Last week on the Blog I previewed an intriguing fine dining safari: a unique African experience on offer in the heart of the Kent countryside, complete with luxury accommodation, behind the scenes access with the animal park's rangers, and a personal chef. I was invited to spend the weekend at Port Lympne's Livingstone Cottage and, of course, ended up picking the day the south east of England became buried under a good few inches of fresh snow! This was my second visit to Port Lympne Wild Animal Park and I can now testify that spending the night here "on safari" is amazing, come sunshine, rain or snow. The views are fantastic, whatever the weather, and the proximity to the animals is breathtaking. The snowy landscapes dotted with animals usually found roaming the Serengeti is certainly not a sight one gets to enjoy every day. Coming home to a cosy, luxurious cottage and an incredible African-inspired five-course meal prepared by a personal chef is also not how my average Saturday night goes down...
Visits to Port Lympne go hand in hand with discovering more about the fantastic work of the Aspinall Foundation, the registered charity responsible for a diverse range of conservation activities and projects at the Kent parks and overseas in the Republic of Congo, Indonesia and Madagascar, to name just a few. This weekend we were lucky enough to have an incredibly knowledgeable and personable park ranger called Sally all to ourselves. From the moment we arrived at the Livingstone Reception, Sally entertained and educated us with stories and facts about the origins of the Aspinall Foundation - only in its second generation of family ownership with a great future ahead - and the many African and Indian breeds of animal living in the park. We packed up our Landrover with our overnight bags, fluffy blankets and a bottle of bubbly for later, and Sally took us on a drive through the African Experience. We saw cheetahs eager for feeding time (luckily we were separated by a fence), a rhino peeked at us from his cosy shed, and a whole gang of eland, wildebeest and zebra stood out against the snow just metres from our windows. We got alarmingly close to many of the animals but, unfortunately missed out on seeing the elephants and giraffe (they were rather sensibly hanging out in their heated houses). Even if you are not mad about animals, I'd recommend the safari just for the fear factor and the stunning photo opportunities.
After a couple of hours out on safari enjoying the incredible calm that hangs in the air throughout the whole park, we were driven to Livingstone Cottage which turned out to be a further haven of chilled out luxury. Greeted at the door by Head Chef Tony, the delicious aroma emanating from the kitchen was the first sign of the thoroughly enjoyable evening to come. A roaring fire, sumptuous carpets, and glasses of Champagne served to us in the cosy little snug quickly confirmed that we were in for a real treat.
Tony was a great host, effortlessly prepping each course whilst sharing with us his passion for bringing together local ingredients and African-inspired cuisine - a passion that was evident in every dish. We warmed up with a cup of smooth, creamy Amarula Hot Chocolate - made with a cream liqueur known as The Spirit of Africa and top-notch real chocolate to rival Paris' best chocolate pots - and sampled some traditional South African appetisers. Authentic in concept but adapted for the delicate British constitution, we were impressed by perfectly crafted Vetkoek (fried balls of dough stuffed with minced meat, translated simply as 'fat cake') and fragrant, flavourful homemade meat balls.
Once we had settled in, which consisted of exploring the cottage's four bedrooms and three bathrooms and being suitably impressed at every turn by the subtly styled decor and high-end finish, we took our places at the farmhouse kitchen table - a great vantage point from which to keep tabs on Tony's cooking skills! - and tucked into the homemade soup starter of butternut squash and sweet chilli, garnished with local cress leaves. The creamy, well-seasoned soup was vibrant, warming and showcased the sweet, nutty flavours of the seasonal squash, one of my favourite winter vegetables and a great partner to the spicy kick of chilli.
A generous fish course followed; an attractive dish of seared tuna in coriander seeds and leaves on a tomato, cucumber, shallot and basil salad with avocado mayonnaise that had been whipped up before our very eyes. The meaty tuna, pink in the centre and zinging with the smoky, herby flavour of coriander, welcomed the refreshing salad beneath, resulting in a pleasing combination of slightly roasted, softened tomato, earthy crushed seeds and creamy, almost palate-cleansing avocado.
We were getting rather full by the time the main course arrived, a real shame as the lamb cooked two ways was exactly my kind of dish. After telling Tony on arrival that we could handle anything he threw at us, we were big eaters, etc, I was determined to at least sample everything on the plate. Another huge portion awaited me, even prettier than the seared tuna in my opinion, consisting of a rather robust pile of rack of lamb with a local Romney Marsh salt crust, slices of roast leg of lamb in delicate African spices, and a classic caramelized serving of pommes boulangère. The salty, rare meat of the rack of lamb was a definite highlight, working particularly well with the drizzles of rich, sweet cooking juices, rosemary and butternut squash purée. The bottle of red wine we'd selected, from the South African Fleur du Cap winery, proved to be a versatile choice and also stood up well to the rich decadence of the roast lamb.
Somehow we saved just enough room for dessert; we had two choices. The chocolate delice, which we both opted for... and was so darn good that I can't even remember what the other one was. The beautifully presented, creamy, dark chocolate slice of heaven would have made Raymond Blanc proud: a little trail of chocolate soil mingled with caramelized hazelnuts, delicate curls of ice cream, topped off by a dramatic centrepiece. It tasted as good as it looked, instantly inspiring me to persevere on the homemade dessert front. No more will I declare I don't do desserts.
I certainly slept well after such a feast - all the better for the opulent four-poster bed and silence and pitch black of the countryside, I must add - and awoke refreshed, ready for the hearty Aspinall full English breakfast and a final safari before heading home. Throwing back the curtains to take in the morning views of the park (for future reference I'd say the best view is from the roll-top bath in the Bridal Suite), I realised the freshly fallen snow might hinder our plans somewhat. One of the benefits of being the only people crazy enough to brave a safari park on the coldest weekend of the year, we discovered, is getting a sneak peek at life behind the scenes. As The African Experience and park were closed due to the snow, we ended our visit by watching a huge, old iguana having a warm bath to aid skin shedding and then meeting and feeding the cottage's nearest neighbours, two friendly and very hungry rhinos! We loved every minute of the weekend and will definitely be back to support the great work of the Aspinall Foundation for many years to come.
If you'd like to find out more about the Aspinall Foundation and short breaks at Port Lympne, you can visit the website here: www.aspinallfoundation.org.
You can also follow the parks on Twitter: @AspinallParksPR and Facebook: Short Breaks at Port Lympne.
We stayed and dined as guests of the Aspinall Foundation.