Scots celebrations par excellence at Meikles Hotel

It’s not surprising that over the years Harare’s five-star Meikles Hotel has been host to all manner of Scots-themed celebratory events; after all, founder Thomas Meikle was born in Scotland and came to Southern Africa with his parents and siblings when young, but never forgot his roots. Tradition has it that he ordained there should always be something of a Scots flavour in the hotel’s festive season offerings, and to this day you will find bagpipers playing on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and whole pipe bands in action on New Year’s Eve, that most Scottish of all celebrations.

               I have twice enjoyed Scots-themed events at Meikles in the past month or so, and these have been arranged and presented with great style, most notably the cuisine prepared by executive chef Chris Gonzo and his team. The first was a Hogmanay evening in the Stewart Rooms – named for Thomas Meikle’s brother, Stewart, who died before the hotel project was completed and whose name is Scots to the very core – while the second was a splendid Burns Night affair on January 25.

               The Hogmanay event, held as one of three events within the hotel on December 31, was supposed to have attracted a great many people with Scottish roots, as well as others keen to enjoy this style of cuisine, but disappointingly very few Scots folk came along; the one great exception was a jolly table hosted by Caledonian Society chieftain Bruce Grant. Some of the people attending were not really expecting such specialised cuisine and changed over to the more traditional fare offered in the equally excellent Pavilion restaurant, while others enjoyed the chance to sample food they had not encountered before.

               The Burns Night event was aimed mainly at members of the Grapevine wine group, now used to a whisky tasting event and Burns Night supper on January 25 each year. This is the date of Burns’ birth and all over the world there are huge celebrations in honour of Scotland’s national poet, so it was super to see a good one set up in Harare. The Caledonians now stage Burns lunches, the result of many older members not wanting to travel at night, and their celebration takes place today at Tiffany’s banqueting venue in Harare west.

               Chef Gonzo was delighted with the challenge of staging these Scots culinary celebrations, having many years ago successfully done the same when the Cresta Jameson – then managed by a youthful Gordon Addams, now running Inns of Zimbabwe in the Eastern Highlands – hosted regular Scottish weeks in the old Tiffany’s restaurant (no relation to the new venue of the same name where the Caledonians are today!). He set about the task with verve and vigour and the result was an excellent outpouring of dishes that are standard fare at Scots festivities.

               The Hogmanay event featured a fairly long menu, while the Burns Night event had a table d’hote menu taking some of the inputs from Hogmanay. On New Year’s Eve guests could choose between a cock-a-leekie soup and smoked salmon, and both were as authentic and enjoyable as they could be. Then came (at both events) a haggis entrée, piped in as called for by tradition by a piper leading the chef carrying a travy of haggis and accompanied by a bearer of whisky. On Burns Night Bruce Grant then did the honours of addressing and stabbing the haggis (with a shorter version at Hogmanay) before toasting to the memory of Robert Burns. Main course choices on New Year’s Eve were a duo of venison and beef fillet, a grilled salmon steak or a vegetarian pasta dish. These were all top notch, and the Burns Night selection from this was the beef and venison pairing, although two ladies decided to have a vegetarian option. Pudding at Hogmanay was a choice of Scots cranachan (raspberries with cream, biscuit base and loads of whisky) and apple crumble with a whisky sauce, while at Burns Night the offer was just the cranachan; an excellent dish.

               At both events, guests had traditional Athol Brose to drink and at the Burns Night event, guests enjoyed a tasting of three whiskies. Two of these came from Brands Africa – a Dewar’s 8-year-old and a Dewar’s White Label – while the third was a gift from Susie Russell De Agostini, Scots-born wife of Italian Ambassador Enrico; she is a member of the Russell family who own Macleod’s Distillery Company, the 10th biggest such company in the world!

               With music at both events by the marvellous Mande Snyman, pipers aplenty (St John’s College pipe band at Hogmanay and solo piper Mike McMullen on Burns Night), there was great entertainment and the mood was festive and joyous. On New Year’s Eve, guests from the Stewart Rooms joined those from The Pavilion and La Fontaine for a fireworks display on the roof garden and a sung-in welcome to the new year. Burns Night ended with a communal singing of Auld Lang Syne, perhaps the most famous creation of Robert Burns, whose exploits (good and bad) are perhaps as famous as his writings.

               These themed events showed what versatility there is in the Meikles Hotel kitchens, where demands come from all corners of the earth for traditional turning out of dishes peculiar to all manner of places. Well done to Chef Gonzo and his team for a job well done and cuisine that was excellent and stylish. The staff all joined in the events with pleasure and enthusiasm and this really helps when guests want to let their hair down somewhat. What’s next for Chris and the Meikles team? Valentine’s Day, on February 14, when scores of loving couples will want a romantic and five-star feast in La Fontaine, along with dinner and dance music. I have no doubt they will enjoy it and that the cuisine on offer will be exactly as expected, such is the reliability of the presentations in this hotel.

               Meikles Hotel has several dining venues: La Fontaine Grillroom (celebrating its 60th anniversary this year), The Pavilion Bistro for buffet dining, Explorer’s Bar for weekday three-course buffet lunches at just $20 per person and the Tanganda lounge, for simple meals and all-day coffees, teas and high teas! Very often it is a good idea to reserve places: call (0242) 707721. I understand the hotel is planning to introduce an e-mail system for finding out what is on the cards for special events through 2018: it will be and on application, people will be sent an updated checklist of planned coming events. – The Epicurean