeside suite, or “Green World” house, four of which hug the shore of a trout filled lake - all built by locals from natural resources on the farm - clay, reeds and grass.
The main feature of my exotic suite - dubbed Nhlanhla, meaning “good luck”, in Zulu - were amabhele hay stacks. Perhaps a tribute to the fact, that a young American, called Tom Smith, had once searched the length and breadth of the States for calcium-infused hay to feed his young, four-legged protege, Sea Biscuit. And what a winning formula that lucky find turned out to be.
But make no mistake, one is not camping in a proverbial mud hut, snacking on horse feed. You are swanning about your own highly original, opulent, eco home, complete with under floor heating, fireplaces, stocked bars, copper clawed baths, private bomas, plunge pools and imported objets d’arts, all with surrounding views of the lake and paddocks.
I was more intrigued by the sight of my own canoe and paddle perched, ready for action, among bulrushes at the edge of the jetty and I prevailed upon the delightful Beauty, who had arrived to lay the fire, to help launch my boat instead... This she obligingly did, waving encouragement from terra firma, when I almost keelhauled an oncoming spurwing goose, shrouded in rising vapour.
A stroke of serendipity during my own meandering afforded a meeting with the inspirational Cheryl Goss, decked out in gumboots and gloves, glamourously knee deep in her beds of the flowering variety. I witnessed first hand the passion for perfection, and vitality she exudes.
Having recently returned from Melbourne, and an Australian country restaurant paired with Hartford, in terms of conjuring up creative cuisine, she identifies with the Antipodean judiciousness for sourcing only the finest and freshest local ingredients.
Head chef at Hartford, Constantijn Hahndiek, whose youth belies his experience and whose culinary curriculum stretches as far afield as seaside Devon, Spain, France and New Zealand (destinations synonymous with organic ingredients), has immediately made an impact with his colourful and innovative menus. These change daily (ambitious for seven-course gourmet demands) encompassing Mediterranean and Asian fusion influences.
It is as rare as Beluga caviar for a local chef to ooze personality and confidence, like a Jamie Oliver or a Michel Roux, but Hahndiek is from the emerging mould of those born naturally gifted.
One of the highlights of the evening, quite apart from tucking into pork belly and blueberries glazed in port and pureed parsnips, was to be proffered iced nitrogen slices - an absolute must for any Halloween party. While gingerly savouring this mystifying sweetness on one’s tongue - great plumes of smoke simultaneously emerge from ones ears and nose.
Like Scarlett O’Hara to Tara, Dorothy to Kansas or Black Beauty to Thoroughgood Farm - you will return to Hartford House and Summer Hill, because it stirs your soul, titillates your senses and stimulates your imagination - and makes you realise, as a would-be globe trotter, that there really is no place like home.