Where the Wild Things Are
In South Africa's luxury safari lodges, wine and food rival the Big Five.
Malaysian, Dutch, Indian, Xhosa, French...the cuisine of South Africa is as diverse as its inhabitants, and as difficult to stereotype. From the jaunty Cape Malay curries of Cape Town, brought in by immigrants from Java and neighboring Indonesian islands in the 17th and 18th centuries, to the refined and progressive French dishes crafted in the kitchens of Francophone Franschhoek, South African eating is a melting pot of the many people who live here, and each person has a legitimate claim to the country’s culinary heritage. The food-friendly domestic wines—a perfect balance of Old World complexity and New World freshness—are surprisingly adept at bridging these many flavors in their pairings.
To the north in the sunbaked, safari lands of Sabi Sands, luxury lodges such as Singita Boulders, Lion Sands Ivory and Leopard Hills attract thousands of discerning wildlife and culinary devotees from around the world every year. Each features progressive chefs trained in both traditional and modern cuisine, as well as exemplary wine cellars—in the case of Singita Boulders over 12,000 bottlings—curated and overseen by accomplished chefs and/or wine directors who necessarily possess a love of adventure. In many cases, safari lodges are the first and most impressionable entrée a tourist will ever have to the cuisine and wine of South Africa, and as such, the programs are a key focus for all three.
Wine and food dominate the experiences at the lodges—beyond the dining room, expect to nosh on an exquisite homemade pâté and sip a luscious glass of Ken Forrester Petit Chenin off the back of your Jeep while spying a dozen elephants within shouting range. Spicy artisanal biltong (cured meat) and curry puffs accompany a glass of Paarl Shiraz perfectly as spindly giraffes saunter by. It’s the perfect integration of adventure and luxury—and for gourmets with a sense of experiential and palatal fun, Sabi Sands’ private lodges cannot be beat.
At Singita Boulders Lodge (one of three Singita lodges in Sabi Sands Reserve), executive chef Loraine Pienaar’s menu is dynamic and dictated by seasonal local bounty. “We’re fortunate to be based in a province renowned for high-quality farming,” she says. “We have regular access to fresh farm ingredients and our producers and family-based suppliers often introduce new ingredients to us and trial new products through our kitchens, which keeps us at the forefront of product-based trends in the country.”
Pienaar’s menu, influenced by “classical colonial countries and Malay and Indian cuisines,” balances traditional South African favorites like bobotie (minced meat with egg) and braai ( grilled meat) with fusion dishes such as wonton layered duck or quail and raspberry ballotine. Whether served on white linen overlooking the bush or from a casual buffet in the middle of a torchlit boma (open-air enclosure), dishes marry the exotic and elegant, the familiar and the foreign. “We meld high quality cooking with ‘true’ African flavors,” Pienaar says.
For wine lovers, Boulders is considered the premiere destination in the Sabi reserve, its subterranean, candlelit wine cave belying the wilderness above. Wine director François Rautenbach works closely with Pienaar on pairings, and also offers regular tastings to guests in the cellar as well as running a wine shop nearby with a collection of the country’s most coveted wines. While bottlings from Italy and France are still available, Rautenbach—a recognized expert on domestic wines—focuses primarily on topquality South African producers and carries 222 South African listings.
“Our winemakers have exploded the safe option of ‘the usual suspects’ in varietal wines and continue to experiment,” Rautenbach says. “Our chefs have returned from travels abroad with great exposure to international cuisine, and the diversity of our wines makes them perfect for one another.”
Beyond Singita, other lodges are making a mark with their menus and cellars. “My menu is African- inspired, because it’s the cuisine I have been raised with,” says Shane Johnson, assistant general manager and chef at Leopard Hills lodge. “It’s so diverse, with such varied flavors, textures and sensations.” Domestic wines, local game and bush cuisine drive most of Johnson’s menus, though in true South African form his table is a melting pot: expect to indulge in a Pimm’s Cup and slather your bread with European butter when Johnson thinks the time is right.
“Guests who come to Africa for the first time are always impressed that we can offer such a variety of meals and wines during their stay,” Johnson explains. “Meeting people from around the world and exposing them to the quality of our wines and cuisine is one of the most rewarding aspects of being here.”
Refined, secluded and exclusive (honeymooner Ivanka Trump “shared” her private patio with a wandering leopard), Lion Sands Ivory lodge could take the fussy route with its menus, but executive chef Janine Hobbs echoes the sentiment of her colleagues, focusing on “fresh ingredients that are locally grown, prepared in the simplest ways to preserve the quality and flavor of each ingredient.”
Here, dishes like ostrich bobotie, sweetcorn and pancetta crumpets and guava crumble are served in guests’ stylish private sitting rooms or at romantic, lantern-lit tables on the lodge’s patio. Like the other luxury Sabi lodges, gourmet picnics on the game drives are de rigueur, and guests are met post-safari with an amuse-bouche or sip of wine as soon as their boots hit the ground. The cellar, rustic and decidedly bush-like on the exterior but jam-packed with everything from Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir to De Toren Fusion V, is hand selected and represents the finest producers in the country.
“South African wines and dishes are hearty, solid and comforting, but unique,” concludes Hobbs. “And for me, a creative person, what better way to express oneself than in introducing discerning people to these delicious wines and foods?” For information, singita. com; leopardhills.com, and lionsands.com.
Smoked OstrichCarpaccio with Strawberries and Gruyère Shavings
Adapted from Leopard Hills lodge chef Shane Johnson’s recipe, this easily assembled starter melds smoky, sweet and spicy flavors all in one vibrant and complex bite. If ostrich meat can’t be found, substitute with smoked duck breast.
1 cup good-quality balsamic vinegar
Fresh arugula (rocket), washed,
dried and trimmed
31⁄2 ounces thinly sliced smoked
com) or smoked duck breast
4 hulled, thinly sliced strawberries
1 ounce shaved Gruyère cheese
Extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling
First make a balsamic reduction: heat the vinegar in a heavybottomed non-reactive skillet over medium heat until it reduces in volume by half to 3⁄4 and has thickened slightly. Let cool. When you are ready to serve, divide the arugula between four appetizer plates, placing a mound of the greens in the center of each. Arrange equal portions of the ostrich or duck slices on top, and garnish with strawberry slices and Gruyere shavings. Drizzle the balsamic reduction and olive oil over the top and serve.
Wine recommendation: Johnson recommends the Kanu 2008 Chenin Blanc, whose spicy and crisp character enhances the smoked ostrich and strawberries. Another option: the lively citric and floral Jardin 2009 Unoaked Chardonnay.
Pistachio-Stuffed Springbok Wrapped in Prosciutto with Squash Dumplings and Chocolate Jus
This recipe, adapted from Singita Boulders executive chef Loraine Pienaar, marries local and international flavors and features springbok, a South African favorite that can be substituted with venison.
For the pistachio stuffing:
Scant 13⁄4 cups shelled pistachio nuts
1 cup medium-bodied red wine
1⁄3 cup plus 11⁄2 tablespoons Ruby Port
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup red wine, medium bodied
1⁄3 cup plus 11⁄2 tablespoons beef stock, preferably homemade
For the springbok or venison loin:
4 (7-ounce) tender filets springbok or venison
4 slices prosciutto, preferably locally made and matured
4 medium baby marrow squash or 2 zucchini
Vegetable oil for frying
For the chocolate jus:
500ml of fresh beef stock
300ml red wine
50ml of red wine vinegar
1 heaped table spoon of cocoa powder
Fry off the mirepoix until softened and lightly golden brown
Deglaze the pot of mirepoix with the vinegar
When cooked dry, add the cocoa powder and mix through
dd the red wine and reduce to half on a medium heat (preferably in a wide bodied pan)
Strain through a chinois (conical sieve)
Add the beef stock and reduce to sauce consistency (coating the back of a spoon)
For the squash dumpling recipe:
Pumpkin (preferably a dark yellow firmer type cubed)
300ml reduced to a pumpkin puree
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
200g of lightly sifted cake flower
Cook the cubed pumpkin slowly in unsalted water
Puree the pumpkin, return to the pot and reduce to a concentrated flavor and texture
Mix the rest of the ingredients together with the cooled pumpkin puree
Season to taste
Form the dumplings (quenelles by using 2 tablespoons)
If the dumplings do not retain their shape, add more flour 1 tablespoon at a time
Poach directly in salted water until firm
For the pistachio stuffing: In a dry frying pan set over medium-high heat, roast the pistachio nuts for a minute or so until they begin to brown. Remove from the pan and chop roughly. In a saucepan set over medium-high heat, make a glaze with red wine, Port, sugar and stock, cooking just until the sugar has dissolved and the liquid has thickened and coats the back of a spoon. Set aside and keep warm. Mix the glaze with the nuts, tossing lightly so that all the nuts are coated, and set aside to cool.
To prepare the marrow squash or zucchini: Slice each marrow in half on a bias or if you are using zucchini, cut it into rounds or slice it lengthwise into long strips. Heat a lightly salted pan of water to a simmer, carefully add the zucchini and blanche for about 5 minutes or until al dente.
To prepare the loin: Place 1⁄4 of the cooled pistachio stuffing on one of the portions and roll the meat around it to make an oblong parcel. Wrap a slice of prosciutto around it. Repeat with the remaining portions.
To cook the rolled stuffed loin parcels, heat the oil in a large skillet set over medium-high heat until it ripples. Add the stuffed meat in a single layer and pan-fry for 2 to 3 minutes per side. Remove from the pan and let rest for 3 minutes.
Once it has rested, slice the springbok loin into two on the bias and place each portion on a dinner plate. Pour some chocolate jus around each. Place the sliced baby marrows upright in the jus and three dumplings on the side. Serve immediately. Serves 4.
Wine recommendation: The sumptuous Meerlust 2006 Rubicon Bordeaux blend, with its cedar smoke, graphite and black fruit flavors, is a delicious accompaniment to the gamy, spicy and bitter chocolate notes in this dish.
Liquid-Centered Chocolate Puddings (Molten Cakes) with Homemade Lavender and Chili Ice Cream served with a Sweet Fig Salad
Spicy, floral and sweet, this imaginative dessert adapted from executive chef Janine Hobbs at Lion Sands Ivory Lodge, is worth the extra effort.
For the chocolate puddings:
2 sticks plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing moulds
5 large egg yolks
5 large whole eggs
5⁄8 cup superfine sugar or 5⁄8 cup granulated sugar ground in a food processor
83⁄4 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped 3⁄8 cup all-purpose flour
For the garnishes:
6 fresh figs, sliced in half lengthwise, optional
6 to 12 sprigs lavender, optional
For the fig sauce :
Fresh Fig Salad:
3 Fresh figs
3 tbs Brown Sugar
Melt butter & dissolve brown sugar.
Add cream & fresh fig jam.
Garnish with fresh fig halves.
For the lavender chili ice cream:
1 handful of fresh lavender, chopped finely
350g Castor Sugar
Quarter finely chopped red chilli
Heat the cream, milk lavender & chilli’s until just boiling
Cook sabayon with eggs and sugar
Add to milk mixture and cook over double boiler
Churn in the ice-cream machine
To prepare the puddings: Grease six (1-cup) ramekins very well with soft butter. With a whisk, beat together the yolks, eggs and sugar until well blended and pale in color, about 2 minutes.
Melt the chocolate and butter gently in a double boiler over simmering water. Stir with a whisk or spatula to ensure that it is completely smooth. (You can also melt it in the microwave, but be careful that it does not burn.) Remove from the heat and slowly add the chocolate mixture to the egg mixture, whisking until smooth.
Sift the flour over the batter and fold it in. Divide the mixture evenly among the buttered ramekins. They will be about 3⁄4 full. (The batter will be pourable now but will firm up as the ramekins chill, so pour into the ramekins before mixture firms. The batter will rise as it bakes and fill the ramekins.)
Cover the ramekins with plastic, but don’t let it touch the batter. (You can put them into a bakingpan and cover the pan if you like). Chill 6 hours or overnight.
To finish the puddings: Heat the oven to 350°F and bake the puddings for about 15 to 20 minutes, or until the centers start to dome slightly and a sugar crust forms. Let cool for 2 to 4 minutes in the ramekins. Turn out carefully by running a knife around the inside edge of the ramekins to loosen the puddings Then place a dessert plate on top of one ramekin, and holding it on tightly, flip it over, lifting off the ramekin and allowing any leaking pudding to remain on the plate. (Do let them cool or they will fall apart, but don’t leave them in the ramekins longer than that or the centers might harden.)
To assemble the dish: With each pudding on a dessert plate, top with a scoop of ice cream and drizzle the fig sauce over the top. If available, garnish with a fresh halved fig and 1 or 2 lavender sprigs. Serves 6.
Wine recommendations: The full-bodied dark chocolate and plum character of the Fairview 2007 Primo Pinotage is an apt cohort to the rich chocolate and spice of the dessert.