Food Safari: Looking on the bright side of life
I’m starting this blog with a tribute to the desert lions in Namibia. Ever since I was a child in Kenya, I have had the most ridiculous knack at finding lions in the bush. I’m not talking about a great tracking technique or hunter’s intuition, just the desperate urge to pee! The first time it happened, I was around 6 or 7, squatting beside our Landrover when a lioness raised its head in the long grass right next to me. She had been so well camouflaged we hadn’t seen her. Ever since then, while everyone else scans the terrain for lions snoozing in the long grass or up a tree, I simply need to get out the vehicle, squat behind a bush with my trousers around my knees and, invariably, a lion will raise its head! And I’m so glad it happened a couple of years ago on a trip to Namibia when Zeki and I were with our guide, Alpha, in a Land Cruiser looking for the famous desert lions, the Five Musketeers.
Observed and monitored by the South African conservationist Dr Flip Stander, these five male lions were made famous by a moving film The Vanishing Kings: the Lions of the Namib, which tells the story of the difficulties and desperation the desert lions face. The harsh terrain and fierce sand storms can lead to long periods of hunger and tragedy, but there is also the threat of the human-animal conflict of wild lions sharing the territory with cattle famers. These lions, along with the desert elephants, were the main reason for our visit to the remote camp on the Skeleton Coast and we were longing to see them. When Alpha stopped under the shade of a tree in a dry river bed so that we could stretch our legs and pour some much-needed coffee from a flask as we had been up since 5am looking for the lions, I joked about my reputation of finding lions just before wandering off to some bushes to have a pee. Bemused but disbelieving, Alpha had insisted the big cats must have roamed far away during the night. But, sure enough, as soon as I was squatting with my jeans around my knees, there was a sort of yawning roar from deep inside the scrubby bushes. At times like that you make a quick decision. My pee would have to wait. In a flash I pulled my jeans back up and made my way stealthily, not fast or in a panic, to the Land Cruiser. “Did you hear that?” I asked excitedly. Alpha and Zeki had. They were grinning. “Well done, mum, you’ve still got it!” remarked my cheeky son. We quietly stowed away the coffee cups and flask and climbed into the vehicle, which Alpha drove up over the sand bank to approach the bushes from behind. There in a clearing, sprawled out in pockets of shade, were four of the handsome Musketeers, the fifth was deep in the bushes with a lioness. Alpha recognised the lioness, one of two sisters roaming in the area and he concluded that they were taking it in turns to mate with her. We were so lucky to see all Five Musketeers that day – in fact, we were privileged – as a year later, in 2016, three of them were poisoned by the cattle farmers and the last two were shot in separate incidents in 2017. The cattle farmers have not only wiped out these famous lions and some of their offspring but they continue to pose a threat to the few wild lions left in the desert.
I am reminded of this tragedy and many others like it, as I am dipping back into my childhood in Africa in a book I am writing. The thread of this book is a journey that I made with my children through Kenya and Tanzania with my father’s ashes to find the right place to scatter them amongst the elephants. I have, in fact, been working on the book for several years but when I became my mother’s carer, I was so physically and emotionally exhausted the words ceased to flow. Up to that point, though, the writing of the book had given my mother a lot of joy as we chatted about Africa and reminisced about people, food and safaris. Camping in the bush amongst the wild animals was a hugely memorable part of my childhood, as was the time spent visiting and cooking with different tribes and cultural communities in their huts and houses.
My passion for spices and the stories behind them may have begun in Africa but my culinary journey has been long and varied in some of the most interesting food cultures in the world so many people ask me why on earth I live in a remote glen in the Scottish Highlands. Admittedly, at times, when a ferocious blizzard cuts me off from the rest of the world and the snow is pelting the kitchen windows at right angles, it can seem surreal to open a package of spices newly arrived in my post box from Istanbul and fill my kitchen with the seductive aromas of Indian and Middle Eastern cooking but, in spite of the hardship, I genuinely love living here. I draw my sanity and creativity from climbing the hills and drinking in the views to put life into perspective. I treasure my solitude but I also enjoy company and it gives me great pleasure to the share what I have – my home and my knowledge.
My cookery workshops continue to draw people from all over the world but I have also branched into whisky and food pairing experiences and work closely with Chivas to welcome international clients to my ‘whisky barn’. I’m also working on a challenging new project with Pernod-Ricard to develop the global food pairing of a new whisky. The highlights of this last year have been the opportunities to meet and interview several extraordinary people; the remarkable Yemisi Aribisala, the author of Longthroat Memoirs, a deliciously written portrayal of Nigerian food and life; the man everyone talks about, Yotam Ottolenghi, and his queen baker, Helen Goh, about their sumptuous book, Sweet; and, along with co-presenter, Sumayya Usmani, I met the legendary and very dinky, Madhur Jaffrey, when we presented the Kitchen Café’s Curry Club in London.
So life has moved a long way from where I was 18 months ago when I was looking into the abyss as the bank hassled me about mortgage payments and I had to sell all my jewelry and valuable possessions in order to save my home, which is also where I conduct most of my business. Every day has been spent fighting – fighting to push my boat out and create new business and fighting with my inner demons to keep myself positive and attempt to regain my confidence. And then there is still my mother to visit every week – a journey over the hills and back to hold the hand of this once vibrant woman who I love and know so well but she no longer knows me. I grieve every time I see her and drive back over the hills to my empty house feeling very depressed but, thank god, I have dogs to cuddle and walk, cottage guests to look after, workshops and events to cater for, and deadlines to meet. I am also very lucky that my children keep in touch regularly and love coming home to ski and snowboard, to walk and run in the hills, to work on their own projects, or to just sit with me on the deck and enjoy the view with a glass of wine or a wee dram! In the tradition of Monty Python, I try to ‘always look on the bright side of life .. whistle, whistle .. whistle, whistle …’!!
Here is the recipe so many people ask me for and I have to tell them to look it up on Radio Scotland’s Kitchen Café website where it has been sitting for several years. It is a classic South African dish of Cape-Malay origin with the inclusion of Indian spices and colonial cupboard ingredients like mango chutney and Worcestershire sauce. It is a family favourite in our house and it pairs really well with whisky.
*(All spices are available from www.seasonedpioneers.com )
2 slices white bread, crusts removed and cut into cubes
2 tablespoons ghee
2 onions, chopped
2 teaspoons jaggery, or sugar
1-2 teaspoons harissa paste or finely chopped dried chillies
1 tablespoon ground turmeric
2-3 teaspoons Zanzibar or South African curry powder
2 teaspoons ground ginger
2-3 tablespoons raisins or sultanasroughly 900g lean minced beef, or venison
1 tablespoon red or white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
2 tablespoons mango chutney
1 tablespoon apricot jam
1-2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 x 400g tins chopped tomatoes
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 eggs, beaten
a handful of lemon or bay leaves
Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4
Place the bread cubes into a shallow bowl and pour the milk over them. Put aside and leave to soak.
Heat the ghee in heavy-based pot or pan and stir in the onions with the jaggery, until they begin to colour. Stir in the harissa and spices then toss in the raisins and the minced beef and cook for 4-5 minutes to brown the meat.
Add the vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, chutney, jam, tomato paste, and tinned tomatoes. Bubble up the mixture, reduce the heat, and cook gently for 25-30 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent the sweet and spicy mixture from sticking to the bottom of the pot.
Squeeze the bread dry, reserve the milk, and beat the bread into the minced meat. Keep beating until the bread binds the mixture and makes it creamy. Season well with salt and pepper and transfer the minced meat to an ovenproof dish. Dot the top with fresh or dried lime leaves. Beat the eggs with the reserved milk in a bowl, pour it over the meat mixture, and pop the dish into the oven for 15-20 minutes, until the custard is just firm to touch. Serve straight from the oven with chutney, a salad, and hot bread or rice.