Is it possible to have a Rust en Vrede Restaurant, Beluga or even Chantal Dartnal’s Mosaic experience in the bush? Is fine dining possible around the campfire? Johan Badenhorst recently found out
Recently I met a German couple on safari in Africa. First I saw Christin and Martin at Jungle Junction in Nairobi. Later we bumped into them again near Jinja in Uganda. In a short time we became good friends.
At one point during a conversation I asked them what their favourite culinary experience was. No doubt – the restaurant in the vineyards of the Rust en Vrede valley, Jean Engelbrecht’s Stellenbosch establishment – by far the best place to dine. This is what they really appreciate.
But Christin and Martin travel in Africa most of the year. They live in the Cruiser they have converted into a camper. More often than not they have no facilities. The availability of ingredients is very limited. Shops with variety are few and far between.
Don’t they miss the six-course meals prepared by chefs like John Shuttleworth , and the exquisite wines offered by sommelier Joakim Hansi Blackadder? No, they don’t, because they do fine dining in the bush. It all comes down to planning before they leave on a trip.
Fine dining is what my wife refers to as children’s portions done by an interior decorator! Not a piece of steak, served with pap en sous and a Greek salad. How is it possible to combine these two concepts? How is it possible to do fine dining in the bush?
Ampie and Karen are our camping companions. With them we have travelled to Botswana, Namibia, the West Coast… the annual or bi-annual experience somewhere in the African wilderness is always something to look forward to. With them and brother-in-law Francois and his wife Uldine, together with our kids and sometimes a few other friends as well, we’ve had the best times of our lives. We have also had some exquisite “fine dining” experiences.
When on safari, as far as cooking is concerned, we have only two rules. Rule No 1is that one couple never cooks two evenings in a row. We take turns to impress the others. Rule No 2 is that when you are not on cooking duty, it is your responsibility to see that the glasses remain topped up. The rest is up to you.
The fewer the rules, the more challenging the experience. Evening after evening the teams try to outdo each other, surprise each other, impress each other. This is how fine dining in the bush was developed – very much as Christin and Martin have done.
Start off by putting another log on the fire. Pour a glass of good wine. Light a cigar. Tell a story. If there is anyone with a long face around the camp fire, tell him to cheer up!
Peel an onion. Sauté it in a cast iron pot in some extra virgin olive oil. Add a touch of garlic. Perhaps some chillies as well. Tell another joke. Enjoy the sunset. Take a photograph.
Now add the meat to the pot. Brown it after chasing the coals a little. Add some wine. Pour some for yourself as well. Tell another story.
Let the pot simmer with the secret ingredients you’ve added while you prepare the entrée. Everything comes down to proper planning. Always be aware that a surprise is part of the package. Think goat’s cheese balls rolled in herbs, served with Melba toast, or olives stuffed with anchovies, perhaps mushrooms fried in vinaigrette, tzatziki, goose liver pate, a selection of cheese, guacamole, savoury biscuits, bacon rolls stuffed with Russians, dried plums and peaches … There are so many options with which to surprise your travel companions.
“Where did you get this from?!”
“Never mind. we just thought you would enjoy it.”
Remember that paper plates are for children’s parties. Fine dining in the bush is done on proper plates. The entrée may even be served on a wooden cutting board covered with tinfoil. The table must always be covered with a tablecloth.
A few leaves of rocket loosely tossed over the dish can do no harm.
There’s no hurry in getting the meal done. After all, the spices added to the pot need some time to develop as the dish simmers on low heat.
In between, ask the campers to assist with the side dishes. Open a tin of asparagus. Artistically cover it with mayonnaise. Top and tail green beans and cook them the French way before adding lots of black pepper.
Remember that pumpkin always travels well. Cook it over slow coals and add some brown sugar, cinnamon and butter to give it an exquisite taste.
Pour some hot water over the tomatoes so that the skin can be removed before you mix them with the rice to create something resembling a risotto or Spanish rice. Add some chopped green peppers, fried onions and a pinch of turmeric. Make it look as though you are improvising, even though you actually studied four cookbooks and the internet a few days before departing, just to be ready for this specific meal!
Tell another story, light another cigar, pour another glass of wine. Start a discussion about next year’s destination. Or suggest a quiet moment to listen to the sounds of the night – perhaps a jackal calling in the distance.
Set the table, light some candles and open another bottle of wine. Brag about your choice, pretending that you can distinguish the different vintages.
Bring the food from the fire and dish up. Don’t let the kids go first. Ensure that there are trays if you are eating around the fire.
Accept the compliments to the chef with dignity.
Always have something for dessert – dark chocolates, or ice cream with a caramel sauce, and perhaps some cognac or a KWV 15-year-old. Remember that good coffee is non-negotiable.
When it’s done, put another log on the fire, and stare into the coals. Say good night to the early leavers – before you get too drowsy. Never look at your watch. Never check your phone. Now is the time to put your camera on a tripod, open the lens for two hours, and record a magnificent star trail.
This is fine dining in the bush.