BILLY SUTER beat Covid-19 lockdown blues to escape, for the third time in five years, to the haven of tranquillity and exceptional food that is KwaZulu-Natal’s CLEOPATRA MOUNTAIN FARMHOUSE. He reports that there have been recent changes – with more to come – at this heavenly haven nestling in the foothills of the Kamberg Valley of the Drakensberg. Top news is that there is now a special rate for locals!
FEW things excite me more than heading for the hills. So when an invitation arrived for a stayover to learn of recent changes at, and other plans for, the award-winning Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse in the Kamberg Valley, I couldn’t pack my bags fast enough. Especially in this most awful year of being constantly housebound due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
First the best news – and we can thank the Coronavirus for that because overseas visitors are being kept away due to travel restrictions. The luxury gourmet getaway, which overlooks a trout-filled lake, hills, mountains and the snaking Little Mooi River, is offering a special price to South Africans – from R1950 per person, per night, until March 2021.
That is excellent value for this sort of luxury, the price including accommodation, parking and the five-course, gourmet dinner for which Cleopatra has long been famous and the menu for which changes daily. Also included in the price is a hearty, three-course breakfast of both plated and buffet delights. We had the best Eggs Benedict I’ve tasted in years when we visited recently.
Visit the website at www.cleopatramountain.com for all booking information.
Having first opened in September 1998 as a luxury getaway and restaurant aimed at discerning diners, very popular with overseas visitors, Cleopatra originally started life as a rustic holiday home on 500 acres of land bought in the 1940s by the grandfather of owner Richard Poynton.
Top chef Richard and his wife, Mouse – the pair that originally owned and ran the still-popular Granny Mouse’s Country House in the Midlands – set up Cleopatra after the now-trout-filled lake was added in 1980 and extensions made to what was originally only a two-room building.
Today, this must-do getaway venue offers five, cosy, individually themed standard rooms (each with distinctive décor, fireplace, bath, shower, toilet, dressing table and desk) as well as three luxury suites, two executive suites and, closer to the Little Mooi River down a sloping bank, two executive cottages.
A recent new addition, and already attracting a lot of interest, I am told, is River Run Cottage, a self-catering unit alongside the river. About a kilometre away from the main buildings, it offers two bedrooms en suite, as well as an attic ideal for children (noting that Cleopatra only accommodates children older than 12). It is available from R3000 a day.
River Run Cottage also has a lounge, diningroom, kitchen, covered verandah, DStv and an outside boma, and is serviced daily. Catch-and-release fishing in the river is available. This self-catering cottage, comfortably accommodating eight people, is surrounded by the World Heritage Site – the Highmoor section of the Giant’s Castle Nature Reserve – and has its own private access.
Also happening soon, with Richard and Mouse looking at building a new home elsewhere on the property, is the remodelling, into a premium, self-catering villa, of the Poyntons’ existing home, The Homestead. It’s about a kilometre or so from the farmhouse.
According to amiable Dave Ward, who became manager of Cleopatra about 19 months ago, the Poyntons’ house will become a villa with room for at least a dozen people before year-end. It is being offered to large families or corporate groups, and the plan is to also offer the venue’s own butler and dedicated chef, although dining at the Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse is also an option.
The Poyntons are poised to acquire a new home as part of a current plan to sell a dozen units on the sprawling property as part of Cleopatra Hamlet. This will be a residential eco-estate offering sole ownership of a mountainside retreat site for between R1,5million and R2,25million. More info by clicking here.
Another change since I last visited in 2017 – see my previous review by clicking here – is that Richard Poynton, now 72, is no longer in the kitchen, although he still pops in to remain hands-on with the award-winning, menu classics he created and which have long won him global acclaim.
The food is now in the very capable hands of new chef Matthew Marshall, who arrived from Dubai only two months ago with wife Madison, who is handling Cleopatra’s pastries and is a key part of another new attraction at the getaway.
We now have The Copper Pot Café in what was originally Cleopatra’s first kitchen and diningroom, and which in more recent years became an open-plan bar and small welcoming lounge when the venue’s second lounge and much larger dininghall were introduced.
Good news is that one doesn’t have to be a guest to visit the café, so spread the word – and note that set, three-course lunches are proving popular at R325 a head, says Ward. Note, too, that by the end of November, the café hopes to also offer a high tea.
Other Cleopatra news is that there have been some fresh touches in décor, some tweakings here and there, as well as some decluttering among the many interesting artifacts that fill the venue. It all adds a new freshness, certainly in the main lounge offering a small curio shop, where the removal of dark wood that dominated the ceiling has made the room seem lighter and brighter. The two wooden decks over the lake have also had the timber freshened up.
Discussing future plans, Wards says that in the new year Cleopatra intends to introduce a few “picnic pods” down by the river. They are envisioned as close-roofed, wooden structures and, initially, two of them are likely to come equipped with wood-fired hot-tubs. Interesting.
Cleopatra, which took its name from the nearby mountain of the same name, where a prominent rock outcrop resembles the facial profile of the Egyptian queen, is also working on its own craft brew, I am told. There are also plans to soon introduce more tour and excursion facilities that will start and end at the getaway.
But back to that new café, which was launched last month and is open from 8am to 4pm. It features six wooden, square tables, each seating four guests, and in the centre of the room a couch and comfy chairs face a welcoming fireplace. A range of help-yourself-to condiments, including pickles, mustards and a special Kashmiri curry sauce, are on display on a central table.
My partner and I, not wanting to ruin our grand dinner, shared a very good, quite sizeable, Cleopatra ‘Cornish’ Pasty from the seven-item menu which includes two salads; Chicken and Leek Terrine served with a subtle Durban curry aioli (R75); Prawn and Salmon Cake served with courgette noodles (R85); Farmhouse Burger with truffle-salted fries (95); and assorted scones, muffins and cakes that are on display.
The pasty we shared came with a small salad and a ramekin of thin slices of apple in apple-cider vinegar. It had shredded oxtail and small bits of potato encased in a crispy pastry. Delicious, great value at R75 and perfect to share.
After a day of relaxing, strolling to the river, visiting one of several neighbouring attractions, paddling a canoe around the lake or perhaps investigating one of eight hiking trails available, there is nothing better before supper than to choose a good wine from Cleopatra’s sunken cellar to wind down.
Consider taking the canopied, motorised wooden raft for a slow float around the lake. Or perhaps do what we did and sit on one of the lakeside wooden decks, leading off the café and lounge areas, to welcome sunset and watch the sky change colours against the silhouetted mountain. Just sip in the quiet of it all.
Note, though, that before sunset you will be interrupted every so often by the yellow weaver birds that feverishly build nests in the dangling branches of trees and shrubs that hug the buildings and lake edge. We loved their energy and frantic flirting rituals.
Also, before the light fades, you simply have to feed the lake’s large trout (they’re not for catching, by the way) from a small bucket of complimentary fish food left on the café’s wooden deck.
Surrounded by deftly manicured lawns, ornamental hedges (some needed a good trim when we were there after much rain), topiaries, a large herb garden and a delightful nook of white-flowering plants called The Moonlight Garden,, Cleopatra proves as much a tonic for the soul as a rhapsody for the tastebuds.
Certainly the culinary thrills rate very high on the list of highlights at this glorious spot, where summer temperatures range from 20C during the day, often with dramatic afternoon thunderstorms. Winter daytime temperatures range from 10C to 25C while night temperatures can drop to below 0C.
The menu changes every evening, and the night we were in proved a winner all round.
With lights reflecting on the lake and a large crackling fireplace adding to the ambiance, charming Cleopatra manager Clinton Mkhathini, from Pietermaritzburg, informally offered guests a bit of the history of the area before going into detail about the evening’s four-course menu, neatly chalked onto a blackboard on an easel.
He had us salivating at his detailed description of ingredients and techniques; his highlighting of the passion and patience that goes into the preparation of food which is reflected in the tastes and textures.
Our pre-starter was a lot more wonderful that it sounded. It was essentially a red onion, but no ordinary onion dish. Steamed in thyme and encased in a caramel puff pastry shell it was served on a pecorino and chive reduction and dressed with tiny greens. Sublime.
The tomato soup that followed was also far from ordinary, the tomato having been lent light spicy flavours – some 13 ingredients, Clinton explained, that included coconut cream, chilli, ginger and garlic. It was served with three tiny, crunchy croutons (I could have done with a few more) and a swirl of yoghurt. Not too spicy-hot but with a tiny bite. Very enjoyable, especially with a warm, fresh roll to slop up the last drops.
After a small palate-cleanser of watermelon-laced ice flakes, it was on to the mains. Not the most attractively presented of dishes, perhaps, but it hit all the right notes in the taste stakes. It was a tender, rolled fillet and loin of Midlands lamb, folded with bread crumbs, served on mash with a balsamic reduction sauce, and flanked by a cannelloni bean puree and a honeyed carrot puree. I was a very happy man.
Pud was super-rich – Lemon Curd tart cooked similarly to cheesecake but baked for an hour in a bain marie then cooled down completely before being sliced and served on a sauce of brandy, cherry liquer and berries, with a lemon shard.
NOTE: For more details about Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse, which also offers a spa, visit the website (www.cleopatramountain.com) or email firstname.lastname@example.org or phone +27 (0) 33 267 7243 or +27 (0) 71 687 7266.