A moveable feast

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How do bush chefs produce such delectable food even in the remotest of camps? On a visit to Lower Zambezi National Park, Laura Griffith-Jones was determined to learn how the food is sourced and cooked — as well as enjoying the myriad culinary experiences on offer in this superb safari destination
Zambia’s Lower Zambezi National Park lay to one side of us and Zimbabwe’s Mana Pools to the other as we gently puttered along the Zambezi, enjoying a serene lunch. We spotted birds and hippo, and kept an eye out for crocs, until at last, a family of elephant came into sight. They dawdled near the river’s edge, then began to wade into the depths towards an island. Soon the adults were in up to their shoulders but our eyes were fixed on the two babies. Both under a year old, they were fully submerged with the exception of their tiny trunks, which waved and wiggled above the murky water as they snorkelled along. It was a truly amazing spectacle.

Equally impressive was the immaculate feast of culinary delights that lay before us — homemade bread rolls, crispy fish goujons, colourful beetroot and pea salad, and lettuce, tomato and cucumber — all presented in elegant, white dishes. A bottle of sparkling Nederburg lay cooling in an ice bucket, and we sipped some chilled, freshly squeezed orange juice — the ideal antidote to the scorching October sun.

But how on earth had these fresh and sumptuous dishes made it onto our fine china plates in this remote park? A spread such as this would perhaps be expected in the chic Latitude 15º hotel in the Zambian capital but not here. How do lodges and bush camps produce such good food in the wilderness? It is astonishing what is achieved given the challenges; and yet the hard work that goes on behind the scenes is often taken for granted.

I remember well those tense moments in the kitchen at Nkwali Camp, in South Luangwa, where I worked in 2010. I recall the logistical nightmare of the menu plans and weekly orders; the occasions we were forced to deliver a ‘five-star’ menu with limited supplies in anticipation of our next delivery; and how could I forget the time a cheeky baboon, my camp nemesis, stole the Victoria sponge at teatime and we had to improvise? This time, however, I was on the other side of the fence: I was the guest. My hosts were Time + Tide Chongwe River Camp, Chiawa Camp and Old Mondoro — three top-notch examples of bush cooking.

Our first stop was Chongwe. Here I chatted to Yvonne Price, the guest liaison officer, and co-manager Flossy Shawa about the expectations of the modern-day guest and the logistics of meeting those demands. “Chongwe started 20 years ago as a simple fishing camp but has developed into a high-end bush camp,” Yvonne explained. “Let’s face it, the safari experience is more and more about the food. Guests expect excellent food. We also need to be able to cater for lactose-intolerant, veggie, vegan and gluten-free. Flexibility is crucial.”

Safari-goers today can hope to enjoy homemade bread, biscuits, cakes and jams, fresh salads, three- or four-course dinners with dishes such as cheese soufflé, steak and chocolate pudding. Gone are the days of grub for survival; this is fine dining in the wilderness.

But how do the ingredients get to the camp? Yvonne elucidated: “Some things are sourced locally — sweet potato leaves, pumpkin, beans, eggs and bream from the river — but most food comes from Lusaka, which has evolved dramatically in recent years. There is an emerging middle class so a great deal of imported international ingredients are now readily available there. But to reach us here is more of a mission. Luckily, a company called Valley Lodgeistics has made our lives easier. It coordinates weekly deliveries of meat, dairy and vegetables in a refrigerated truck. The lorry leaves Lusaka at 8.30am and arrives seven or eight hours later.” Flossy added: “Our biggest challenge is storage, hence why we order weekly. Especially in the hot season, ice and fresh vegetables do not last, forcing us to have a mid-week run of supplies.”

Some goods come from further afield. Chongwe used to have a herb garden but since elephant kept eating them, fresh herbs and spices come from Cape Town. The wine is also from South Africa. “We look at guests’ preferences year in year out and ask wine experts which new wines are on the market and how best we can store them,” said Flossy.

The managers, Flossy and Allan Shawa, plan the menu with head chef Vincenzo Makoni. I was keen to meet the people behind the dishes, so Yvonne took me to the kitchen. The team, all local to Lusaka or Lower Zambezi, comprises just five chefs and two porters to cater for 24 guests. The kitchen was basic — a simple gas oven and a pizza oven operated by wood and coal. The chefs were busy with dinner preparations so we left them to it, but I had the opportunity to speak to Vincenzo during our ‘sleepout’ on the Zambezi Escarpment, a highlight of our trip. Here, surrounded by miombo woodland, amarula and rain trees, I learnt about his life and cooking. “I was brought up by Italians and taught by my Italian mother,” he said. “Cooking is in my blood. I really love to cook. I have travelled to South Africa, Botswana and Mozambique to learn different cuisines.” This explained the superb international dishes we were enjoying during our stay. “My favourite is involtini di pollo — chicken stuffed with mozzarella rubbed with cream of mustard sauce and bacon.” Not bad for a bush dinner.

Chiawa Camp and Old Mondoro, owned and run by Grant and Lynsey Cumings, are two more great examples of culinary expertise on safari. I sat with Lynsey and manager Simon Douglas at a table overlooking the sparkling river at Chiawa and discovered their tactics for dishing up fabulous food in the bush.

Similar to Chongwe, both camps receive a weekly delivery of fresh foods from Lusaka through Valley Lodgeistics, as well as a bulk order of dry goods at the beginning of the season with monthly top-ups. And like Chongwe, a major challenge is food storage. “We have a big cold room for lettuce. It is a life-saver!” said Lynsey. “People want salad but it is difficult to keep it crisp. One trick is to use fresh stuff early in the week and other ingredients later. Menu planning is key.” Another issue is availability: “Zambia is remote and supply is a problem, even in Lusaka. Some things are hard to come by: cream, butter, lemongrass, Coke Zero… Fresh fish can be difficult in some seasons too, and of course, seasonal fruits such as peaches.” And finally, of course, dietary requirements: “Fruitarian, vegan… we’ve seen them all! We are very flexible.”

Lynsey is the mastermind behind the meals at Chiawa and Old Mondoro. The weekly menu has evolved over time, inspired by culinary legends such as Ottolenghi, Gordon Ramsay and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall with the help of cookery books and Google. The concept is fresh, vibrant, healthy and elegant; and highpoints, I might add, were the iced coffee at afternoon tea and amarula porridge at breakfast.

Simon was happy to show us ‘back of house’, so we passed behind the fence separating the guests from the staff quarters and headed to the storerooms. These were further proof of the military precision needed to run a camp efficiently. There were vast freezers run by a diesel generator for meats and a cold room packed full of fresh vegetables and cheeses, as well as shelves stacked with dry goods and wines. “The wines are all from South Africa,” Simon told us. “The Cape Town based supplier does wine tastings, which Lynsey and Grant attend to choose the wines, pairing them with our menu.”

We moved on to the kitchen. A similarly basic set-up to Chongwe, the chefs use gas cookers and a grill to create their masterpieces. We were introduced to George (head chef), Amos (assistant head chef), Dakwa (pastry chef) and Hassan (sous chef), and I chatted to Amos. “I have been at Chiawa for 18 years and was a chef elsewhere for 27 years before that. I was brought up in Lusaka. Even at home, I love cooking.”

Old Mondoro, sleeping eight, has an intimate, authentic bush camp atmosphere — reflected in its delicious but simple food: porridge on the fire; wholesome fare served at the dinner table under the stars. Due to its even more isolated location, the challenges here are amplified. As manager Michelle enlightened me: “Supplies need to be ordered 10 days in advance, which takes careful planning. Lynsey does the seven-day menu for this camp too, but sometimes I have to be creative! However, we are fortunate to have Chiawa just down the river, so we can help each other out!”

Our time at Chiawa and Old Mondoro, like Chongwe, seemed to revolve around meals — with tea and coffee served in our tented room at the crack of dawn, breakfast by the campfire, elevenses in the bush, brunch, afternoon tea, sundowners and dinner. “The chefs start at 5am and finish at 10.30pm,” Lynsey said. “It is a long day for them!” Being a bush chef was no mean feat, I thought.

As if world-class food wasn’t enough, Africa’s top lodges and camps are pushing the boat out with some marvellous foodie experiences. At Chongwe, guests can enjoy surprise bush breakfasts, island picnics, sandbank lunches or starlit feasts on the Zambezi Escarpment. At Chiawa, you can expect a floating lunch, and if you’re lucky, a South African braai in an illuminated dry riverbed; a traditional Zambian evening, with dishes such as nsima and kapenta; a full moon island dinner; breakfast with a view in the hide; among others. As Lynsey said, “Guests know they will eat but they are never quite sure where they will eat!”

I had thought that nothing could possibly surpass our lunch drifting along the Zambezi, with a herd of elephant crossing the river beside us, until our last night at Chiawa when, to our surprise, we were led to the water’s edge and before long were purring out onto the Zambezi once again. We were then left alone in a suitably secluded spot to enjoy a feast of local delicacies, washed down with fine wine. The darkness was tangible, except for the flickering of our candles and the lights of the camp shimmering on the water in the distance. Bats swooped above us beneath a star-studded sky and the orchestra of the cicadas and frogs rang in our ears. There is no doubt we will remember that evening forever, not only for the romance of it all, and of course the scrumptious food, but also for the unnerving rocking of our boat as a hippo scratched its derrière on the anchor… Certainly a culinary experience like no other.

Numbers game
25  The number of lettuces that Time + Tide Chongwe River Camp consumes in a week. Guests also get through 10kg cheese and 40kg tomatoes.
12,000  The number of guest meals served at Chiawa Camp per season; then add to this figure 6000 manager meals and 36,000 staff meals.
3920  The number of kilograms of ice cubes used per season at Old Mondoro (this is 20kg ice cubes per day, 140kg per week and 560kg per month).
150  The number of kilograms of tomatoes used by Old Mondoro per season, including 6kg per week and about 24kg per month; this excludes the four punnets of cherry tomatoes per week.

A day in a camp kitchen
5am  Wake up and prepare breakfast.
6am  Serve breakfast.
9-11am  Prepare lunch.
11.30am  Serve lunch.
12-2pm  Break (with one stand-by chef for late check-in or any guest requests).
2-3pm  Prepare tea and game drive snacks.
3.30pm  Afternoon tea.
4-6.30pm  Prepare pre-dinner snacks and dinner.
7.30-10.30pm  Serve dinner.
Safari Planner
• Getting there  Kenya Airways flies to Lusaka via Nairobi. From there, Proflight flies to Jeki and Royal airstrips in Lower Zambezi National Park.
• Where to stay  The writer stayed at Time + Tide Chongwe River Camp, Chiawa Camp and Old Mondoro in Lower Zambezi. En route to the park, you are likely to break your journey in Lusaka. Here, the best place to stay is the stylish, high-end Latitude 15º, which has amazing food, stunning rooms and a lovely swimming pool.
• Photography  Lower Zambezi National Park is a photographer’s heaven, so make sure you carry a good camera with you. If you don’t have your own, you can rent all the equipment you need from UK-based Lenses For Hire.
• Further reading  Bradt Guide to Zambia (6th edition) by Chris McIntyre.
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