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Food and Travel: ‘Eating safari’ at the Leopard Rock!

HAVE I invented the eating safari?

On a short familiarisation trip to spectacular Leopard Rock Golf Resort Casino on almost the very pinnacle of the vibrant, verdant Vumba Mountains, I seemed to do little but eat…nibble…sample…savour…try…taste.. what proved to be almost 100% superb ingredients, combining to form splendid meals.
I abandoned golf years ago, much more painfully than I quit smoking, having reluctantly decided life’s far too short for games which take maybe half a day… but walked the Leopard Rock’s championship 18-holes, then desperately needing the rain which followed me from Harare, picking and munching a delightfully prolific sweet-tart near claret-coloured soft fruit, which the chef called “brambleberries”.
Gregory Gautier, recruited from South Africa and in his second year at the Lonrho-owned hotel, used a term I’d not heard before for the fruit: brambleberries, which seems a woefully inadequate tag, as strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, loganberries, boysenberries, dewberries etc (and probably many more) all grow on “brambles” (rose family members.)
I’ve a feeling this now wild fruit is a natural or forced hybridisation which occurred in the kitchen gardens of some of the lovely old farmhouses which used to be found here. Whatever, it’s quite wonderful. Greg uses the berry as a garnish and decoration on sweet and savoury dishes but I’d murder for a small bowl of the fruit with ice-cream or whipped cream or maybe a smoothie blended from a quart or two.
Greg pays caddies to scavenge for bags of the tiny picked fruit. I wonder he’s not cultivating it in two magic organically-grown herb-vegetable-and-fruit plots he’s tending, to bring spectacular tastes and whiffs of amazingly fresh wholesome goodness, adding to the sum total of flavours and textures apparent in each dish he lovingly prepares,

He aims to be self-sufficient in seasonal vegetables and herbs by next year. Currently he’s harvesting much of the state of the art kitchen’s needs for a hotel which is gratifyingly full, frequently.
I loved Greg’s home-made soups, relishing deeply intense cream of celery and leek, pea and ham and aubergine and sun-dried tomato all with either hot, crusty bread or toasted foccacia and needing not a grain of extra seasoning. Soups are US$4.
Other starters included home-smoked Kariba bream with avocado, orange, olives, red onions, coriander and, of course, the ubiquitous “brambleberry” salad. It was, truly, a taste sensation, also US$4.
Spanish tapas platters are growing in popularity; Greg prepares one featuring sautéed chorizo, humus, marinated olives, marinated sweet peppers and garlic bread at US$6, with probably enough food for two to share.
At US$16 there are queen prawns in chili batter with a simple wedge of juicy lemon and aioli (garlic mayonnaise). I adored a home-made chicken liver pate with red onion, pear-and-thyme jam with watercress and a grilled sourdough on which to spread it at US$6, which is the same price as the Leopard Rock steak tartare dressed with brandy, capers and parsley and served with croutons.
Many of Greg’s ingredients are sourced fresh from farm, stream or river within 60km of the hotel but obviously queen prawns are imported as was a mouthwatering Scottish smoked salmon with dew-fresh garden lettuce and rocket, cherry tomatoes and herbs, dill, avocado and sesame salad at US$7. I watched Greg pick the salads an hour before I ate them! I didn’t try his caponata (a Sicilian dish of brinjal, olives and parsley which sounds similar to French tapenade) with fresh rocket and basil oil, with grilled foccacia at US$5.

Princess Margaret
A welcoming tray in the Princess Margaret Room in The Turret (as used by the late princess on the 1953 Royal Tour) comprised fruit, generously sliced creamy, smooth, soft textured Brie de Meaux with a nutty, fruity taste and the compelling heady, sweaty-sock aroma beloved by connoisseurs. From Isle de France, it came with pecan nut biscuits, walnuts, pear and homemade fruit chutney, dinky chocolate cakes and a 2009 Beyerskloof Chenin-Blanc Pinotage.
First time I’d tried an enigmatic sounding, if not totally oxymoronic, white Pinotage but — delightfully chilled in a silver ice-bucket –– it was nectar after the long drive from Harare. The Brie was also available on the dessert card at US$12.
New general manager of Leopard Rock’s complex is Masvingo-born 41-year-old Fungai Makani, who was head-hunted from the Cresta group’s very swish President Hotel in Gaborone, Botswana, where he had been in post for over three years. Previously he was GM at Victoria Falls Hotel after a similar position at The Kingdom.
Before that he ran Hwange Safari Lodge. He had solid hands on management experience at various Zimbabwe hotels and did almost a year’s work attachment in Bournemouth, UK. I ate with Fungai twice. At our first supper, his stack of Odzi lamb chops with fondant potatoes, spinach, slow-roast tomatoes, roasted baby red onions and salsa verde (US$15) looked and smelled so good that I couldn’t wait to order it myself the next night.
The pan-roast cod I chose had obviously come much further than from the sweet pastures of neighbouring Odzi and wasn’t in the same league as the deliciously lean lamb as a main course served with shallot-crusted potatoes “lashed” with Mediterranean salsa and roasted Fern Valley peppers, olives, capers, fresh homegrown parsley and olive oil at $16.
While I devoured the lamb on Night two, Fungai took Greg’s advice and tried what he described as “magnificent” supreme of Fern Valley free-range chicken breast with sage, pine nuts and chorizo at US$10.
This was in the fine-dining 40 covers restaurant called The Conservatory. Here starch and organically grown vegetables as side dishes are charged extra.
We shared an exemplary bowl of fresh golden-brown crisp chips at US$3, but I’m not sure how these London-style “extras” will go down in rural Manicaland!
The competent rib-sticking puddings sampled were Nyanga apple crumble with crème Anglaise at US$4, a superb strawberry sorbet (US$3) and, of course, the powerfully pongy Brie cheese. More words and images from Leopard Rock in The Standard, on Sunday.

Dusty Miller

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