As some of you may know, G and I recently got married – it was the single greatest day of my life and I was so honoured to share it with all the people I got to share it with. I’m not normally one for gushing online but all the lovely people know who they are and we’re very grateful. Never wanting to make things easy for myself, I also decided to make one of the canapés – which I was rather pleased with in the end. It was a tomato consommé (you can find a link to the recipe here), and the biggest challenge was working out how to hang 10 kilos of tomatoes suspended in muslin cloth for a day. It’s a challenge I wasn’t expecting for my wedding day if I’m honest but a little rope and my in-laws’ garage later and there we were. If I were making it again in such ridiculous quantities (which I’m unlikely to do) I’d use another couple of layers of muslin as the weight of the tomatoes squeezed the juice out faster than usual meaning it stayed a little red rather than going clear and golden – though the taste was unaffected. After the wedding G and I went on honeymoon to Southern Africa, we saw and did the most amazing things and importantly had the most amazing food.
Our honeymoon started slightly inauspiciously, however. We’d booked a car to take us to the airport and the journey that precipitated was frankly one of the most terrifying rides I’ve ever had (the winner in that category is still a late night taxi in Leeds – another story perhaps). At one point on the way to the airport the driver (who could barely see above the steering wheel he was slouching so much) popped two “no-doze” caffeine pills, took both hands off the wheel to open an energy drink and balanced the can on his rather protruding belly and tried to drink it without using his hands. However, we arrived in one piece and boarded our flight to Johannesburg and then on to Livingstone airport in Zambia.
The first thing you notice upon arriving in Zambia is the sheer wall of heat, it’s the kind of dry heat that makes your skin feel like it’s been in the sun for hours. The warmth seems to permeate your core until you feel almost glowing. It’s not at all to be confused with the muggy oppressive heat of much of South East Asia where you feel wrapped in a warm damp towel the entire time you’re there. But the second thing you notice is Zambia is breathtakingly beautiful. We were greeted by a guide from Sindabezi Lodge who drove us to the shore of the Zambezi river, en route displaying his immense pride in the area by highlighting the history of Livingstone (it used to be the capital of Zambia and is now the tourist capital with Lusaka the “Money Capital” as he referred to it). We drove through the town and then along the road which runs from Botswana to Zimbabwe in the direction of the Zambezi river and strained our necks to see any animals as we drove through the national park. We didn’t see any on this drive, although later we would get so excited that we made the car stop for twenty minutes when we saw our first giraffe from the highway. If only we had known then that by the end of the trip we wouldn’t even mention when we saw one in South Africa!
We arrived at the banks of the Zambezi river, a cool wind blowing across the water occasionally breaking the otherwise omnipresent dry heat. We sat down to lunch on a platform floating on the bank of the river, sun shimmering on the water and glinting off the rocks that peaked out of the surface (In September the water level is very low as it’s the dry season). Lunch was superb, at the time I thought it might have been the surroundings and the company alone, but actually the food was delicious as well. A thick, tangy and spicy gazpacho soup rich with garlic and suped up with a dash of lime and balsamic to start – this was to become a theme for Africa that meals started with soup and homemade bread. The main was either beef fillet or what they rather ominously referred to as vegetarian pastry. Now, I’m the biggest meat eater around but when you’re sitting in the sun with an ice cold beer sometimes the last thing you want is a hunk of red meat with mashed potatoes and greens – unless of course you’re my wife who ordered that without a moment’s hesitation. For me the waitress simply looked at me in disbelief and said, “vegetarian option?”.
However, what was inauspiciously described as a vegetarian pastry turned out to be so delicious I had to make it at home after I got back, and it was so delicious when I made it that I have to share the recipe here. In short though, it was the lightest, crispest spiral of filo pastry (called phyllo all throughout Southern Africa where it is surprisingly popular) filled with spinach, garlic and onions with crunchy cashew nuts, flecks of goats cheese and soft sweet raisins. All served with a classic green salad with sharp mustard vinaigrette and a drizzle of balsamic. I urge you to make this at home as it can largely be done ahead of time.
As dessert (pear sorbet) approached, they packed a little ice bucket with more beer and wine and the sorbet. Suddenly, our floating platform became a boat and we started heading out towards the rocks glinting in the middle of the river. As we got closer we started to realise that the rocks were moving, and, as we got very close, we realised we’d been having lunch with forty hippopotamuses (hippopotami). Although later in our trip we would get even closer.
Zambia continued to be an enchanting place to visit – swimming at the top of Victoria Falls in the Devil’s Pool and peering over the edge. The pool is shaped a bit like a cup, so in the dry season the current is light and you swim right to the lip of the waterfall and look over the 100m drop. The view is spectacular – you find yourself staring directly into a rainbow reflecting in the almost bafflingly ethereal spray which emanates from the torrents of water crashing resoundingly into the rocks below.
We drove through a game park and found ourselves surrounded by wild elephants, one of whom squared off with our vehicle and it was only through our driver slowly advancing that the bull elephant starting backing off. All the while the food continued to be fantastic – vegetable soups and fresh fish cooked straight from the river.
Zambia, like much of Southern Africa has a love affair with freshly and simply cooked meat and fish. Unfortunately they also have a love affair with maize which is one of their main cash crops – although I’m all for maize most of the time they like to grind it into a very fine meal and then make a form of porridge not unlike polenta. However, unlike polenta which can be creamy and rich this porridge (known as Nshima) ends up as a rather stodgy and largely flavourless mush which can be formed into equally horrible patties. I am convinced that the reason the plants on Livingstone Island (where one goes to swim to the Devil’s Pool) grow so high is not the fertile soil but rather all the glasses of a sweetened maize drink which they give you on arrival and are subsequently thrown away on the plants – it tastes a little like off baby formula. (I may have simply had a terrible example – I tried it once and never again).
When we came to leave Zambia we knew we would miss our island in the middle of the Zambezi. We would miss Charles, the friendly staff member who helped us on the island. We would miss the peace and the view, the quiet chats in the evening with the other guests (all 6 of them) over a glass of wine or a gin and tonic. We would miss Horace, the local hippopotamus who sometimes sleeps on the island, and the sheer beauty of it all. As Darryl Kerrigan would say in the Castle, “aah the serenity, feel the serenity”. That day, though, the island had one more gift to give us. Charles came to us and said we had to be very careful as we left. G and I turned to each other and said we really hadn’t remembered there being a rock in the middle of the dining area. Goodbye Horace, we hope you slept well – right outside our chalet. It was certainly more appealing than my other close encounter with an animal that holiday (the story of my nakedness, a bush mouse and the most manly noise I’ve ever made shall remain for another time I think.
We took that same road back to Livingstone and boarded a plane for South Africa, confident in the knowledge our trip really couldn’t have gotten off to a better start.