For more than 20 years, travellers on East Sussex's back roads may have noticed a roadside sign advertising the availability of such exotica as crocodile, zebra, impala, buffalo and ostrich. To be frank, we locals all thought the chap running the place must be a little odd.
Now, after the summer of sport popularising all things African, we're beginning to think he may well have been something of a parochial Nostradamus. For, having previously been pretty much the exclusive preserve of local ethnic cafés, the cuisine of that vast continent is starting to make its way on to British palates.
You can now taste authentic African dishes all the way from Margate to the wilds of Scotland. Shaka Zulu, a £5.5m, 750-seat South African restaurant, opened its doors last month in Camden with one of that country's top chefs manning the stoves. Internet retailers of "alternative meats" are reporting huge increases in sales ever since the World Cup.
Courses at African cookery schools, such as Canning Town's Jollof Pot, run by two finalists from Raymond Blanc's The Restaurant, are becoming de rigueur for foodies who've tired of learning at the feet of Michelin-starred TV chefs. Even the seminal new Leiths Meat Bible (Bloomsbury, £40) has 26 pages devoted to exotic meats, most of them African.
"Immediately after the World Cup, we saw a 400 per cent increase in demand for our African meats," says Paul Cook, owner of the Bristol-based Osgrow, who'll sell you ostrich, giant eland, impala and wildebeest, among others. "It's settled down to about 200 per cent on last year's figures, but we expect to see that rising steadily. About five or six years ago, the supermarkets were paying lip service to so-called alternative meats, but found they were taking up shelf space that could be filled by faster-moving, more profitable, items, so they disappeared. A major factor in its increase in popularity is more people are taking safari holidays, tasting these meats while they're there and wanting to repeat the experience once they return home."
"I've been watching this trend for four years, and the use of these meats at professional and domestic levels has become much wider and is steadily increasing," says Max Clark, co-author of the Meat Bible. "People are attracted to these exotic meats because of their healthy properties. They don't want to cut red meat out of their diets, but they don't want as much saturated fat – and even lean cuts of familiar meat have fat in the protein fibres. It's obvious what an incredibly healthy lifestyle these African animals have. Their diet is very lush and chemical-free, so the resulting meat is lean and sweet. As soon as supermarkets latch on to just how well online retailers of exotic meats are doing, they'll want a piece of that market again."
A few hundred yards from the King George V stop on the Docklands Light Railway, on an industrial estate, is Jollof Pot's Ghanaian cookery school, run by Adwoa and Lloyd Hagan-Mensah, where I am to try my hand at making some traditional Ghanaian dishes. If Cajun cooking always starts with its "holy trinity" of onions, bell peppers and celery, the Ghanaian equivalent is the quartet of onions, ginger, garlic and the hottest chillies you can find. In our hands-on morning course, we use Scotch Bonnets, 600 times hotter than the jalapeno, which magically morphs in to sweet, fruity notes during the cooking.
"Africans don't have much confidence in their cuisine, as they tend to overcook things," says Adwoa Hagan-Mensah. She acknowledges that African cuisines are still unfamiliar to many in Britain. "We're trying to break that barrier and make the food less alien than it might at first seem. Also African immigrants tend not to go into the restaurant business and prefer to eat at home."
In three hectic hours, we cook six dishes for lunch, including a tomato stew to be used as a base in almost all the other recipes; Ghanaian rice; ostrich with a groundnut sauce; spinach and agushi (pumpkin seeds) with mushrooms; smoked mackerel and okra stew with banku (fermented maize meal and fibrous, potato-like cassava); and delicious deep-fried plantain (buy them ripe, not green as found in Cuban cooking).
"We get everyone from older couples who've exhausted more traditional cuisines, through British women who are marrying African men to younger people who've spent a gap year or done voluntary service in Africa," says Hagan-Mensah. "Also, because people have discovered our food through our stalls on Portobello Road and Broadway [Market in Hackney], they come to learn how to cook those dishes at home."
On the other side of town, taking the escalator down to the two-tiered Shaka Zulu is like descending into an interior designer's take on a Disney jungle ride. The restaurant is dominated by a 30ft bronze statue of the eponymous king of the Zulu nation credited with creating tribal unity in South Africa. There's a life-size "tree of life", featuring carvings of every kind of African game animal, watched over by a relief of a giant tusker's head and a crystal leopard centrepiece.
General manager Michael Clarke has previously been involved with restaurants run by Marco Pierre White, Gordon Ramsay and Terence Conran, and head chef Barry Vera is known as South Africa's answer to Ramsay, thanks to his TV cooking shows which have aired in 80 countries. "Will South African food sell?" asks Vera. "Well, if you'd said 10 years ago a place called The Gaucho Grill could get high-end prices for Argentinean food, most people would have said: 'In your dreams'. So we know the market is always looking for something new. We want to show you Brits what and how we eat at home."
On offer are many flavours that are familiar, but combined in dishes that aren't. Here are a few examples. Chakalaka is a delicious, spicy vegetable relish made of onions, cabbage, peppers, chilli, turmeric, ground coriander and peas topped with parsley. Amazi, a zulu sour milk, is used to sauce lamb spit roast over a traditional "braai" barbecue. Salmon is smoked over rooibos tea, made from herbs grown on a red South African bush. Sosaties are meat or vegetable kebabs marinated in tamarind, curry powder, sherry, red wine vinegar and apricots. The clear winner is bobotie – a favourite South African post-pub meal like a deconstructed moussaka. Curried mince and onions are mixed with cumin, ground coriander, turmeric, garlic, sweet chutney and cayenne, then topped with an egg custard and fried breadcrumbs.
"As we develop, we'll be bringing in crocodile, zebra, boar and water buffalo. But none of it is food to be afraid of," Vera says. The beef he uses has its provenance closer to home and comes with the loftiest of credentials – Red Poll beef from the royal Sandringham Estate. "We have an exclusive deal for them to supply us. It's the Queen's herd and has never been used in a restaurant before." But his springbok, Karoo mountain range lamb, ostrich and kudu (antelope), regarded as the finest game meat in the world, will all hail from the motherland.
Durban-born Pete Gottgens opened Chiswick's Springbok Cafe in 1994, and has cooked his homeland's delicacies for the Queen and Tony Blair. Now, as chef-owner of the Ardeonaig Hotel and restaurant, in Loch Tay, he has persuaded the denizens of Perthshire to develop a taste for miele meal, a rich chocolate-maize pudding which Nelson Mandela always asks for on his UK visits, and umnqusho (known as "mush"), a casserole of samp (unripened corn kernels) and borlotti-like sugar beans, served every day as an accompaniment to lamb.
At Margate's Ambrette Restaurant, executive chef Dev Biswal regularly features South West African ostrich brochette smoked with cloves then chargrilled on a slow flame; crocodile fillet from Southern Africa slow-cooked in a sauce of coconut, tamarind and spices; and pan-grilled zebra steak served with a sauce of plums, ginger and black pepper. "About 45 per cent of our menu features African meats. While there was initial resistance, once diners tasted them they come back for them again and again. African meats are the way of the future," he says. "Last year, I even sold python, which costs up to £80 a kilo, and tastes a bit like pan-fried eel, which I slow-cooked with a rich tomato sauce."
A three-hour Ghanaian cookery class at Jollof Pot costs £75 per person, including lunch you've cooked and a generous goodie bag (020 7473 5666; www.jollofpot.co.uk )
Cooking exotic meats
* Sales of exotic meats such as zebra, ostrich, springbok and kudu (antelope) have rocketed in the last year. Exotic meats need to be cooked medium-rare at most.
* To enjoy kudu, let it lie in yoghurt for a couple of hours, and then throw it on the braii (barbecue). Lay strips of bacon over the top to allow moisture to enter the meat. Or bathe the steaks for a minimum of 24 hours in a wine-based marinade with any spices you like.
* These meats are also great casseroled in a Römertopf, a type of clay pot. Chop up winter vegetables, and cut the steak into bite-size pieces. This keeps the nutrients and juices in the dish, and is a great winter alternative to the braii.
* Springbok contains 54 per cent of the calories found in beef, has five times less saturated fat, 80 per cent of the cholesterol, and is free of hormones and growth stimulants. In many areas, the culling of game helps to sustain conservation efforts.
* Ostrich meat is lower in fat than both chicken and turkey.