Think Zimbabwe's still virtually a war zone? Think again. Its old tourist trail is witnessing a culinary renaissance.
The distinctively shaped hills of Eastern Zimbabwe seem to resemble strangely stylised versions of the human form. It is as though the very geology of the land has given rise to the visual imagination of the country; the culture of abstract stone work and sculpture that defines modern Zimbabwean art. I am ranging through them in the back of a pick up truck; shoes off, with nothing but a grubby mattress separating me from the ridged metal floor, upon which my camera bounces and rattles as we flit past trees and through spots of sunlight.
You already know what I expected when I crossed the border on foot into Zimbabwe. For the tourist the country seems like a wild and volatile place to venture to; images of post election violence and unspeakable torture still populate the latest books on the country, filling the popular consciousness alongside graphic TV images of Morgan Tsvangarai's swollen, battered face.
But dotted around this temperate upland (somewhere between jungle down-land and rocky mountain range) are havens of tranquil luxury that seem to suggest a strange economic immunity from the country's recent financial turmoil. At sporadic points in the last decade this area has been awash with the impulsive wealth of illegal diamond smugglers, but this alone is no basis for the careful development of these small-business labours-of-love. Instead of garish, flashy opulence, think of a peculiar British comfort, exported here for mid-20th century tastes, think of the places your grandparents took you as a child. Forget Brits abroad, this is Britain itself, transplanted half way across the world.
We were told about Tony's in advance. More than anywhere else on this peninsula of the unexpected, Tony's represented a bizarre departure from our preconceptions. In a monumental vision, Tony has created homage to English-lawn tranquillity and the notion of exquisite taste. The menu (a list of over 100 types of delicately flavoured teas literally as long as his arm) is produced on a cushioned hardcover and explained to us by the proprietor himself, with great care and attention to detail.
"The whisky and chocolate cake has no flour, it is just chocolate, chocolate, chocolate and…well you get the picture”. Tony is enthused
“The brandy fruit cake contains a double measure of the finest brandy, just to preserve the slice." We are becoming mildly elated; this vision of African hills is an Eden of indulgent taste.
The cakes are astonishing; served along with grapefruit and lavender tea in a beautiful gold trim porcelain tea set. The silver service water and tea-pots are Sheffield-stamped import designed to preserve the sense of integrity around a ritualistic experience that is nostalgic about some aspects of empire without feeling stubborn or regressive. I giggle briefly with delight, staring out over the trees and into Mozambique. Such gleeful opulence and careful ritual, and then on our descent back to the nearest town Mutare, we pass a group of rocks clustered into the image of a clenched human fist.