Besides locality, there is another common thread to Summerhill and Hartford House. They were both founded on dreams, widely disparate enterprises with a shared set of values. Being racehorse breeders and hoteliers, you can’t avoid the comparisons between the way we do things and how others go about their businesses.
Viewing entries in
If you’re a fan of the performing arts, one event on the international calendar you can’t afford to miss is the Edinburgh Festival, where the Royal Military Tattoo takes centre stage, and “The Fringe” is precisely that, a daily programme in the city precinct of dozens of events featuring actors, musicians, playwrights, singers and comedians. In a nutshell, it’s the biggest festival of its kind in the world, and the launchpad of countless big names of the entertainment industry, so securing a bed in Edinburgh’s proximity is like trying to find the Cullinan diamond in the Sterkfontein Dam.
It may be cold at the moment in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands (we have been down to -7° in the morning so far), but the beauty of the farm in the mist definitely makes up for it! If you want to come and experience some of these sights yourself be sure to contact Hartford House.
People who know us, know too, that Summerhill and Hartford have long been worshippers of authenticity, originality, the upholding of tradition and the preservation of the environment. The rewards for our adherence to these things have been in ample supply this week, with the announcement on Friday that John Motaung had become the second of our graduates of the School Of Management Excellence in three years to make top student at the English National Stud.
We’re big on “fillies” here, as most of our readers know, and our honour roll celebrates any number of world-beaters. Igugu, Icy Air, Fisani, Checcetti, Hollywoodboulevard, Blueridge Mountain, and Mannequin and just this weekend a new star, Rich Girl, to name a few; champions and Classic heroines that’ve underwritten our reputation as an elite nursery for some of the finest young ladies in racing. We get them in all shapes and sizes, and we have an enviable record in sales-toppers too, three of the last four at the National Sales among them.
“The infusion of new blood into any nation’s stallion ranks is vital for the health and the future of any breeding industry, and as a country, we should be aware of this need.”
Summerhill CEOWe’ve just penned a piece on relative values in the culinary world on the Hartford House blog site (www.hartford.co.za), following my return from Australia. Good meals are more often than not the source of good conversation and good entertainment, which reminds me of a piece of useful information which emerged from a good dinner in Melbourne’s Crown Towers last week. I was seated next to a regular South African visitor, Paul Guy, a bloodstocker in the state of Victoria, who pointed out something I should’ve known about the South African stallion environment. I say I should’ve known, because we’re in the stallion business, as you know, up to our necks, and so are most of the major stud farms in the country, yet I suspect that like me, many of my colleagues are unaware of Paul’s revelation.
It astonished me when he pointed out that of the top twenty stallions in South Africa last season, only one was born in the year 2000 or afterwards (in other words, 19 of the top 20 were fifteen-years-old or more). By contrast, the Australian premiership included six “young guns” in their top twenty armoury, which prompted a visitation on the part of my PA, Amorette Kramer, to investigate the position in America and Europe. I guess it’s probably unremarkable that there are parallels between those nations and Australia, given their “shuttling” commonality, which makes the South African exception to what is internationally “normal”, the more stark.
For some years, our readers will attest to our lament that buyers at the sales appear to have turned their backs on the progeny of new stallions at their own considerable expense. In our effort to understand this trend, we’ve found some forgiveness in the belief that when times are tough, people tend to fall back on the tried-and- trusted. It’s apparent though, that in Europe, the US and Australasia, the buying public adopt a broader and more accommodating stance, recalling that every one of their top sires at one point or another, were once first season sires.
Anyone who’s amused themselves by watching our sires’ videos over the past couple of years, will know that we’ve made a mission of reminding people of this at regular intervals: in the end, those that bought the first progeny of Jet Master, Western Winter, Var, Silvano and Dynasty, among the current generation, cashed in, just as they did when the first stock of Northern Guest, Foveros, Royal Prerogative, Jungle Cove and Persian Wonder debuted a couple of decades ago. Seen purely from the perspective of the racehorse trainer (unlike international jurisdictions, almost all of the “picking” and buying is done by trainers in this country), he gets almost twice the number of horses these days from an untried sire than he does buying a Western Winter, a Var, a Dynasty or a Silvano, so it makes sense to have a leg in more than one camp, particularly in an era when the quality of new entrants in the stallion firmament is at an all-time high.
I guess this begs the questions, just how good is the present crop of young stallions in South Africa? How difficult is it, given the strong preference of buyers at present in favour of the progeny of proven sires, for a young stallion to make it in South Africa, where breeders in general are driven by the market to support the established stallions at the expense of the younger ones? And finally, and most vitally, how big is the gap likely to be for the emerging stallion, when those ageing sultans of the top tier eventually move on, as they inevitably must? The National Sires’ Premiership of 2013 listed just a single stallion born after 2000, at no. 19, and it happened to be Storm Cat’s son, Mogok, who stands down the valley from us.
Looking at international comparisons, no fewer than six of the leading stallions in the United States last year were sires born from 2000 onwards: in Australia, five (or 25%) fell into that category, while right now, eight (or 40%) count themselves in the top twenty in that country: on the other hand, a glance at last year’s New Zealand log suggests they were suffering from a similar malaise to us in South Africa, with none of the top twenty less than 14 years of age, though that has changed dramatically this season, with nine (or 45%) among the ranks of the young pretenders.
The infusion of new blood into any nation’s stallion ranks is vital for the health and the future of any breeding industry, and as a country, we should be aware of this need. If we can’t encourage buyers to support a new stallion’s progeny in the sales ring, we’ll not only deter breeders from supporting those stallions as well, but we’re in danger of finding ourselves in a “chicken-and-egg” situation going forward. For any young stallion to reveal his worth, he needs opportunities, and he can only get those if breeders are prepared to seize the day and send their mares. Yet, there appears to be an inclination among breeders these days, when, having found it in themselves to patronise a young stallion in his opening season, they just as quickly abandon the ship in the second and third seasons, for fear of the market’s reprisal should the first crop not come off in haste. How does that young horse sustain his performance as a credible prospect against the established stallions whose books are filled to capacity season-after-season, and consistently have streams of representatives on the racecourse at any given time in any given year?
Remembering that any stallion prospect worth his salt in the modern idiom, is going to demand an investment of several million (most times in the neighbourhood of R10 million, and in some instances, beyond R40 million), and that somewhere, somehow, that investment has to be recouped, we nonetheless find ourselves in the vice grip of commercial imperative, and in a business in which the casualty rate is higher than most, you don’t need much more encouragement to send you packing back to the old “codger” who’s been around for a long time, and has just as long teeth. What’s happened, I keep asking myself, to the old-fashioned entrepreneurial verve that gave this country more world class companies than any other of its size? Certainly, none of that would’ve been possible without an element of risk-taking, a pinch of adventure and a determined spirit, characteristics we’ve long admired as a nation, but which appear to have deserted us in our dabble with horses.
Which brings me back to another matter of cost. If you’ve got a moment to go to the Hartford House site and scan the piece “You don’t have to be rich” on our blog, you’ll see how lucky we are in this country when it comes to the cost of food. I’m grateful then for the fact that Inglis & Son, the sales company that stages the Melbourne Premier sale, were our gracious hosts on this evening of information gathering.
Mick Goss / Summerhill CEO
“Horses and humans both eat on Good Friday, Christmas Day and every other public holiday we know, more so in December, so we’re heads down here.”
December has always been an eventful month for the Goss family. My late Dad and younger brother were both Sagittarians, and so am I. Nelson Mandela touched us all with his burial last month, and Boxing Day marked the anniversary of the respects we paid to Cheryl’s Mum the year before. For most people I know, it’s a “down tools” month, but if your chosen profession is horses and hospitality, that’s a pipedream. Horses and humans both eat on Good Friday, Christmas Day and every other public holiday we know, more so in December, so we’re heads down here. Not that we’re complaining at all; Summerhill and Hartford seem to have a disarming effect on the grumpiest of politicians, banged-up bankers and stressed-out solicitors, and often enough, the soothing balm of a stud tour turns an unsuspecting hotel guest into a paying customer on the farm. It all helps the bottom line!
But of course, the memories of those that’ve passed on, inevitably induce some reflection. My old man was a trader by birth, an accountant by profession and a horseman at heart. Some of these things are mutually exclusive, if only because accountants generally think they have a handle on the economics of the horse game, and so you seldom find them among the “players”. But there’s another aspect to their in-built aversion to getting their feet wet, and that’s because accountants like to bring order and logic to their lives; horse racing is seldom ordered and is never logical. It’s an affair of the heart, and it appeals more to the adventurous among us, to beings of the creative spirit who believes you only live once, and to those with an appreciation of the higher things in life.
In that respect, my father was an unusual accountant: he loved the ponies, and so did his dad, Pat Goss, who chose the thick of the Great Depression to launch his stud farming ventures in faraway East Griqualand. “One horse is all it takes” Pat would confide to anyone who’d listen, and when his moment of glory came before the 100,000 who’d thronged the fastness of Greyville racecourse on the first Saturday of July 1946, there were more than a few in the crowd who took heart in the memory of that one-liner. I have to confess, that while my time only came later, the recollections of what St Pauls did that day, and what my granddad had often professed was as much a contributor to the existence of Summerhill as we know it today, as any others beyond the genetic predisposition towards horses that appears to infect the male line descendants of our family. We simply haven’t been able to find the antidote!
Most of us grow up wanting to please the “ancestors”, not only because in Zululand it’s a fundamental aspect of local religion, but I guess it’s because they all seem to harbour so many expectations of us. My Dad liked the idea that in my first life, I’d chosen the law as a means to a living, but I’ve often wondered what he’d have thought of my abandoning it for a stud farm. After all, this is not so much a way of making a living as it is a way of life, and I’ve often pulled the leg of my brother, Pat Jnr, that when I bought him out of Summerhill in the 1980s, I gave him his passport to the Sunday Times “Rich List”, while here I am still wearing the shoes I first arrived in!
Pat Snr and my Dad were both winners, and I suspect they would’ve applauded our nine consecutive Breeder’s Premierships, knowing the odds-against when you’re as remote from the mainstream as we are, and that it’s happened at a time when the contest has never been tougher. At the same time, as former champions themselves of the lot of the little guys, they would’ve lamented the demise among our colleagues of so many of the farming fraternity who’ve withered in the face of a wave of involvement from the “big money” in town. Yet horse breeding is not alone in this respect; agriculture in general as well as the dairy, plantations and crop farming sectors, have seen similar patterns gain traction in recent times.
Herein may lie opportunities for the former farmers to become the highly-rewarded managers in the new corporate scheme of things, free of the hazards that world prices, weak currencies and wet Wednesdays in the Western Cape winter might have held for their one-time enterprises. Pat and Dad would, I’m sure, have liked the idea of hosting the only world class hotel on a world class stud farm in the world, as well as its recent recognition by a senior critic of no less a publication than The Wall Street Journal, as one of the top three country restaurants on the planet.
As former studmen whose covering yards were gum-poled palisades out in the open, they’d have envied the shelter of the stallion barn, the countenance of which resembles the Moeder Kerk in Graaff Reinet’s main square. As a man who’d spent the entire proceeds of his “July” victory on a stallion son of Hyperion, granddad would’ve taken pride in the assembly of princely pedigrees and pulsating performances that populate the stallion precinct. They’d have applauded a team that replaced the arduous torture of yearling “prep” with the first automated “walker”, which does the work of ten men; and of the innovation which took the guesswork out of early pregnancy diagnosis with the nation’s first ultrasound scanner: which worked with the treasury to rewrite the most favourable tax dispensation in the world of racehorse production; that had the foresight to persuade our local custodians of the benefits of a breeder’s Premium Scheme which remains unique to those who ply their trade in these valleys: a team which gave fresh impetus to racehorse marketing through the engineering of the world’s first Ready To Run Sale almost 30 years ago, a concept which maintains its place as the world’s fastest growing tool in the turnover of horseflesh: that understood the imperatives of the trade in horses, and presided over the establishment of a national Trade Council which has overseen the export of more than a billion in bloodstock.
They’d have been in awe of a blog site which attracts the busiest traffic in thoroughbred breeding across the globe; and I’m sure they’d have marvelled at a farm just 10 kilometres outside the dustiest little dorp in the Midlands, (at the Southernmost tip of what the civilized people call the “Darkest Continent”,) whose “resident” customers stretch across 22 timezones, from Japan to the United States. They’d have been especially appreciative of the Southern Hemisphere’s only School of Management Excellence, whose governors count a former Judge of high repute and an eminent ex-chair of the Jockey Club of South Africa; of the fact that eight professors, local and foreign have given their time to teach our students in a theatre dedicated to their memory; and that our graduates have excelled in the company of representatives of all the major racing jurisdictions of the world.
Born where they were and raised the way they were, they’d have rejoiced in the skills of our people, in the presence of our other institutions of learning and especially, they’d have been comforted by the harmony that exists between the six hundred who call Summerhill “home” every night.
I’ve no doubt, they’d have delighted in my Mum’s and my brother’s unstinting commitment to our enterprise, and that in the celebration of her life, no fewer than two Kings and a Queen turned up to remember the “old girl”.
Finally, for a man like my Dad who belonged to another century but who loved “gadgets” nonetheless, I’m reminded every day as I enter the main gates of Summerhill, how tickled he’d have been at their mechanical activation. For all our Sunday school lessons, it remains a truism: the Devil is in the detail.
TOP 100 SA WINELIST AWARDS 2014
“Hartford House was named Number One in the ‘Relaxed Dining’ category,
standing alone in the ‘Inspirational’ (90 plus %) category.”
Summerhill CEOWe know this year has been jam-packed with accolades and awards, but lest you should ever believe we take these things for granted, believe me, we don’t. The Hartford and Summerhill teams beaver away day-in, day-out, 24/7, 365 days of the year. Guests eat and drink on Christmas day as well as Good Friday, and so do horses, so there’s no respite for the wicked. The holidays are upon us, and both the hotel and the stud farm are booked to capacity.
Anyone who thinks that good luck is a consequence of randomness, should think again. Yes, you can’t do without a bit of luck, but as Gary Player once famously said, “the harder I practice, the luckier I get”. Hot on the heels of their top five placing in the Eat Out National Restaurant awards, Hartford has scooped another “jackpot”, to put it in racing parlance. The award winners of the Top 100 SA winelists of 2014 have just been released, and Hartford House was named Number One in the “Relaxed Dining” category, (standing alone in the “Inspirational” (90 plus %) category.
Having slaved away myself for the first fifteen years of this “little giant’s” existence as a hotel in helping to compile their wine list, I know what it takes, and that wasn’t without a little help from our old pal and consummate judge Jeremy Walker of Grangehurst; this is a singular honour, recognising the many hours (no, months) of pain-staking effort that goes not only into the selection, but in the narratives that tantalize our guests when the wine menu is put before them.
At Summerhill, we know that it’s all about the many hundreds of thousands of hours in the “paddy fields”, and the Hartford story is no different. Besides which, of course, you have to have the “palate”, as the fundis call it. To those that played a role this year, and to those of our suppliers who took the trouble not only to visit Hartford, but to invest their faith in us, well done.
For more information, please visit:
Hartford House Head Chef, Jackie Cameron
(Photo : Sally Chance)
EAT OUT DSTV FOOD NETWORK RESTAURANT AWARDS
Summerhill CEOTwelve years ago a petite blonde waif wafted into the Hartford kitchen. A demure little thing with cherry lips and an endearing smile, her icy blue eyes betrayed a steely determination. Head Chef Richard Carstens (later to become South Africa’s Chef Of The Year during his tenure at our new venture, Lynton Hall,) was about to depart for the opening of that South Coast hostelry, and Jackie Cameron had been recruited to step into his foreboding shoes.
Around the same time, our parent business, Summerhill Stud was developing the momentum that would take it to nine consecutive national Racehorse Breeders’ titles, the culmination of some twenty-five years in business, so nobody knows better than us what it takes to climb Everest. While a location 12 kilometers outside the dustiest little dorp in the Midlands of KwaZulu-Natal, may be the ideal spot for a thoroughbred farm, it’s not the place you’d ordinarily choose to make a name for yourself in the culinary trade. After all, it’s a long way off the beaten track, and a heck of a long way from the tourist trap which is Cape Town and its environs. Somebody recently told us there were more than 65,000 eateries in South Africa, and that puts making the nation’s top ten restaurants bang into perspective. The thing is though, to build a reputation, you need something of a passing trade, and not too many “foodies” in those days made the pilgrimage up the Hlatikulu road.
Earlier this year, the Hartford restaurant received the ultimate international accolade, when the senior food critic at The Wall Street Journal counted it in the top three country restaurants on the planet, and we wondered whether it could get any better than that. After all, competition for a place in Eat Out’s Top Ten is more intense than it ever was these days, and South Africa’s top restaurateurs now rank with the very best in the world; in any event, how do you separate number one from number twenty? Truth is, the judges do, just as they do with their Michelin gradings in Europe, and quite marvelously, last evening they counted little old Hartford in the top five in South Africa.
Given its size, its geographical disadvantages and the fact that we’re not on “Main Street” when it comes to aspirant young chefs wanting to work where the lights are brightest, this is a remarkable tribute to Jackie Cameron’s god-given gifts, a dedication uncommon in the world anywhere, and a team of people that’ve travelled every extra mile she’s taken them. There’ve been times when their hearts were making appointments their bodies were not designed to keep, particularly remembering that when this little venture started out seventeen years ago, there was no-one in this district with a hospitality skill to speak of. That’s the exciting thing, because we still have many miles to travel, and there’s still plenty of room to make it even better.
Spare a thought for my wife, Cheryl, for a moment. She was the eldest of seven in a big Catholic family: she left school before it was over, to lessen the burden on a prolific father, with nothing but her natural talents, as yet undiscovered by the larger world, to recommend her. Hartford House was Cheryl’s idea, and I have to confess that I and our financial people did everything we could to dissuade her from embarking on this venture, from spreadsheets showing the business would be bankrupt in six months, to reminding her that hospitality is the toughest business in the world (after racehorses!). That she and this little team in the heart of Zululand have arrived where they have this day, is a sign; if ever it was needed, that nothing is impossible: miracles just take a little longer. Besides, it’s a sign that all is well in this beloved country of ours, and this is the way to make it work.
From one champion team to another, well done! Be sure to visit :www.hartford.co.za.
Eat Out Top 10 Restaurants for 2013
- The Test Kitchen - Cape Town, Western Cape
- Five Hundred - Sandton, Gauteng
- Rust en Vrede - Stellenbosch, Western Cape
- The Greenhouse - Cape Town, Western Cape
- Hartford House - Mooi River, KwaZulu-Natal
- Jordan Restaurant - Stellenbosch, Western Cape
- Overture - Stellenbosch, Western Cape
- Camphors at Vergelegen - Somerset West, Western Cape
- The Tasting Room at Le Quartier Francais - Franschhoek, Western Cape
- Pierneef a La Motte - Franschhoek, Western Cape
Snow-bedecked Drakensberg - Giant’s Castle
(Photo : Leigh Willson)
“Charmed by the contrast between a beautiful spring garden
and the chills of a glistening Giant’s Castle”
There were more than a few townspeople among the guests at Hartford House this weekend, who lamented the rain which forced a reappraisal of their outdoor plans, and again this morning, there was a rush among the guests for “Summerhill” apparel, particularly fleeces and weather-beaters, when a snow-bedecked Drakensberg emerged from the clouds at 6:30 am. For us though, the farming types, it was manna from heaven. In our 35 years at Summerhill, we’ve never known quite as mild a winter, and while the spring has been predictably unpredictable, the bit of rain we’ve had might otherwise have sufficed were it not for the soaring “summer” temperatures and cork-dry berg winds September and the early part of October brought with them. Uncharacteristic weather plays havoc with breeding plans and the foaling process, where creatures of habit generally follow the dictates of habit, no matter our human interventions. Places like the Karoo, the Western Cape and sometimes the Eastern Cape can justifiably use the term “drought”, but it’s hardly a term us Natalians can claim to belong to us. The last time we could genuinely complain that things were dry, was 1992, when irrigation dams dropped to a third of their capacity, but we all coped. While outsiders may have noticed that the terrain was different, they would hardly have said we were in trouble, beyond the obvious drop in our dam levels.
Snow on the mountains in late October you might say is unseasonal, and you’re right, but it’s not unprecedented, and while it may send a few shivers down the spine, the largesse this morning includes the free-flow of our rivers and an immeasurable supply of free nitrogen for the environment. Not that it’s deterred our visitors: an American banking group, charmed by the contrast between a beautiful spring garden and the chills of a glistening Giant’s Castle, promptly booked their return visit to Hartford next year on check-out this morning.
For all the trials and the tribulations that accompany the foaling season, it’s been pretty much free-wheel in 2013, and while that says something for the husbandry skills of a team that ranks with the best anywhere, it always helps to remember that whatever you do, Mother Nature is still in charge.
For more information, please visit :
Chef Jackie Cameron with the Hartford House Team
(Photo : Hartford House)
EAT OUT DSTV FOOD NETWORK RESTAURANT AWARDS
When Mike de Kock’s son Mathew strode to the Equus Awards podium recently to receive his father’s eighth Champion Trainers’ title, he was breaking new ground in a new world. Likewise, when the Summerhill team took to the podium a few minutes later to receive its ninth consecutive Breeders’ title, it had broken its own modern record. Just this past week, the finalists forEat Out’s national “Top Ten” restaurant championships were announced, and for the seventh consecutive year, the name of Hartford House was among them.
Strictly by the numbers, this means Hartford trails, so it calls for some perspective. The cut-and-thrust of De Kock’s world involves more than 200 professionals, the cream of whom could compete with the best anywhere. The breeding world is populated by something of the order of a 1000 players, and the upper end is the do-or-die playing field of some of the nation’s wealthiest families. It’s hot-as-hell in our “kitchen”, but the one Hartford chef Jackie Cameron and her team operate in, is a cauldron of more than 60,000 restaurants across the country. International food critics remind us regularly that South African cuisine stands its ground with the best on the planet, and that makes a place in the national finals worthy of serious festivity.
A glimpse at the list of those that’ve made the cut, tells you very quickly just how tough it is at the top, and especially so for restaurants beyond the confines of the Western Cape. Regular interaction with your colleagues, a proximity that enables you to measure yourself against the best, and the many encounters Cape-based restaurateurs have with a burgeoning international clientele, are the ingredients which underpin their standards. By comparison, the relative isolation of a place like Hartford means having to get up that bit earlier, working that bit harder, and turning it out that bit better than you ever did before, just to keep your hand in the ring. To illustrate the difference, the once-sleepy enclave of Stellenbosch boasts nine of the finalists alone, while Gauteng and KZN are home to just two and one respectively.
Remembering that when Hartford opened just sixteen years ago, there were no skills in the hospitality and culinary environs to speak of, just hope, determination and the creative potential of a comparatively “raw” local population, and you begin to get a taste of what it takes. None of it would be possible though, without the support and the encouragement of those that take the trouble to visit Hartford, from the four corners of the earth. We’re always flattered that a little restaurant, twelve kilometres outside the dustiest little dorp in the Midlands, at the southernmost tip of what the civilized people in the North call the “darkest continent”, should serve as a magnet for so many from so far.
From one champion team to Hartford’s champions, well done. Visit www.hartford.co.za.
2013/2014 EAT OUT TOP TEN FINALISTS
- Bread & Wine
- Camphors at Vergelegen
- Delaire Graff Estate Restaurant
- DW Eleven-13 - Gauteng
- Five Hundred - Gauteng
- The Greenhouse
- Hartford House - KwaZulu-Natal
- Jordan Restaurant
- The Kitchen at Maison
- La Colombe
- Pierneef à La Motte
- Planet Restaurant
- The Restaurant at Waterkloof
- Rust en Vrede
- The Tasting Room
- The Test Kitchen
Morning walk through the cherry blossoms at Hartford House
(Photo : Gareth du Plessis)
“If breeding horses could be reduced to a system like a sum in arithmetic, or an operation in chemistry, there would be an end to speculation, and the exciting interest with which it is accompanied would be wanting. It is not to be inferred from this that the chance presides unreservedly over its destinies - far from it; there may be and are some extraordinary incidents which occasionally embellish it with something akin to that character, but they are the exception and not the rule. Those who take the most pains to investigate causes and effects will be the most successful in the enterprise of breeding racehorses” - Friedrich Becker, The Breed of the Racehorse.
Diners Club Diamond Winelist Award
(Photo : Leigh Willson)
Diners Club Winelist Awards
Summerhill CEOJames Bond’s originator, Ian Fleming once announced that “Diamonds Are Forever”, and whilst you can’t claim “life membership” of the club, Hartford House were awarded one of only a handful of Diamond Class Wine List accolades for the fifth consecutive year in the prestigious Diners Club contest.
As the only KZN restaurant featuring in the nation’s “Top Ten,” this is another feather in the cap, of a team who are not passionate about food and wine - they’re obsessed!
From one champion team to another, well done.
Be sure to visit www.hartford.co.za!
Click above to view photos of the Ferarri Club’s visit to Summerhill and Hartford…
(Photos : Annet Becker and Greig Muir)
“THE RED ARMY”
Summerhill CEOI was down at the Final Call stable block on a “refreshingly cool” Saturday morning, when I heard the unmistakable growl that precedes the start of a Formula One Grand Prix. Potholes generally preclude racing cars from inhabiting our neck of the woods, so I immediately thought it had to be a Nampo (as in “national maize producers organisation”) harvest day, with all the big machines that such a procession involves. There’s a stone-clad arch that frames the entrance to the yard, and as I glanced through it, the old wrought iron gates that announce your arrival at Summerhill, were being gently thrust aside to accommodate the “Red Army”. Greg Petzer, the man behind Astrapak’s sponsorship of the old Republic Day Handicap in 2002, was in the lead Ferrari, and there was nothing behind him worth less than a million, with some of them commanding sums in the vicinity of “five”. The difference, as we pointed out to these “magnificent men in their flying machines”, is that a stallion of that value can return you several million Rands a year tax-free, while the dividend on their side is that guttural “bark” and the adrenalin rush that turns big men into little boys. One day perhaps, we might be able to trade the badge on their Ferraris for a proper horse on his hindlegs, but we’re a subtle bunch here, as you know, and we desisted from any direct hints.
We’ve witnessed the launch of new models of Range Rover, BMW, Mercedes Benz and Bugatti motorbikes here at Hartford, we’ve seen streams of “Harleys”, vintage cars and horse buggies across these storied paddocks, but this was new history in the making. Not only for Ferraris’ trademark “red”, but especially for the quality of the “fillies” these aging fellows had in tow! There’s an old saying from Richard The Lionheart’s days about what “the outside of a horse does for the inside of a man”, but there’s something about the outside of a Ferrari that a woman just cannot resist!
Across the waves, Mike de Kock was at it again on Saturday. Haydock Park was the scene, the Rose Of Lancaster Stakes (Gr.3) was the race. In yet another display of the greatness of Galileo, his sons filled the first three places, headed up by De Kock’s charge, David Livingstone who’d apparently battled with all sorts of afflictions in a previous life. De Kock is nothing else if not a genius, and we can only imagine what sort of magic elixir was at work in taking down the colours of Telescope, whose talents have enjoyed the much-chronicled praise of no less a man than Sir Michael Stoute.
We sms’d the maestro, congratulating him on his win with “the missionary”. He snapped back, saying it was like cheating. “I had two jocks, Johnny Murtagh and the good Lord”, to which we responded: “If it came down to a straight choice, we’d have to go with Murtagh: though in the case of an objection, it pays to have the Almighty in the saddle”. There’s no knowing what Mike de Kock will say when he next meets up with David Livingstone.
Entrance to the Hartford Estate
(Photo : Leigh Willson)
“Bred, raised and trained at Hartford were the heroes
of every major race on the South African calendar”
Summerhill CEOI remember the first time I entered the Hartford gates, like it was yesterday. Here was the greatest private breeding enterprise in South African history, here was a driveway adorned with old flower pots dating back to the 40s, bearing the names of 48 gladiators, all champions or the next best thing. Bred, raised and trained at Hartford were the heroes of every major race on the South African calendar, their supremacy so marked that when he penned his treatise on the great private racehorse nurseries of the world, Sir Mordant Milner spoke of England’s Lord Derby and the Aga Khan; of Marcel Boussac, the founder of the Christian Dior organisation in France; of Federico Tesio, the doyen of Italian breeders; he spoke of Phipps, Hancock and Calumet Farm in the United States; and of A.R.Elllis of Hartford. I was in awe. And as my brother Pat and I wound our way down that historic road to the steps of the region’s most gracious homestead, we recalled the tenth of the Commandments against the coveting of “thy neighbour’s house”.
From the time I’d first fondled a Duff’s Turf Guide on the potty as a three-year-old, I knew of the Hartford legends, and as my capacity for the game grew, I learnt that if there was a horse in the parade in the green, black and gold, it was as good as money in the bank. Mowgli, Cape Heath, Salmon, Panjandrum, Ajax, Magic Mirror, Master Polly, Magic Cloak, Magic Charm, Sentinel, Hat Trick, Fantasma, Albion, Lavonia, Fantastic, Famulus, Masham, Sybil’s Nephew, Pussmoth, Preston Pan, Prestissimo, Visionary, Flaming Heath, Magic Link, Cosmonaut, Rudigore, Dazzle, Alyssum, Hey Presto, Royal Occasion, Derby Day, Alhambra, Wayfarer, Pinocchio, Pipes Of Pan, Miracle, Broken Spell, Gypsey Moth, Beacon Light, and Council Rock. The Durban July, the Summer Cup, the Met, the Gold Cup, countless Derbys, Guineas and Oaks, the Gilbeys and the Smirnoff Sprint; on the occasion of the Royal visit to South Africa, three King’s Cups in three different centres; and anywhere from a 1000m to 3000m.
Many of our readers know the story of how Summerhill came to acquire its neighbour, Hartford, through a handshake exchange in the toilet in those bleak days of 1989. If you don’t, it’s a story of its own, and it’s for another day. But the one thing that had always fascinated me was the story of Hartford’s phenomenal success, and I spent a week with Graham Ellis drawing it all out when the handover took place. His father, A.R. (Raymond) Ellis’ curiosity with horses was aroused by the presence on the farm of six Italian prisoners of war, who’d been captured during the 1940 Abyssinian campaign. One of these men was the ex head groom of the greatest European breeder of the era, Senor Tesio; and it was he that ignited the flame which found the motherload. His advice to the Ellises was “breed like you mean it”, and they did. That year Raymond Ellis bought two young fillies at the National Sale, and stabled them in the garden across the way from the old stone house, built by the family of the last Prime Minister of the Colony, Sir Frederick Moor. Those that frequent Hartford House these days will know the stable as Suite 7, named for one of those two fillies, Preston Pan. She was something of a terror, and kicked the hell out of her companion as well as the stable divide, so she was dispatched to a paddock adjacent to the Hartford chapel, from whence she was trained for the duration of her career. Enigmatic though she was, Preston Pan was brilliant to the degree that she remains the only two-year-old filly ever invited to run in the Durban July, the continent’s greatest horserace. Whatever she was as a racehorse though, she was even more as a broodmare. Of the 48 names that adorn the old pots on the driveway, no fewer than 18 trace their lineage to Preston Pan and her daughters.
What was it about the thoroughbred that penetrated the soul of A.R.Ellis and his family, that gave birth to this celebrated farm, to three champion trainers and five champion jockeys, all of whom resided at one time or another in homes and stables built by that handful of Italians?
In an oft-quoted response, Graham Ellis, one-time Chairman of the Durban Turf Club following a stint as trainer to the finest string in the game, reminded me that of all the species on earth, including us humans, the racehorse is the only one whose genetic history is tabulated right back to the original founding fathers of the breed. He recalled that the welfare of the thoroughbred had been in the hands of the British aristocracy for more than three centuries. From the outset, the sport was conducted as all sports should be, for the sake of the sport, and it was all about one nobleman beating another. Throughout this time, they selected their stock for the right reasons too, for their nobility, their grace and their presence, for their intelligence and courage, for speed, stamina, mental toughness and physical durability, all the traits we as a species would aspire to. And that’s why the racehorse is the good Lord’s greatest creation.
The season’s first snows on the Drakensberg Mountains
(Photo : Leigh Willson)
“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 yesterday 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.
Magnus Nilsson of Faviken
(Photos : Faviken Restaurant)
“I would put Hartford House in the same league as Faviken in Sweden
and the Royal Mail in Australia”
Most of our readers will know of Bruce Palling’s recent proclamation of Hartford House among the top three country restaurants on the planet. That’s a helluva statement about any eatery, but it’s all the more so coming from a journalist of his standing, considering he is the European critic for one of the world’s most influential newspapers, The Wall Street Journal. We were obviously intrigued to know who our “clubmates” were, since he’d courted Sweden’s Faviken and Australia’s Royal Mail as the three making up the trifecta.
Our “horsey” followers might ask what, besides the word “trifecta”, “this has to do with Summerhill and horses, and the answer resides not only in the fact that so many of our visitors to the stud have intimate memories of Hartford, but also, both these businesses have adopted excellence as their benchmark, and any celebration for Hartford is a celebration for Summerhill, and vice versa.
Introducing his critique on the Hartford restaurant, Mr Palling opened with “I can’t say I was looking forward to this journey, as it was more than a thousand miles round trip for what looked like a bit of a tourist trap in the middle of nowhere. I had imagined that this was a charming backwaterey sort of place that was suffering from being there for too long. Big Mistake. I would put Hartford House in the same league as Faviken in Sweden and the Royal Mail in Australia, as one of the very best isolated/remote places to eat anywhere on the planet”.
While we haven’t yet had the honour of visiting the Royal Mail, we have at least discovered its whereabouts. It’s located in a tiny hamlet called Dunkeld, about 300 kilometres north west of Melbourne. Faviken is even more remote. On any journey there, unless you go by helicopter, you’re obliged to hire a limo or a taxi; in either event, you’re going to need a driver, and at some point on the journey, he’s going to tap his brakes, cock his head over his shoulder, and ask “Have you got everything you need for tonight, like a toothbrush?” he asks “Because this is the last village. After here there is nothing”. Forty minutes of empty road later, the car will pull up at its destination: a small crop of copper-coloured buildings on a seemingly-endless 18th century hunting estate, surrounded by a wilderness of forests, mountains and valleys. But, remote though it is, travellers from America to Estonia, France to Japan make this same trip every day, because in one of these buildings, a chef by the name of Magnus Nilsson runs a restaurant which seats just 16 patrons. And, like Hartford, because of its intimacy and location and for what it aspires to, it’s the future of fine dining; in Faviken’s case, it’s aspiring to become one of the most influential dining establishments in the world.
Nilsson was born 170 miles away in the small town of Selanger. At 19, he signed up to work at Pascal Barbot’s 3 Michelin-starred restaurant, L’Astrance, in France. On his return to Sweden, he joined Faviken’s owners as an advisor on their wines, and in 2008 decided to overhaul the estate’s restaurant, which at the time catered to skiers, specialising in moose fondue. It didn’t do well. Five years on, the restaurant pulls as many people as the skiing slopes which used to fill the aircraft.
Here’s the Faviken routine. Guests arrive around 5pm and are shown to their rooms, which have light wood walls and thickly blanketed beds. Next you spend an hour sipping cold beer in a hot sauna overlooking the hills. At 7pm, having shared a state of virtual nudity with your fellow diners, you converge for drinks and the first of 20 enterprising courses, from an amuse-bouche of wild trout’s roe in a crust of dried pig’s blood, to raw mussel and wild pea pie, served by the restaurant’s four chefs. For the marrow-based course, Nilsson saws open the moose bone, right there in the middle of the dining room.
Tonight’s menu is light on root vegetables; ninety-five percent of the ingredients are grown, foraged or reared on the estate (when Nilsson goes for a walk, he takes his gun in case he spies game). This year, the roots came up late, so diners eat whatever’s ripe that day. Get the drift?
“That doesn’t cut costs though, it’s super-expensive to produce this food”. The restaurant is necessarily site-specific: not ideal. It can’t relocate or expand without ceasing to be Faviken, with so few covers. Like Hartford, you don’t want to grow it; for fear of losing one of your greatest drawcards: intimacy. And since we’re both operating with the finest ingredients, it will always, in a remote environment likes ours, be difficult to get the ingredients. “If you have a restaurant that needs 500 langoustines a week, you would struggle to get the quality we work with. I want it to be like this because one of the good aspects is that I like to do the cooking myself. I don’t want to train a 100 people to do my stuff,” says Nilsson. Those that know Jackie Cameron, will understand what he’s saying.
If that sounds like artistic protectiveness, it’s because it is. Both of us prioritise “hands-on” over perceived culinary wisdom. Cooking is not an act of science; it’s silly to think that just because you know the temperature at which coagulation occurs in a piece of meat, by simply applying the temperature, it’s going to be perfect every time. Every piece of meat is different. Similarly, Nilsson prefers beef from 5 to 10 year old dairy cows, rather than the 2-year-olds most butchers use. They have better marbling and more concentrated flavours, and patrons are not critical of ingredients. “They just believe what people say”.
Along with Noma in Copenhagen, (according to San Pellegrino and Aqua Panna’s power list, the best restaurant in the world, Faviken, has reasserted Scandinavia’s presence on the gastronomic map. The question is, will it prove a flash in the pan?
“I think this huge interest in Scandanvian food will mellow down”, he says. “What frustrates me today, you can go to a number of high profile British restaurants, and they’ve been fed the aesthetic language of Noma, which is awesome, but which doesn’t belong there. They should focus on their own area. Such places would do better to imitate in spirit rather than the letter. The most important thing is that we are, I think, showing how things could be”. Although historically, Sweden has had a decadent cuisine, much of the knowledge has been lost over the generations, with the move to what one might term “westernization”. To reinvigorate the culinary’s regional traditions, they need to showcase ingredients in their purest form, much as Cameron and her team at Hartford do. The result is that most of what comes out of Nilsson’s kitchen, is raw.
Critics are billing Faviken as the new Noma. Unsurprisingly, that makes it harder to get a table, and now, there’s the Faviken cookbook, equal parts local history, photo essay and instruction manual, designed to bring the world a taste of the little restaurant in the hills. In true Nilssonian fashion, it omits timings and measurements from the receipes. Is he concerned that it might render the book uncommercial? “Not at all. Who buys these books to cook from anyway? There are going to be a few who are willing to try the tough receipes, but the point is that they read the history, and get inspired by the way we work, and pick up things. Then they can do something nice themselves”.
For more information about Hartford House, please visit :
Cheryl and I on Yasawa Island, Fiji
(Photo : Supplied)
“Travel these days takes more than money.
It takes the most precious commodity of the lot: time.”
Cheryl and I have been travelling a lot of late. The Wild Coast (there is only one), Cape Town, Jo’burg, Thanda Game Reserve, Phinda of the same, Melbourne and Yasawa Island in Fiji. Quite a mixture. It’s premature to talk about Fiji, because we’ve only just arrived, but it’s fair to say that it measures up to everything Captains Cook and Bligh had to say about it in the good old days (in Bligh’s case, before the Bounty crew made him walk the plank!).
Being racehorse breeders and hoteliers, you can’t avoid the comparisons between the way we do things and how others go about their businesses. Survival in the modern world depends upon how you distinguish your product from others, and I suspect that whatever Summerhill and Hartford are, it’s because they were built without money. When you have the funds, you simply pay and you get. When you don’t, you have to be creative, you have to be intuitive about what gets a pulse racing. It’s about authenticity, atmosphere and adventure, sounds, scents and scenery, tastes and taboos. Good hotels and good horses always reflect a sense of “place”, their environment, their histories, their traditions and importantly, their people. In the world of travel, a high level of discernment is creeping into every arena. Today, the customer’s interest in artisanal beer and food, for example, is echoed in an interest in artisanal hospitality. Hartford House is dedicated to sating people’s interest in the world’s distinctive places: you quickly lose any sense of being in a unique environment when staying in a typical high-end hotel in London, Paris or Shanghai, Cape Town, Sydney or Dubai.
Increasingly, travellers seek destinations that accommodate lifestyle and weather, bespoken to their surroundings and community. Hotels should reflect their past, and the architecture of their neighbourhood; discerning guests understand the difference between décor and design, and seldom mistake decoration for good design.
Travel these days takes more than money. It takes the most precious commodity of the lot: time. Most people can buy a car, a handbag or a smart pair of shoes, but travel calls for energy, curiosity, a degree of adventure, even bravery. Not long from now, the greatest indulgence will not be a Ferrari; it will be a fortnight in Zululand, or even a living being; let’s not forget, the greatest creature the good Lord ever created, is the racehorse. And you can come by yours with a week at Hartford. An Argentinean polo player on a recent visit to us, tells it like this: “I was waiting for that combination of bliss and despair which makes African journeys so memorable - a melodramatic pose, a “Hendricks” and tonic coursing through my veins, a three day scruff of beard, a whiff of revolution in the air!”.
Our places thrive because of their originality, they survive on account of their old fashioned values. The more technologically focused the world becomes, the less people want to check-in via iPad and have their pillow preferences stored in a computer. Instead, our guests like to arrive and be greeted by their surnames; they soon get to know themselves again by their first names. And if you’ll give us the time to unpack for you, you’ll find your clothes pressed and hanging in the closet. Simple, old-style service is the most pleasant luxury.
Hartford and Summerhill have become beacons of their trades. In a world in which it’s no longer so “cool” to be a waiter or a groom, we remember, every day, what an honour it is to serve.
Emperors Palace Summer Ready To Run Sale
(Photo : Leigh Willson)
EMPERORS PALACE SUMMER READY TO RUN SALE
School Of Excellence, Summerhill Stud, Mooi River
20 February 2013
The Washington Post is America’s most famous newspaper. When they talk, we listen. Just recently, their man in the food business said “Hartford House is one of the three best country restaurants on the planet” On the planet? Yes, and if he had the means, he’d hire a jet for his twelve best friends and head to Hartford for a long weekend.
Fortunately you don’t need a jet to get here. All you need do is turn up at the Emperors Palace Summer Ready To Run Sale on Wednesday 20th February, and the team at Hartford House will cook your socks off. After that, we’ll show you a few horses, and if you’re in the mood, you may even go home with an Igugu, a Pierre Jourdan, an Imbongi or a Blueridge Mountain. They all came from here, and there are bound to be more of them.
P.S. If you haven’t already replied to the invitation we’ve sent you, please remember, there is only limited seating at our School of Excellence, and there are not even hotdogs for those who don’t have a reservation.
Thursday, 14 February
Valentine’s Day is just under a week away. There’s no time for complacency: some of us think we’ve got the chick that presses our buttons, and we can sit back and take it easy. That, it needs to be said, is the beginning of the end. You have seven days to re-energise things, and if you’re still on your lonesome, you’re in even more desperate straits. Pull finger!
One guy we know has got it all worked out. In a recent article for Eat Out, the magazine which claims the top spot in opinions on gastronomic matters, owner and sommelier at the celebrated Burrata restaurant, Neil Grant, knows all of the top eateries in the land, and had this to say:
“There are so many amazing restaurants for a romantic dinner. The Tasting Room, La Colombe, Rust en Vrede… They all offer amazing food with intimate surroundings. But honestly, if I really want to sweep my wife off her feet, a trip to Hartford House in the Natal Midlands is at the top of my list. The rooms are incredible and every meal, from breakfast to dinner, feels like a splurge. Gazing out at horses grazing on the stud property is really a special treat”.
If you didn’t heed Neil’s advice and the wheels have come off, there’s still time to make amends. The number is 033 263 2713.