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.

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The only world class hotel on a world class stud farm in the world!

A place at the same time comfortable beyond dreams, yet innocent of pretence.
— Hartford House

We are lucky to live where we do, in a boundless, unconquered world, where the plains roll away to the great skies beyond. There are those who will tell you there is no other place quite like it.

But we are equally fortunate in the people who came before us. Their footprints are everywhere at Hartford. The old manor house built by the family of the colony’s last Prime Minister, stands alone among the best homes of a splendid era. Built at a time when great wars were being waged by great nations for the spoils of our region, anybody who was anyone, knew the portals of this grand old dame.

Yet long before the intrusion of these well scripted events, an ancient people lived here in quiet serenity among the plants and animals of our kingdom, and they built their abodes with the materials of the neighbourhood.

These are the people that gave birth to Ezulweni, a reversion to the methods of old, and a sensual interpretation of the way things were. The juxtaposing of Hartford House with Ezulweni provides our travellers with an insight into our colonial past, and a glimpse of the imaginations of our Zulu craftsmen, whose creative hands are embedded in the finishes.

In so many ways, Hartford stands apart for its originality. Its architecture, views, dining, sounds, scents, its racehorses and its people, are all exhilarating surprises, unique to this Zululand, to this property, and to Africa.

Hartford has gained and regained from the cultures it celebrates. It is life’s exception.

We had our first snow this morning!

First snow on the Drakensberg mountains this morning / Leigh Willson (p)

First snow on the Drakensberg mountains this morning / Leigh Willson (p)

"The Rhythm of the Seasons"

When were you last in the KZN Midlands? Looking at occupancies at Hartford House, it's apparent that ever more, travellers are wanting a piece of this enchanted kingdom. There is a magic to this place, not only in its natural scenic splendour, but in the colours that herald the changes to the seasons. No time is better though than the autumn, when the mornings are crisp, the sky is blue, and you can see forever.

If you're "horsey", you'll know that its yearling prep time, and if you're familiar with Summerhill, you'd be expecting us to be busy with the weaning of foals and the beginnings of the old ritual of teaching our Ready To Run candidates the ropes.

Haydn Bam's agric unit is frantically baling up the last of the hay, and his tractor pilots have been grinding away in the dark before dawn through the twilight of the evening; discing, harrowing and planting. The welfare of the horses is paramount at Summerhill, as you know, and all this activity is part of the stocking up of the larder for winter, with more than 350 hectares of emerald rye grass, targa oats and a salad of fescue, cocksfoot, white and red clovers, and the lavender of the grazing vetch.

And by the way, we had our first snow this morning, not on the farm, but on the nearby Drakensberg mountains. I said at the beginning, autumn is famous for its blue skies and long views, but you'll forgive us our joy at the good rain and the full moon brought overnight. Without it, those paddocks beyond the irrigators, would not yield the bounty we would expect in this part of the world from our winter crops. Townspeople are often oblivious to it, but there's a reason you get spring tides at both ends of the moon's spectrum, and even in the dead of winter, you can expect a little moisture when the moon is either full or in its newest phase. That's why those who live by the stars, tell you to plant by the moon.

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Back To Basics

The Hartford Estate smothered in icy powder, August 2012
(Photos : Leigh Willson)

"I found muscles in my body I'd forgotten I had while whisking, kneading and beating, and producing choux pastry for profiteroles for a more-than-a-metrehigh croque-en-bouche with no electricity was no joke."

Jackie Cameron Head Chef

Jackie Cameron
Head Chef

Driving in the relentless snow through the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands in August showed me just how reliant I was on one of our most widely-used forms of energy - electricity.

The saga began on my return trip from Jo'burg. Usually it's quicker - and easier - to drive from Mooi River rather than to fly from Pietermaritzburg or Durban, but this trip back was a 9 1/2 hour nightmare through the heaviest snow storm I have ever experienced. During the drive home, I experienced such longing for the cosy ambience my home offers with under-floor heating and a warm bed, not knowing that for the next six days I'd be deprived of the luxuries I had come to take for granted. My saving graces that night were three duvets and my cat Mallow.

The next day wasn't much better - the deafening thud of snow from the trees above my cottage falling on to the corrugated iron roof kept me awake most of the night and at sunrise the dawn chill went straight through my bones. However, the biggest challenge for the day ahead wasn't the cold or the lack of sleep and cold - we were low on staff and not only did I have cooking demonstrations and an International Food and Wine Society dinner, but we had the day-to-day kitchen chores to accomplish.

Clad in my chef's whites I stepped out of my house and sunk almost knee deep into the snow. Clearly, this wasn't going to be a day for sissies. After extricating my car from the snow, I eventually arrived at work after midday to find that Hartford House had also suffered the ravages of the snow storm; my sous chef Elaine was late for duty as two trees in her garden had landed on her car.

I was taken back to my training over the next six days when as much as possible had to be done by hand because we had very little electricity. I found muscles in my body I'd forgotten I had while whisking, kneading and beating. And, producing choux pastry for profiteroles for a more-than-a-metrehigh croque-en-bouche with no electricity was no joke.

Everything took so much longer to prepare because time was spent on simple tasks that were normally far quicker with electricity. Thankfully we were incredibly impressed with how successful our gas-cooked scones turned out to be.

To top it all off we had a wedding at Hartford House that weekend - and the bride had chosen an unusual dinner menu with a lot of homely platters of food. Normally our mains wouldn't require an electric oven, but we had hundreds of Yorkshire puddings to make and just before service, the generator died. This took cooking by candlelight to another level. That evening I thought the universe was seriously testing our culinary skills, but we took the challenges and overcame them. We were all working harder, faster and cleverer than before.

The kitchen team was put up at the hotel over the six days but we couldn't even enjoy the five star luxury properly because, with no electricity, we couldn't have a relaxing post-service bath! Having to adhere to a bath-time roster was a small issue really, but by day six we were all desperate to bath in our own homes. A happy chef means happy guests and this irritation was taking its toll on our usually happy kitchen team. You can imagine my joy when finally on day six, the warm glow of lights welcomed me home to my cottage.

The week delivered a record amount of snow for the area, as well as an action-packed, trying time for the Hartford House team. But as we reverted to the basics of cooking and serving, we were glad to have the fundamental principles and techniques of cooking up our sleeves. Clearly, you never know when you may need them.

Extract from Chef! Issue 32


Nancy Gardiner /The Witness (p)

Nancy Gardiner /The Witness (p)

"Nancy is right up there with Keith Kirsten, Tanya Visser and Margaret Roberts..."

When the much acclaimed botanical author, Nancy Gardiner, described Hartford House and its gardens as the "jewelled buckle of the Natal Midlands", she might have been talking about herself. You can't love nature and its wonderful bounty like she does, without being a generous-spirited human being, but Nancy is much more than t

hat. To those of us who live in her neighbourhood, she is a treasure of her own kind, and we are lucky to be able to call her our friend. Recently in The Witness, Trish Beaver paid her respects about the legendary horticulturalist.

The day I meet Nancy Gardiner, it is misty in Hilton where she lives. Trowel in hand, she is just in from the garden where she had been weeding and trimming. Gardiner, at 90 is a household name in South Africa's gardening circles and has had a life-long love affair with the natural world.

She describes how this developed while growing up on a farm in Hillary, near Durban. Hillary was very rural in those days, and Gardiner recalls that her father used to love taking walks where she and her sisters would tag along. "I was an avid collector of all things. My bedroom was full of flowers and interesting things I found on our walks. I would show them to the teacher, and I was the queen of show and tell. Gardiner would draw and write notes about everything she found, and her curiosity about all growing things led her to study botany and zoology at the then University of Natal.

Gardiner took up writing some years later, when she was offered a chance to learn to write freelance articles by Durbanite Faye Goldie at the New Era School of Writing.

Her first story about plants was about the planting of flowers in the Durban city centre for Farmer's Weekly. From those early years, she graduated to writing magazine features, taking all her own photographs. Her husband Ian, encouraged her in this, as he used to take aerial reconnaissance pictures of enemy sites, while a fighter pilot in World War 2. Her love of nature took Nancy on an odyssey to many great gardens of the world, as well as the remoter parts of our own gardens.

Recently, she made the transition to digital photography, which she is finding a bit daunting. "I think it is all wonderful that you can discard pictures you don't like and it saves money, but this camera thinks too much".

More than a dozen books later, Gardiner is still considering doing more "After my husband died a few years ago, the books gave me reason to keep on going, but now I always think there is some aspect that needs to be written about."

"One has to keep busy and to be interested in life", she says. Her home is a treasure trove of antiques, which she finds at auctions. According to friends, she is a great bargain hunter, who enjoys the thrill of discovering a rare china plate at the second hand store.

On her passion for gardening, Gardiner has said that while her parents, who were both keen gardeners, planted the seed, this really took off when she moved to Pietermaritzburg. In an interview with Witness journalist Stephen Coan in 2005, she recalled: "I found all these beautiful nurseries and went down to Carters, where Trevor Schofield took me in hand and told me all about azaleas. And so I met lots of people and gardeners."

These days, she is held in high esteem by her green-fingered peers. "Nancy is right up there with Keith Kirsten, Tanya Visser and Margaret Roberts as far as knowledge and expertise are concerned" says Celma Croudace, of the KZN-inland branch of the Botanical Society of South Africa.

Still feisty and forever discovering new things, Gardiner feels strongly that gardening is about much more than just digging and planting. "A garden gives you a certain peace. Just walking out into a garden, or sitting in a garden, you become aware of the close association of plants with the soil, with the earthworms moving through it. Once you become aware of that, it becomes part of you" she told Coan.

She has had a bougainvillea, a daylily and a rose named after her. The rose is described as a "soft salmon-pink colour, with multiple layers of soft petals". On the day I meet her, she is welcoming with pink lipstick and neat hair in a bun, and I am reminded of another part of the rose's description: "It is all gentleness and thornless too".

Extract from The Witness