Any man or woman worth their ale knows that a sports bar and a pub are two completely different things. An undiscerning patron might assume they serve a similar purpose, but whereas a bar doesn’t shy away from loud music and Premier League reruns, a pub shudders at the idea of plasma screens and luminescent lighting. Rather, imagine a fire dancing in the corner of the room, the din of merry conversation, and plenty of nooks and crannies in which to plot rebellion…This is what a pub is for.
According to Mike Reardon, online beer evangelist and the Guinness Brewery Ambassador for New England in the USA, the origin of the traditional “public house” began with the Romans conquering Celtic Europe, building roads as they went to make marching easier for their armies. Every 30km or so, they built a tavern where their soldiers and merchants could find a comfortable bed, a hearty meal, and enjoy the pleasant company of fellow travelers. Over time, these taverns were further influenced by the alehouses of Britain and the traditional Gaelic hostels of Ireland, to create what we imagine a pub to be today.
With its palpable British heritage, it’s no surprise that English country pubs made their way to the Midlands of KZN. No village between Howick and Mooi River is without its local watering hole, where farmers, businessmen, and families gather to share news, tell tales, and offer advice.
In a time of so much uncertainty, it’s comforting to know that some traditions don’t change. In fact, they date back to ancient Rome!
Sunset Bar, Fern Hill Hotel
This pub at the historic Fern Hill Hotel is a 10-minute drive from the Nelson Mandela Capture Site on the R103. On 5 August 1962, Mandela was arrested here while posing as a chauffeur. The pub is a great place to stop for lunch before you visit the site to take in the memorial sculpture and accompanying museum ( thecapturesite.co.za).
The hotel’s restaurant, The Snooty Fox, is famous for its excellent cuisine and its cooking school, but the pub is low-key. It’s off to the side of the main foyer in a large room with a sunken seating area. There are red leather booths with deep-button backing, dark tiled floors, and a wooden ceiling – old world and cosy.
It’s the perfect hideaway on a cold afternoon. Enjoy tasty food like a chicken mayo toastie with bacon and spring onion (R60), or chicken tikka curry with sambals and poppadoms (R150). If you’re in the mood for something fresh, try the trout (R170), which is sourced from a nearby farm, or try one of the famous vegan dishes like the beetroot burger (R160).
As you fill your belly with delicious pub grub, ponder this… Fern Hill was originally a farm. The first structures on the property were built by the Swann family who came from Scotland in the mid-1800s. It would go on to be a trading post, a boarding house and, after the turn of the 20th century, a holiday resort. The property is lush, with tall jacaranda trees dusting the grounds in purple. The hotel building itself has an air of historical charm – simple, yet elegant.
After the Poltera family bought the property in 1989, they dedicated themselves to restoring it to its former glory. Fern Hill Hotel reopened in 1990. Alex Poltera, son of the owners, is in charge of the kitchen and has made a name for himself as one of the Midlands most celebrated chefs. He’s known for pioneering vegan cuisine in the area.
Fern Hill’s history is tangible and you’ll see it in the details – in the fireplaces with their intricate metalwork, and in the plush carpets that swallow your footsteps as you walk. Nelson Mandela ate at the hotel in 1996 when he was awarded “The Freedom of Howick”. If it was good enough for Madiba, it’s certainly good enough for us.
Where? On the R103 just outside Howick.
Contact: 033 330 5071; fernhillhotel.co.za
Just up the road fromThe Boar’s Head (opposite page), closer to Nottingham Road, is The Bierfassl, unique for its Austrian theme and famous for its crispy eisbein. If your German is a little rusty, “bierfassl” means“beer barrel”.
The Bierfassl has been around since 1999. They stock more than 35 beers from all over the world, like Erdinger Dunkel (try saying that quickly three times) from Germany (R48), Sol from Mexico (R33), and Hoegaarden from Belgium (R32).
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