MOST memorable aspect of a recent Victoria Falls trip was undoubtedly the food.
Fair enough, the main reason for going was to assist in the successful hosting of an inter-properties cookery competition between young chefs of African Sun Group. A secondary task was to check out a new AfSun project: a reportedly ultra-luxurious development, Royal Chundu Lodge, on an island in the Zambezi River in Zambia.
Well that was put on hold as –– apparently –– the lodge was no longer “beside” the Zambezi, but partly under it! The river is at its highest level for decades; a “riverside” plunge pool at swish new Zimbabwean-owned David Livingstone Safari Lodge and Spa in Livingstone was actually part of the river: a not inconsiderable inconvenience, when the water hosts crocodile, elephant, hippo, leguaan and other creatures unwelcome during a sundowner splash!
Royal Chundu should have been open and in full swing by Easter, but floods apparently delayed it.
The tendency in Zambia has been largely to build new hotels, resorts, lodges and spas very close to the Zambezi.
On “our” side of the river only RTG’s currently under refurbishment A’ Zambezi abuts the international waterway. There is planning permission for a Sheraton operation next to the jetty. Victoria Falls Hotel, The Kingdom and Ilala Lodge Hotel are within easy walking distance of the river, the Falls entry and town centre; Sprayview and Rainbow Victoria Falls a little further out.
A’ Zambezi is miles from the Falls and shops, but close to the river, by way of compensation. Victoria Falls Safari Lodge is fairly isolated but has a free hourly bus service to main attractions. Elephant Hills Resort seemed totally isolated to fly-in visitors, unless they hired a car or rang for cabs.
At one stage a free bus service connected all hotels to each other, the town centre, national park entry and the bridge. That was great. Short-term visitors (most of them!) could have (say) sundowner drinks and soup in their own hotel, salad and a starter in a second, mains in a third, pudding in a fourth, cheese and coffee in a fifth and then post-prandials and play the casino until the wee hours.
Victoria Falls Hotel’s degustation (“tasting”) menu is ideal for people like me who do not have huge appetites, but enjoy small, well separated, courses of high quality ingredients, served on the best china, eaten with the finest silver and washed down with some of the world’s finest wines served in sparkling crystal on crisp, pristine linen. Scottish exec chef Michael Oven drives this development.
Typical starters on six or seven course, limited choice menus were: Parma ham and buffalo mozzarella tart with basil, rocket pesto and semi-dried cherry tomatoes one week or king prawn, asparagus and char-grilled young corn salad with cucumber, mixed herbs and tomato aioli the next.
After Parma ham came seared Scottish scallops (hand-dived, I hope!) with rocket and parmesan salad and gazpacho dressing. Following king prawns was a cream of pumpkin and parmesan soup with herb oil and black pepper.
After scallops (marine bi-valve mollusks) was crème du Barrie (cauliflower and blue-cheese soup with basil oil); the second typical menu offered chilled roast tomato, red pepper and mascarpone soup.
Mains on that menu were either char-grilled rib-eye steak with comfit potatoes, mixed mushrooms, crispy bacon, semi-dried plum tomato and café ale, or pan-fried Loch Duart salmon with basil pesto, trenette pasta, green beans and lemon beurre blanc.
On the other bill of fare seared rare duck breast, wholegrain mustard mash, asparagus and oak-leaf salad, crispy leeks and café ale was one choice, pan-fried king mackerel with pea-puree pont neuf, herb hollandaise and tomato chili jam the other.
All helpings are nouvelle cuisine style (not a lot of grub for many southern African appetites!) with lots of time between courses to dance to or otherwise enjoy pianist Lloyd Mungoshi’s timeless tunes.
Elegantly laid tables and comfortable chairs are widely spaced so business can be discussed confidently; the supremely stylish Livingstone Room is discreetly lit.
One pudding choice was pineapple tart-tatin with coconut ice-cream and butterscotch sauce, the other orange-and-lemon tart with vanilla bean ice-cream and raspberry coulis.
Cheeseboard is mainly locally-produced exotically flavoured (eg black pepper, piri-piri and garlic-and nettle) Goudas, with oatcakes, red onion jam or apple and raisin chutney.
The meal ends with tea or coffee and chocolate truffle and vanilla shortbread or marzipan chocolates and biscotti with perhaps a favourite retro liqueur to accompany the coffee.
Cost is US$35 a head. (Dare I say it?) Almost a steal in a five star restaurant with service of this degree of professionalism, in a world-class five star hotel at one of the globe’s leading destinations.
Whereas most Victoria Falls hotels plump for international-style buffets, the classy Palms Restaurant at Ilala Lodge still proudly offers a classical a la carte menu created by Camilla Howes, a Darwendale lass who trained in Australia.
Appetisers are $5 (soup of the day) to $8 (smoked crocodile with tzatziki and tomato salsa, or vegetable spring rolls.) I strongly recommend cured salmon gravlax with honey mustard sauce and herb salad.
Mains are $14 (oven-baked chicken breast stuffed with sun-dried tomatoes and feta, served with spiced rice and tomato coulis) to $18 for superb subtly-herbed grilled warthog fillet with sauerkraut, pomme William, apple puree and honey sesame sauce.
Puddings cost $5 (wonderful Pavlova meringue with mixed berries and fresh cream, with berry coulis) to $7: dark chocolate tart with vanilla ice-cream and granadilla sauce. At $6 there is warm sticky date pudding, crème anglaise and butterscotch sauce, chilled lemon soufflé, mango puree and homemade shortbread or a signature sweet: creamy vanilla crème brulee with chocolate spring rolls.
A wide selection of liqueurs, ports and cognacs, Irish and other speciality coffees, Amarula, Kahlua or Dom Pedros are all $5.
By Dusty Miller