Flying into Johannesburg – modern day El Dorado – seated, gratifyingly, beside a real-life gold miner (‘See that yellow square down there; that’s a gold mine’), was an exciting moment. It put the idea of South Africa’s culinary heritage, exploration of which had been the reason for this trip, rather on the back foot.
For the British traveller, Johannesburg is a terrific destination, involving barely any jet lag (it’s two hours ahead) and wonderful winter sunshine. It’s also a great place for the carnivorous. Leaning towards a more Texan than Asian style of eating, the city has a largely meat-based diet, from the traditional biltong to the slabs of steak served in upmarket restaurants.
If street food is what you want, then Soweto is the place to go. It’s an unlikely product of South Africa’s troubled history – a tourist destination with a brutal past and a present that means many different things to many people.
Charabancs spill visitors out on to the modest highway where both Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela’s former houses stand. You can eat at brasseries and fast-food joints that offer buffets of South Africa’s most appealing indigenous dishes – meaty stews, kidneys, pap (savoury porridge made from ground maize) and pickled mango – before taking a bike ride into Soweto’s backstreets, where you’ll find shanty restaurants offering things like ‘middle of the cow’s head’.
Outside a shisa nyama shack (a local braai or barbecue) is a large sign that reads, ‘Why not?’ Inside, reasons why not are immediately apparent, but this mud-floored diner with an open fire and a single table serves a seriously good mix of fried spiced cow’s heart, liver and tripe on a wooden board.
A 45-minute flight away, in the Kruger National Park, street food has a very different meaning. This is the bush – wild, sandy scrubland of low trees and grasses, where impossibly beautiful lilac-breasted rollers build untidy nests out of thorny twigs; it’s a place where anything moving at ground level is a potential dinner.
‘The bush is all about eating, having sex and sleeping. If you’re good at those three things, you’ll survive.’ So says Eve Wood-Hill, a ranger on the Sabi Sabi reserve, whose 6,000 hectares march along the boundary of Kruger National Park.
It’s abundantly clear from even a brief sojourn here that the motivating force behind the reserve’s population of lions, leopards, elephants, zebras, giraffes, assorted deer, buffalo, rhinos and hippopotami is food. Everything in the park, from termites to elephants, is on the hunt for sustenance.
Luckily, the task of finding food for Sabi Sabi’s guests falls to the team who run the game reserve and its four lodges: Earth Lodge, Selati Camp, Bush Lodge and Little Bush Camp. They have taken this challenge seriously, tracking down and snaring a British chef, and temporarily placing him in the wild to collaborate with one of their own resident head chefs, Conradie Kruger, at Earth Lodge.
Mircel McSween is head chef at High Timber in London, a modern British restaurant with a strong South African bent, affiliated with the Stellenbosch Jordan Wine Estate. He has spent the past couple of months Skyping Kruger and his sous-chef Darrol Patterson, working out how the two kitchens might share ideas and recipes to enhance both of their menus.
To be out in the bush for his week-long residency is ‘a dream come true’ for McSween. ‘I’ve always wanted to travel, to explore different cuisines,’ he says. For Sabi Sabi, he has created several new dishes, one involving an experimental parsnip sorbet ‘using local parsnips, which are smaller and sweeter than UK parsnips, but with a bitter aftertaste’.
Kruger is thrilled by the partnership. ‘It’s the most exciting thing that’s happened to me in a long time,’ he says. ‘I can get ideas and learn how to use them. The first thing Mircel taught me was how to make sourdough.’ Kruger’s normal style of cooking is ‘African-French bistro-fusion… Pork belly with carrot purée or kudu [antelope] with the pumpkin dumplings my grandmother used to make.’
Earth Lodge guests can now benefit from the new cross-fertilisation, although the charm of the essentially African safari experience remains undiluted. You still get an Out of Africa-style sundowner with your evening safari, and morning coffee from a flask in the back of your Land Rover at sunrise; you can even have breakfast and a massage at the recently built Jabula Deck in the reserve, overlooking a spectacular rocky riverbed. ‘As soon as we built it,’ marketing manager Louise Barlow says, ‘a lioness set up a den on the rocks opposite, so we couldn’t use it until she’d moved on.’ The collaboration between the two kitchens is not over, however.
Later this year, a return journey is planned from Sabi Sabi to High Timber in the City, when McSween will resume his collaboration, producing a series of lunches and dinners featuring the kind of food guests enjoy in the bush – asparagus and smoked butter; curried fish terrine; ‘saffa’ Jaffa Cake and yogurt ice cream – only the view outside will be different: urban jungle rather than sleeping lions.
Carolyn flew with South African Airways (overnight flights from Heathrow to Johannesburg and onward connections to Skukuza via Airlink from £1148; flysaa.com; 0844 375 9680)
Venison fillet with pumpkin dumplings, pistachio crumble, sautéed courgette and blueberry gastrique
We serve this at Earth Lodge with dried-out butternut squash shavings.
- 1.6kg venison fillet (at Sabi Sabi we use kudu – antelope)
- ½ large pumpkin, peeled and deseeded
- 1 tbsp ground allspice
- 200g butter, plus extra to cook the venison and to sauté
- 30ml runny honey
- 2 eggs
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 150g plain flour
- 100g shelled pistachios
- 50g caster sugar
- 50ml white-wine vinegar
- 250g blueberries
- 3 courgettes, turned (cut into thumb-sized rugby-ball shapes)
- 100g Parma ham, torn into pieces
- Trim any excess sinew from the venison fillet and set aside.
- Cut the pumpkin into small chunks and place in a large pan with the allspice, 200g butter and honey. Cover with a lid, cook until soft, then blitz in a food processor until smooth. Place 300g of the pumpkin mixture in a bowl and mix in the eggs, baking powder and flour. Season.
- Bring a pan of water to the boil. Form the pumpkin mixture into thumb-sized quenelles using two spoons and carefully drop each one into the water (do this in batches). Cook until they float, then simmer for about five minutes and remove with a slotted spoon to kitchen paper.
- Meanwhile, blanch the pistachios: cover with cold water in a pan and bring to the boil. Drain immediately, then rub in a tea towel to remove the skins. Spread the nuts out on a baking tray to dry (in a 60C oven, ideally), then pulse-blend in a food processor to a crumble consistency.
- Preheat the oven to 160C/gas mark 3. Combine the sugar, vinegar and blueberries in a saucepan. Cook over a medium heat until some of the berries break down and you have a thick syrup.
- In a hot, ovenproof frying pan, sear the venison until golden brown and caramelised on all sides, then add a knob of butter and put in the oven for 5-8 minutes, depending on the size of the fillet, until cooked medium-rare.
- Sauté the courgette pieces and the pumpkin dumplings in a frying pan with a knob of butter and pinch of salt, until golden brown.
- Slice the venison fillet and serve with a sprinkling of pistachio crumble, pumpkin dumplings, courgette pieces, a drizzle of blueberry syrup and torn Parma ham.
Recipe by Conradie Kruger and Mircel McSween