Nature’s bounty: Valentine Warner’s South African food safari
Television chef Valentine Warner puts his foraging skills to the test on a South African game reserve, where he shows Sara Lawrence the joys of cooking in the wild.
Saturday 21 January 2012
A mouthwatering scent emanates from the dark, velvety oxtail stew bubbling away on the braai in the middle of our camp. I'm sitting at an Out of Africa-style outdoor table laid with white china, silver cutlery and hurricane lamps in the deep, dramatic interior of the South African bush, the rolling hills and valleys of the Eastern Cape uninterrupted in every direction as far as the eye can see. The furthest hills are tinged blue while myriad shades of green set off the bright red soil of dirt tracks and baked orange termite mounds scattered among tall yellow grass.
I'm with television chef and author Valentine Warner at Shamwari Game Reserve. It's about 100 square miles of privately owned, malaria-free, land an hour's drive from Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape – itself a two-hour flight from Johannesburg or an eight-hour drive north from Cape Town through the wine lands of the Garden Route.
We are staying at the Bayethe Lodge, a place of pared-back luxury with 12 thatched-roofed, canvas-walled suites, each with its own outdoor hot tub, overlooking the banks of Buffalo River. The main deck is close to the waterhole – there is nothing so thrilling as an elephant joining you for breakfast. Today, however, we have turned our backs on such extravagances as the chandelier in the dining room or spa massages before dinner, and taken the kitchen outdoors.
Anyone who has glanced through Val's cookbooks or seen any of his television shows will know about his passion for fresh local produce, his fervour for fishing, shooting and foraging. This is a chef obsessed not only with what we eat but also when we eat it. Infectiously enthusiastic about food and endlessly knowledgeable about plant and animal life, Val is a pioneer of back-to-nature and nose-to-tail eating.
This wild corner of South Africa is the perfect place for Val to do what he does best. It's a dream spot for foraging. There is no fancy kitchen equipment here, just an open fire and Val's imagination. I am curious to see just how well he can do in unfamiliar, often hostile terrain with this extreme back-to-basics approach.
"My overwhelming feeling about the African bush is that it's truly raw," he tells me, "a dramatic place where you feel completely connected to the land and miles away from the humdrum of life as I know it in London." Val says it is the chef's prerogative to think about not only what country but also what sort of environment he finds himself in, to try different things and see how they might work together. He believes that nature should dictate the menu, and watching him cook a feast for us in the bush is a perfect demonstration of this.
"It's about simplicity and seeing what's around you and using what you've got," he says, as he shovels coal over buttered and cinnamon-spiced gem squashes he has wrapped in foil and placed under the stew. "It's about the challenge of cooking in situ – and part of that challenge is that you don't want to be cooking complicated food. During winter in Africa, there's a lot of oxtail around, so let's get some of that bubbling away in a big pot in the ashes. Likewise, when there are guinea fowl scampering and squeaking all over the place, I'm not going to be cooking a chicken. There is also no point in trying to buy a bag of spinach for a salad when there are cacti and other lovely bush vegetables everywhere you look." He picks small round leaves off the spekboom plant, which grows in abundance in these parts, and pops one into his mouth.
"It's sweet with a bitter aftertaste, sharp and delicious," he announces. "We'll make a salad with that and cactus leaves – peel the juicier small leaves but don't get the spines caught in your fingers as they really hurt." He tastes everything, especially things he's not tried before, but I am horrified when he plucks a few live termites from their mound and pops them in his mouth. According to Val, they're "like passion fruit but without the sugar". He knocks up a romesco sauce to go with the guinea fowl browning next to the stew, using peanuts – in plentiful supply here – rather than hazelnuts and almonds.
His bush-style variation also has a kick to it, the red chillies lingering on the tongue a few moments beyond the garlic, cumin and coriander. Flatbread still warm from the grill is delicate and moreish, perfect for mopping up; the standard flour, yeast, salt and water combination made intriguing with the addition of cumin seeds.
All around us is evidence of the wild animals that inhabit this place; our hilltop camp occupies a flat clearing known as a "rhino garden", thanks to the white rhinos who keep the grass closely cropped. The smells wafting out of the cast-iron pots seem to appeal to the small journey of giraffes spotted making torturous progress up the hill to our left. We drove through a parade of 20 elephants en route, not to mention a very rare sighting of a serval cat – a slender spotted creature with long legs – picking its way daintily through the long grass.
As we are tucking into our stew and guinea fowl, we hear over the camp radio that a pride of lions has killed two zebras a couple of miles from where we're sitting. This is fast turning into the most exciting meal of my life.
I can't remember the last time I was so enthused about what I'm eating. "Our collective national fridge is full of the same things, week in and week out," explains Val, heaping more oxtail, carrots and lashings of gravy on to my plate. "The link between nature and food is becoming uncomfortably stretched, and as a direct consequence everyone seems to be forgetting how to eat properly. I think it's a shame not to try new things, not to take notice of nature and let her tell us what to eat and when. It would be a sad day if we let the quince roll off the table for ever."
On the windswept beach at Oceana Beach and Wildlife Reserve, an hour's drive north up the coast from Port Elizabeth, I watch another wild feast being cooked. At only four square miles, this is not the place to come for a safari. But the seven suites and the three-bedroom guesthouse have access to the wild coast, and during breeding months you can see whales and dolphins making their way up from Antarctica. The epic sand dunes are deserted as we gaze out at the Indian Ocean. Thick greenery rising up the hill lends an eerie, Jurassic Park sensibility to the whole experience.
Val casts his line and within a couple of minutes something bites. "If it was any fresher you'd have to slap it," he says, expertly reeling in a black-tailed bream. He is doing cob, a firm, white, meaty fish, three ways.
"Cob fish is dense and meaty which makes it perfect for pickling," he says, slicing it raw and leaving it to marinade in orange juice, chilli and other spices. "It's going to knock your socks off." When I'm finally allowed to stick my fork into the citrusy mix I can't stop. The second cob fillet is grilled with hot red harissa, the third with a bright green, coriander- and garlic-heavy chermoula. The vibrant colours match the bold flavours and every mouthful is intense. "Always taste things raw when you can," says Val, dicing a lean, gentle tasting impala fillet and adding it to a mixing bowl containing finely chopped onions and a handful of capers, chives and green peppercorns, with egg yolk, coriander, Worcester sauce, Dijon mustard, salt and lemon juice. "Every mouthful must be delicious," Val explains, "so how you cut things is very important."
Eating like this is an assault on my senses, and hanging out with Val has lent me a new perspective on fine dining. The best eating is experienced off the tourist trail and is dominated by nature, the seasons and local knowledge. "An adventure is as much about going to a new place," says Val, "as it is about learning from the indigenous people that live there." I can't help but feel that I never want to eat inside again.
The original version of this article appears in the January issue of High Life magazine, available on all British Airways flights and at bahighlife.com. British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) flies to Johannesburg from Heathrow and on to Port Elizabeth as part of a codeshare with Comair.
Travel essentials: South Africa
* Oceana Beach and Wildlife Reserve, Port Alfred (00 27 83 616 0605; mantiscollection .com). Doubles start at R8,000 (£646), full board.
* Bayethe Lodge, Shamwari Game Reserve (00 27 41 407 1000; shamwari.com).
Tents that sleep two start at R9,500 (£767), full board.
* Southern Africa Travel Tailor-made holidays: southernafricatravel.com
* Valentine Warner is available to host bespoke culinary adventures: mantiscollection.com
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