Followers of these columns, and in particular those who hold an affection for Hartford House, will recall the day Hartford earned its place in the world order of top restaurants. The senior food critic at America's leading business newspaper, The Wall Street Journal, was among the judges for Eat Out's Top Ten Restaurants, and it was one of his remits to take a plane ride all the way to KwaZulu-Natal to test the offering at what he imagined to be an 'isolated tourist trap' which had had its time. 'Big mistake!', he exclaimed, nominating Hartford in the top three country restaurants on the planet, alongside Sweden's Fäviken and Australia's Royal Mail.
When out on these jaunts, Cheryl and I try to maximise the business benefits of our journey by taking in a bit of the hospitality trade on the way, and this time, because it was only a matter of 300-odd kilometres from Melbourne, we trekked off to Dunkeld in the Grampians, to witness for ourselves what Mr Palling had been so lyrical about. To illustrate the intimacy of the culinary family, a few months ahead of us, the man behind Fäviken, Magnus Nilsson, was a visitor, too. No doubt like us curious to know what the members of the 'Wall Street' triumvirate are cooking up.
It needs to be said at the outset, the Royal Mail is not what it used to be, though that doesn't detract from what it is now, so let me explain. The one thing the Aussies have done as well as anything they do, is enshrine the virtues of country life. In most instances, their towns and villages are beautifully laid out, spotlessly clean and immaculately maintained. Several of them on the way have their own 'Royal Mails', a throwback to a time when stagecoaches where the mode, and horses and carriage drivers were accommodated overnight at staging points on their deliveries. Most of these 'Mails' are patched-up versions of the original structures, some of them converted to other uses, while others rank as the second or third option on the High Street.
The one in Dunkeld however, is a modern makeover, the typical interpretation of Australian 'ranch-style' in the modern idiom. Aussie modern architecture is not everyone's cup of tea, most of the commercial buildings and the bigger homesteads having a certain 'sameness' to their designs and the materials that put them together. They have a 'meccano' practicality to them, and for feel and atmosphere there is not much separating them, though you have to give them full marks for comfort and functionality. Nothing beats the old General Store or the local patisserie for ambience and energy though, particularly when they're housed in a 'golden oldie'; in this sense, Dunkeld is a country gem, even by the lofty heights of the Australian countryside.
That said, the Royal Mail ranks alongside the best accommodation establishments in Australia for good old-fashioned hospitality, the warmth of the welcome and the comfort of your suite. As for the cuisine, the man who earned them their 'three chefs hats' (Australia's equivalent of three Michelin stars), Dan Hunter, is no longer, and so, in line with custom, they've had to take a step back and are now rated 'two chefs hats'. I'm not sure what's demanded of a three chefs hats establishment, but if this wasn't a 'three hats' meal, I don't know what is. Cheryl, who's dined at more than a dozen of the world's Top Fifty, shares my sentiments: memorable by any standards. Pricey for South Africans, but more than reasonable for Australians, and much more 'bang' for your buck than you get in 'town'.
The current chef, Robin Wickens is a perfectionist in every sense, embracing the benefits of the one advantage country eateries have over their urban counterparts in all that they serve: the Myers family, owners of the 'Mail' and just about everything else of value in the Dunkeld precinct it seems, have established a wonder garden in the heart of the village, of which the potager is a vital part. This garden's produce is grown at the whim of the kitchen, not the other way around, and for our man, the secret lies in his intimacy with the bounty of his backyard, and the imagination he lends to the vegetables, fruits, legumes and herbs that decorate it. City restaurants are spoilt by their proximity to their inner-town markets, but unlike the 'Mail', they don't enjoy the benefit of a raid on the veggie patch in the waning hours before dinner. There's nothing to touch the scent and the aroma of a herb or a leaf plucked from the garden moments before service.
While our garden is not yet on the same scale, it's on its way there, and the practices are in parallel. Integral to the acclaim she achieved in her twelve years with us, the kitchen garden was the foraging domain of Jackie Cameron, though she'll tell you that in Mooi River in the frosty months of June and July, besides the root crops, a few lettuce, 'caulies', broccolis and brussel sprouts, you thank God for the cosy relationship you've cultivated with the tunnel growers down the road.