Eat-in Africa

A visit to The Ele­phant Cafe al­lows you to meet pachy­derms and en­joy a bush-gourmet meal

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - DESTINATIONS - BY JEN­NIFER SCHELL

Liv­ing­stone, Zam­bia was the pri­mor­dial re­al­ity of all of my child­hood dreams.

Africa is so alive.

Spirit, move­ment, in­stinct, sur­vival all awaken within.

It peels back re­al­ity and earnestly of­fers a naked­ness and raw sense of life that takes time for the mind to ac­cli­ma­tize.

The ab­so­lute wild­ness, the aware­ness of the prox­im­ity to the mag­nif­i­cent an­i­mals liv­ing here, and the re­al­iza­tion of be­ing so near the cra­dle of civ­i­liza­tion whis­pers deeply to the an­cient part of our spirit.

It is elec­tric.

Noth­ing was con­trived or com­mer­cial­ized in the way I had child­ishly en­vi­sioned.

You are ex­posed to bor­der­less an­i­mal parks where ran­dom ze­bras show up on the side of the road or a herd of one hun­dred ele­phants may hold up traf­fic.

As the lo­cals say, ele­phants have no bor­ders.

I stum­bled upon an ad­ver­tise­ment for a new restau­rant that has been re­ceiv­ing rave re­views.

It read: “The Ele­phant Café: Take a speed­boat trans­fer up to the venue with hippo sight­ings along the way, in­ter­act with ele­phants on the banks of the Zam­bezi River and dine on African fu­sion food, cre­ated with wild ed­i­bles and lo­cally-sourced in­gre­di­ents with Chef Annabel Hughes-As­ton.”

An event in it­self, the squeal­ing ride up the vi­tal Zam­bezi ex­pertly nav­i­gated by our cap­tain, had us zigzag­ging around hip­pos and crocodiles, and over white wa­ter rapids, spray­ing us with wa­ter un­der the warm African sun.

The open-air restau­rant is a sight to be­hold.

Ar­chi­tec­turally de­signed par­tially on stilts in the river, it is a Be­douin-style tent, with lush fur­nish­ings in­side.

We were wel­comed on shore by charm­ing chef Annabel and the ele­phant han­dlers.

First, we were to meet three of the sanc­tu­ary’s ele­phants and have the op­por­tu­nity to feed them.

Then we were to pro­ceed to the restau­rant for a Cham­pagne cock­tail and chat about their ele­phant con­ser­va­tion project dur­ing a three-course meal pre­pared us­ing lo­cally grown and for­aged in­gre­di­ents.

It is hard to de­scribe the feel­ing of be­ing so near these ma­jes­tic crea­tures, close enough to look into their eyes and feel their en­ergy.

I wept with joy.

The ele­phant com­mu­nity of ten here, came from a va­ri­ety of sit­u­a­tions.

Some were adopted as ba­bies when found aban­doned, usu­ally due to drought con­di­tions, or res­cued from abu­sive sit­u­a­tions, or as vic­tims of an ele­phant cull (an­other hor­ror story).

To­gether they have formed a new fam­ily.

Here in the most natural of set­tings, this sanc­tu­ary rep­re­sents the des­per­ate move­ment to pre­serve and in­crease the pop­u­la­tion of these no­ble crea­tures.

Annabel’s has coined her gas­tron­omy as “Bush Gourmet”.

The dishes of­fer unique, ex­plo­sive flavour com­bi­na­tions fus­ing the fa­mil­iar with the un­fa­mil­iar.

It was, in many ways, the most ex­cit­ing meal of my life.

It’s Annabel’s vi­sion and the epit­ome of wild cre­ativ­ity.

“For nearly five years now, since mov­ing to Liv­ing­stone in Zam­bia, I have been ex­per­i­ment­ing with, and fus­ing, wild ed­i­bles and in­dige­nous Zam­bian in­gre­di­ents with fresh lo­cal pro­duce, mostly grown in my own or­ganic gar­den,” ex­plains Annabel.

“I de­velop African Fu­sion recipes, in­spired largely by Mediter­ranean, South­east Asian, North African and Mid­dle Eastern cuisines, which I re­fer to as “Bush Gourmet”. I rely on the cen­turies-old wis­dom of my neigh­bor­ing river­side com­mu­ni­ties to help in for­ag­ing for wild food, while the Zam­bian chefs with whom I work and train, have led me to the in­dige­nous in­gre­di­ents in Liv­ing­stone’s na­tive mar­kets. It is my sin­cere hope that by pro­mot­ing the use of these di­verse, and largely un­ex­plored, natural re­sources, Liv­ing­stone’s lo­cal econ­omy is also en­riched.”

Annabel is more than a chef and ad­ven­turess.

As she de­scribes, she and her hus­band Chris As­ton live ope­nair in a “cor­ru­gated tin box built on a con­crete slab thrown un­der an old Mon­gongo tree on the Zam­bezi River.”

She is a gar­dener, for­ager and a won­der­ful writer of­fer­ing in­sights into her life through her blog called Sa­vannaBel.com.

Born and ed­u­cated in Zim­babwe, Annabel ven­tured to the UK and North Amer­ica work­ing as a jour­nal­ist-ac­tivist for 14 years.

A pas­sion for her cul­ture and cook­ing brought her back to Africa where is able to com­bine all her skills in the kitchen to­gether with her knowl­edge of farm­ing, to de­velop new flavours to share.

Annabel works closely with her chef team and com­mu­nity and her palate is ever evolv­ing, of­fer­ing end­less cre­ativ­ity to her dishes.

Re­cent de­vel­op­ments in Annabel’s ca­reer have lead her to ex­pand and cre­ate a con­sult­ing busi­ness where is now able help other restau­rants cre­ate menus based on her phi­los­o­phy of lo­cal, for­aged bush cui­sine.

She is es­sen­tially re­defin­ing the cui­sine of Zam­bia and in do­ing so in­creas­ing the chances of lo­cal farm­ers and ar­ti­sans to thrive.

Stay tuned for news of a book one day.

Africa is gra­cious and I made many friends in the short time I was there.

Whomever I told that I loved their coun­try and would re­turn, the re­sponse was al­ways: “I will wait for you”.

And I will pine for you.

JEN­NIFER SCHELL PHOTO

The Ele­phant Cafe chef and owner Annabel Hughes-As­ton greets three of the 10 restau­rant name­sakes.

SUB­MIT­TED PHOTO

Writer Jen­nin­fer Schell meets Danny, the head male pachy­derm, at The Ele­phant Cafe in Zam­bia.

JEN­NIFER SCHELL PHOTO

The Ele­phant Cafe serves up dishes like this seared duck breast with wild sour­plum and star anise and mongu rice.

JEN­NIFER SCHELL PHOTO

Marula ice cream and grilled pineap­ple for dessert.

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