An Undeserving Charity Case

Plenty to beef about at a hotel school charity dinner

Deep in Central South Africa my presence is required at a charity feast created by the students of the local catering college as part of the practical work required for their year-end exams. I am scared.

I haven’t been faced with a more terrifying ordeal since I had to judge the best restaurant at a cook-off in aid of Epilepsy South Africa, ten years ago in Dullstroom, where each of the highly-strung chefs had knocked up a three-course meal using a basket of ingredients including, among others, a lamb chop, a tin of fish and a can of Esprit. Most of the dishes were disgusting – we just had to decide which was the least horrible, award the prizes and then duck the abuse from a number of very upset Dullstroomian men in kaftans.

This time, however, we were not judges, merely willing victims in search of a three-course meal for fifty bucks. And there was to be no complaining, please.

“Good evening. My name is Kgomotso Ramathlodi* and I am your waitron for this evening. First I am going to give you the menu. Then I am going to get you drinks. Then I am going to take your order. Then I am going to bring your food. Then I am going to clear your plates.” We’d got the picture. If we were going to be guinea pigs in an experiment, at least it was clear from the outset how painful it was likely to be.

From the outside the building looked like a Welsh Yacht Club. From the inside it was a 1970s megalith adorned with naff paintings of the Big Five and loads of stainless steel and concrete. The sun set behind the mountains in a huge pink blur with orange dribbly bits in it.

There was no choice of meal. Our chef, whom we never met but who was the other half of Kgomotso’s team, had constructed a menu of Beef Consomme, followed by Beef Schnitzel with a Pepper Sauce, Mashed Potatoes and Fresh Vegetables, followed by Beef Crumble. Actually I made the last one up. It was Apple Crumble.

Kgomotso brought rolls like squash balls and a Cold Brown Salt-flavoured Soup, grittier than Clint Eastwood. Then she brought Cold Flattened-with-a-Roller Dead Cow and Grey, Watery Pulped Potatoes with Beans and Carrots in Oil. A Coagulated Lumpy Slime with Black Flecks in it arrived later. Too much later to be of any use.

The wine service was so painfully slow that we sneaked in our own refills when she wasn’t looking and all the time, a grim-looking bespectacled Joshua Doore-lookalike and his duskier assistant strutted up and down between the tables, clipboards in hand, like a doctor and nurse with bad news to record. At other tables there was laughter. There were salads and fresh fish. The wine was flowing like the wedding at Cana. At ours we sat on the wagon, dreading the arrival of the crumble.

There may have been no beef in it, but there certainly wasn’t any apple either. It was cold and burnt and contained tennis biscuits. I hate tennis biscuits and I think there should be a warning in large red letters on any dish on a menu that contains them. I would suggest the following wording: SORRY. THE CHEF WAS TOO LAZY TO BAKE. THIS DISH THEREFORE CONTAINS TENNIS BISCUITS AND IS NOT EDIBLE.

The coffee was hot, Oh Joy, and a questionnaire was delivered with the bill. We were honest. Well, we had to be, didn’t we? Kgomotso was fine. She’d done a really good job under the circumstances. But the chef should be failed. In fact not only failed but banned from ever setting foot in a kitchen again and sentenced to eating only tennis biscuits in perpetuity. We left hungry, thirsty and dreaming longingly of lamb stuffed with snoek and marinated in raspberry Esprit.

* The name has been changed so as not to sabotage employment opportunities but she’s probably been snapped up by now.

Old world charm in the Berg

Chris Harvie finds good trout and faded baronial at the Himeville Arms

We had watched the sun go down over the Sani Pass from a gyrocopter, sweeping low over the eland, the trout dams and the pilot’s ex-wife’s farmhouse, with suitable waving and taunting and had spectacularly previewed the Himeville Arms earlier from the air. Now we were headed for it by land.

An impressive array of bakkies lined the street but it seemed eerily quiet as we strode gingerly into the bar. A roar went up. The Sharks were on the attack and everyone was holding their breath in the run-up to a try. Ordering a pint of Drakensberg Pale Ale, we settled down with a menu and joined in the cheering. The chap behind me at the bar was eating steak, egg and chips out of a polystyrene container. In Himeville, it seemed, anything went.

‘We don’t serve fast food, we serve good food as fast as we can.’ Things were looking up. After days on the road of cardboard burgers, ancient sandwiches, dry muffins and that strange powdery espresso that dribbles like an illness out of the Caltex machines, good food was just what I wanted.

The restaurant was full but the talented Siphiso vowed to make a plan in two minutes. We wandered warily from the simple wooden bar through to the reception with its chintz wooden-framed chairs and its nagklokkie and its eetkamer signs embossed in black-on-white plastic and Siphiso reappeared, plan made.

Unfazed by the bombardment of questions that followed, he reassured us with the confidence that comes from being born Zulu, that the eisbein was juicy, the chips were chunky (demonstrated by an impression of a body-builder) and the trout was fresh. Well it would be wouldn’t it?

The huge stone fireplace was empty, not everyone was cold after gyrocoptering, and the walls were pale green. Here and there on the panelling an occasional kudu-head projected. The curtains were covered with leaves and in the corner was a harmonium. In the end-wall was a mysterious Hobbit-door pointing in the direction of Lesotho.

My mussels starter was in a deliciously gluey cheese sauce with bacon and brown wholewheat bread, washed down with the last of the pale ale. Then a woman, Siphiso’s mother, I liked to imagine, pulled the cork on the Railroad Red with a loud ‘thwomp’ and served the wine with all the aplomb of the finest sommelier.

The success of the Himeville Arms lies in its simplicity. We weren’t stuck in the illegible dinginess of a candle-lit dining room. The lights were on. There were candles but they were on candlesticks half a metre high, so they didn’t flicker irritatingly at you. They were above your head somewhere.

The presentation was sensible and the garnish was that great old favourite, a slice of a chunky tomato with a ring of raw onion perched on a torn-off quarter of a lettuce leaf. It was perfect. Who wants to pay extra to have all those blasted herbs and flowers thrown at their food and to have their beans tied up in a chive?

The eisbein was glorious, my dinner companion told me between rants as to the relative merits of Himevillers and Underbergers, which sounded to me like two breeds of caravan. It seems there is an ongoing rivalry between the two towns that amounts to a near-conflict. My trout had a crispy lemon butter-flavoured skin and was pink to the point of being almost orange, as only truly fresh trout can be. It was wonderful and the overcooked baby-marrow and the cauliflower cheese were exactly what I would have chosen to accompany it. Classic country cooking with certain boarding school-inspired refinements.

Unlike school, the loos were clean and reached by following signs in Gothic script. Somehow it always feels safer following a sign to the Gents when it looks vaguely Tudor. I expected a ‘Mary Queen of Scots slept here’ sign below it and loads of pineapple chunks in the urinal. I was not disappointed in the latter and, let’s face it, the former was unlikely.

We finished off with a malva pudding to rival the best in the world. My only complaint was that the coffee was not as tasty as the Caltex stuff, but it flowed better.

It was nearly 9pm. Everyone else had emptied out into the bar to celebrate another Sharks kill. We instead headed tentatively for the Hobbit door. The lights behind it were off but we could just make out a huge baronial hall, with walls of horns and skulls, and a light fitting adorned with a vast pink and white frilly light-shade suspended from the ceiling like Caspar the Friendly Ghost in bloomers. Not a Sotho or a Gollum in sight.

The Himeville Arms Hotel Himeville, KwaZulu-Natal
Telephone: 033-702-1305

Skiing with Yaks in Scotland

Chris Harvie braves boring bison, bad food and blustery winds to ski in the Scottish Highlands

We were looking at a small mixed herd of yak and bison standing in a miserable pool of muddy sleet. They didn’t look happy, but then I don’t imagine bison ever look happy. Yackety-yak.

At the entrance gate, an employee had asked us where we were from. We had told him. South Africa.

“I thought I heard a twang,” he had said with a Highland twang of his own. “Well, it’s just like the Kruger National Park out there, but without the speed traps.”

There are, of course, no similarities whatsoever. Skiing was off though, as a result of 200km-per-hour winds in the Cairngorms, and bison- spotting was the only alternative way to pass the day in Inverness-shire. It was, we were reminded frequently, the week before the season began. The Speyside Steam Railway was without trains. There were no reindeer at the Reindeer Sanctuary. The shops, admittedly, were holding sales but Edinburgh Woollens are beyond the South African pocket even at two for the price of one. So bison it was.

“What’s the difference between a buffalo and a bison?” I asked. No one in the car knew. “You can’t wash yer ‘ands in a buffalo”.

It’s one of my favourite jokes but there was no denying it; the bison weren’t grabbing us, seasoned safari-hands that we are, and neither were the red pandas, the wolves or the mouflons, whatever they are. We could identify with the lynx, sensibly and invisibly buried away from the snow in a hutch, and with the Scottish wildcats, although there was a rumour in Aviemore that they weren’t really wildcats but a couple of household tabbies relocated from the RSPCA.

High-speed snow clouds rolled in from the North Pole, immaculately camouflaging the snow monkeys by the frozen pond. We retreated to High Range, our lodgings on the outskirts of town. In their own words, the place has been under the personal supervision of the Vastano family for more than 32 years, where the standards and style have been influenced by continuity and continental flair. An immodest claim but not an unreasonable one, and their La Taverna Ristorante, Pizzeria and Bar, whilst not being terribly Scottish, serves a mean vegetable terrine followed by chicken marsala or wagon-wheel-sized pizzas. All in all it was ideal and cost only R200 per person per night.

The following day was forecast as clear, which seemed utterly unbelievable watching the squalls outside the window, but we needed to prepare for the prospect of some skiing and headed out into the Scottish chill to check on hire prices for skiwear, to pull over our optimistic Mr Price T-shirts.

You know you’re in Scotland when the ski-hire shops are not called Alpine Sports but Skiing- dubh, after the sock-dagger that killed Macbeth.

We settled on School of Snowsports next to the Hilton Hotel (yes, there really is one) in Coylumbridge, tentatively pre-booked our skis, poles and boots and raided the beanie bin for much-needed head protection. It was getting colder, not warmer, so we made our diffident way back to our apartment to roast a chicken and indulge ourselves in British nostalgia television.

Sunday, however, dawned clear and still. Ten snowy kilometres uphill from Aviemore, we bulked ourselves out in padded trousers and jackets, donned our clomping skiboots and trudged like King Kongs across the car park to the funicular and up Cairngorm Mountain. Most of the 12 lifts and tows were open, the friendly queues were mercifully short and the streaming sun offered perfect visibility. It was as fine a day’s skiing as I have enjoyed anywhere in Europe, a dusting of light powder snow on a firm base, and the good-natured locals were as cheerful as we were at the prospect.

Lunch, a low-point later on, was at The Ptarmigan, Scotland’s highest restaurant, at the top of Scotland’s highest railway, and home to Scotland’s highest postbox and, probably, to Scotland’s dodgiest menu.

The best bet was macaroni cheese and chips and we were back out on the snow in no time, chanting the ‘Dee-diddle-diddle-diddle’ from the theme of Ski Sunday and slaloming down the runs, in and out of the tangled wrecks of the first- time squaddie-skiers of the British Army.

When the wind got up at about four o’clock and began to blow an icy blast of crunchy snow across the sweeping tops of the range into our exposed red faces, we retired discreetly to the valley; but it had been memorable.

The next day, as we drove back down the A9 towards Edinburgh, through blustering gales and snow drifts, an occasional red deer sheltered under a pine tree. No bison. No yaks.

The Highland Wildlife Park is nothing like the Kruger National Park.

Aviemore, though, is a bit like Tiffindell but with macaroni cheese and a season three times as long. And a very different twang.

For more info…

High Range Holiday Complex, Aviemore
Highland Wildlife Park
School of Snowsports
Cairngorm Mountain