Eating Out with Dusty Miller: Rain-free at Raintree!

First published in January this year, a second edition is already being prepared for re-print in Mauritius.

In 260 lavishly illustrated glossy pages on quality heavy stock, the hard cover book provides a history of the Lilfords and their extended family in this country and a focus on local farming in its heyday and at its most deeply depressing at the height of lunatic land invasions.

It’s a travel book, with much emphasis on the author’s personal journeys for pleasure and as a top cook in this country, the region, in Europe and the Commonwealth and it’s a state-of-the art classy coffee table cookbook with more than 80 mouthwatering recipes for local and international dishes from Amarula ice-cream and avocado pear dip to vundu curry and warthog pie with mushrooms.

Perhaps more importantly, while the book (ISBN 978-0-7974-4704-2) stays in print (at US$40 a copy) there will always been an attractive, highly acceptable, Christmas, birthday or farewell gift available for any Zimbabwean, ex-Zimbo, farmer or foodie in the family.

Author Sarah Lilford, at just 42, has compiled a mini-masterpiece which will be equally welcome in most kitchens and studies across Zimbabwe.

She officially launched the publication on Sunday at a laid-back informal brunch at a new — to me — venue Raintree Estate in rolling, well-treed Umwinsidale Valley, home to the horsey set. A magnificent fish-rich river plunges dramatically over granite boulders, winding through the 29 acre (11,7 hectare) property.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable, memorable day out in the sunny, summery Highveld countryside, just 11 kms from Chisipite shops.

The invite said brunch from 9am. I thought we’d get there fashionably late, about 9:45, and by then the place was packed…the joint jumping jovially. At any one time there were probably 150 guests present, with much coming and going throughout the day.

Youngest visitor was possibly eight weeks; at the other end of the age spectrum were several octogenarians.

President Mugabe (88): sorry His Excellency Comrade Robert Gabriel Mugabe, First Secretary and President of Zanu PF, President of Zimbabwe, Commander-in-Chief of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces and Vice-Chancellor of all Zimbabwean State Universities, wasn’t with us, but he’s been to Raintree before: for the wedding of Grace’s son. Caterer Sarah, the PM’s daughter, was also married there, amid breathtaking peaceful surroundings and, again, Sarah looked after inner man and woman.

Her book highlights several high-profile functions, one being a five day long fancy dress do. On another occasion at a posh Zambezi River safari camp, guests were in danger of going hungry when a hyena ate the cooler box and the lovely rare roast topsides therein. As befits a farmer’s daughter (her folks were in the Horseshoe Block near Guruve/Sipolilo,) she “made a plan”; no one starved.

On Sunday, guests were given a choice of welcoming drinks: champagne (well, good quality South African bubbly, not Veuve Clicquot!), sangria (wine-based fruit punch typical of Spain and Portugal), iced-tea or home-made lemon juice.

Guests arrived in waves until well into mid-afternoon. It was almost dusk before my friend Charmaine, her 11-year-old daughter Michaela (who, having recovered from an overnight tummy bug, spent much time swimming in the cooling river on a hot — and for once, recently, rain-free day at Raintree) and I left. We were not the last to bombshell into lengthening shadows, along sadly neglected, pot-holed, police road-blocked Enterprise Road.

The brunch menu which Sarah prepared with loyal staff, included lots of the absolute nicest, moistest, most tender honey-glazed ham with sweet mustard sauce any one at our table had tasted, with a wide range of exceptionally well kept imported and local cheeses with pickles and preserves: sweet red-pepper jam, fruit chutney and pickled cherry peppers.

There were bacon and onion tarts with roasted cherry tomatoes and rosemary; the sort of red-rare roasted beef topside the Zambezi hyena njonjaed and baskets of heavenly bread.  As a plate, platter, bowl or basket emptied it was swiftly replenished by beaming staff.

Sarah e-mailed me her ”full” menu the next day. Checking photographs, however, I spotted — unlisted — sun-dried tomato and nut dip, superb smoked salmon paté and egg mayonnaise sauce, all which added to a grand culinary experience.

The “tea menu” (available from first thing in the morning; brunch was still being served near dusk!) comprised chocolate brownies, shortbread hearts, oat crunchies, cherry-and-pecan biscotti, carrot cake, chocolate, blueberry and pepper-seed muffins, doughnuts, Chelsea buns and lashings or tea or coffee for those not patronising a well-stocked  cash bar. (Although pub staff seemed to believe Whyte & McKay Scotch was “house wine!”)

Cynthia and Ian Rowbotham run Raintree, which they opened as a venue for weddings, company launches, birthday and Christmas parties etc, when their once productive potato farm, downstream in the lush Enterprise Valley was “taken”.

Raintree is a true paradise, hidden away, with landscaped, manicured gardens and lawns in sun-kissed glades surrounded by pine on one side of a crystal-clear river, unspoiled msasa woodlands, teeming with plainsgame on the other. The haunting cry of fish eagles soaring across the estate is often the only noise to be heard in this bird lovers’ heaven, which sometimes opens for weekend family days, when there are no wedding receptions.

Background music on Sunday was by multi-talented Brendon and Adam Blignaut.

Contacts: Raintree Estate 0772 236 884 (Ian); Cindy: 0772 333 965; raintree@zol.co.zw; iancindy@zol.co.zw.

dustym@zimind.co.zw

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