The highlight of my travels through Africa was going on Safari. My mom and I went on a 13 day journey through the incredible country of Botswana. Most of the nights were spent camping in tents in the wild national parks, Moremi & Chobe. The scenery alone is something that can’t truly be captured by the fancy cameras of National Geographic and the Discovery Channel. It was there, in the bush where I first met Magarett. She was the camp cook for all of our meals through the bush of Botswana. The first word to come to mind when describing her and her cooking is humbling.
We were fresh off of our first game drive (looking for animals), where we had seen our first three lions, many elephant, zebra, giraffes, warthogs, etc, and our eyes were wide with adrenaline, excitement, and sheer joy of getting to experience real African wilderness. We arrived at camp ready to share stories, drink wine, and eat. When we entered the camp, only our tents and the mess tent (where we would be having all of our meals) could be seen. With no sign of a kitchen or area where food was prepared, the first dining experience was secretive and exciting. Our first meal consisted of a soup course, followed by a main meat, starch, veggie and two salad dishes along with fresh baked bread. Magarett had me at the soup. A version of butternut squash soup that was simple, yet complex, and had me licking the bowl. Later on I would learn what she used to flavor it, and you can most certainly bet I will be riffing off of her flavors. Over the course of 13 days we ate like kings. Over eating was very common, if not, encouraged. Magarett offered up FRESH baked bread every day, along with inventive meat dishes, salads, quiches, pies, soups, omelettes, tarts, and desserts that would make grandma weep. The array of baked goods was astounding. How was she doing all of this? Where was the time? I was convinced there had to be some delivery or magic oven behind the scenes.
Half way through our Safari trip I was invited into the kitchen area to tour and get a sense of how this woman created such incredible food. When I walked into the hidden cooking area my jaw almost dropped off of my face.She cooked solely over open wood flame. No gas burners, no propane, no camp stoves. She used a 3 x 4 foot grill table (looks just like a small piece of patio furniture), Mopani wood (more on this later), and years and years of experience cooking in the bush. This lady has some incredible talents. Around the ‘kitchen’ was a small prep table, 3-4 metal boxes of various cooking tools, pots pans, spices and dry goods and one or two coolers. A small dish washing station, a large drum of water that was always kept by the flame (warm water for showers, washing dishes, and cleaning), and one small man named Malaki also furnished this bare kitchen. Just next to the grill table there was a large cast iron box, an old fashioned dutch oven. I pointed to it and asked for clarification on its use, Magarett looked at me and smiled. “Do you want to see?” She grabbed her shovel used exclusively for coal distribution, and lifted the heavy iron lid off of the dutch oven. Inside was a gorgeous quiche. Not quite ready, but beginning to get good color around the crust. “Its quiche, for your lunch tomorrow.” Again, jaw dropped. She put the lid back on and shoveled some more coal around the edges that looked less done, covered the box with a bit more coal and set it aside for its final push.
In more than one conversation, I learned the aspects of cooking over this small open flame and her use of finesse with various dutch ovens, stew pots, and hot water. She would have one or two very large pieces of Mopani wood burning in the center, or just off to the side, and harvest its coals and use for the dutch oven, or regulating temperatures around the outside of the grill table. It was fascinating. This lady was creating fresh bread every day that I now crave on an hourly basis. She even was making us filo dough tarts for dinner. Working with filo dough is tough even in a regulated temperature kitchen with stainless steel counter tops and accurate gas ovens and Margarett was doing this in 90* heat, outdoors, on an open wood fire. Are you f&*%**$ kidding me? I learned that the coal distribution was the secret to baking in the dutch oven out in the bush. “Not too much” she would preach. Letting the baked goods take their time. Not rushing the baking process because it usually took double the time out in the bush as it would in the kitchen. All of her breads, crusts, bread bowls (yes, she made bread bowls), came out inspiringly perfect. I was humbled.
Last but not least let me speak about the fire and its ingredient, Mopani wood. Mopani is a very common tree to Africa, one you see everywhere. It is dark, and has red, hard wood. Its smell is so perfectly smokey, it makes mesquite or hickory seem like gross charcoal. This wood burns very slowly and hot, perfect for open flames. The smoke and flavor it gives off is another huge asset. I was trying to figure out a way to import this stuff to California, but I think customs may be a problem. The most incredible part about the mildly sweet smoke, is that it doesn’t stay with you. You would be sitting around the fire all night and your clothes would hardly smell of camp fire. On the last night of our journey through the bush, I was invited back into the kitchen to share recipes and help prepare our family dinner. Cooking with Margarett was not only a learning experience but very fun. We made several dishes together, including an outstanding bread pudding with Amarula Sauce (Amarula is local liquor very similar to Baileys). I wanted to utilize the flavor of the Mopani, so I had some slices of marinated pork to grill directly on the table top. If only you could smell the aromas that the meat produced…
Eating and cooking in the bush may top most of my highlights from this trip. The lions, leopards and warthogs would have to take a back seat to my new friend Margarett.