Lodges and villages

Recipe – Cassoulet with smoked ham hock

Long trips by road provide ample opportunities to observe and think. Just last week I embarked on such a journey – all by myself – deep into the rural hinterland of Namibia to regions where mighty rivers flow.

All along the way I saw the effects of the current drought. Cattle being moved to better pastures, and people fetching water by all means possible. In fact, they seem to be doing little else but haul water. The fields were barren and the children were in school so even the men and elderly buckled under heavy containers. Quite clearly every one made an extra effort to survive.

It is hard to image that anyone has to go hungry so close to so much water. In my view, these people lived the Namibian (wet) dream. Not so, if I recall the numerous conversations I had over that week. Every one seemed to agree on one thing, and one thing only: we need a good rainy season.

It is easy to forget the daily struggle of the local folk when you enter the tranquil realms of luxury lodges: luscious green lawns and flower gardens, spectacular sunsets over the river, elephants bathing and hippos grunting after a hard day’s feeding in the shade. I must be forgiven for thinking I pitched my tent in paradise.

Yet, any short drive outside the luxury realms of the lodges show that there is hunger in paradise.

I asked one lodge manager from where they source their ingredients. Turns out, it is a mobile supermarket – trucks that brings fresh and other produce all the way from the capital city. Vegetables, fruit, meat, chicken, fish, flour and eggs; you name it and the weekly truck will deliver, and thus ensure that no visitor or tourist will go hungry in times when the rest of the population struggle to scrape by.

“But, surely by the time these items arrive, they are no longer fresh?” I probed. “Yes, but what can we do?” came the reply. “On a busy night I have to feed well over 200 guests…”

Now, I am no horticulturalist but when I see kitchen waste, soil and water I think vegetable gardens. Yet, very few, if any, of the numerous lodges I visited over the years, have any significant vegetable garden. At the same time, I have never visited a lodge – even in the driest part of the country that did not have lawn and flower garden of some sorts. Aesthetics over substance, in my view.

After a dinner that included limp lettuce and twice-frozen cheese, beetroot and pumpkin, I retired to my tent puzzled by the absence of vegetable gardens along our rivers.

Many years ago, we submitted a proposal to international donor agencies that investigated the potential for small, joint business ventures between farm owners and farm workers. After a few minutes of discussion, we were shown the door –dismissed for wanting to bring feudalism back into the twenty-first century.

But consider this. Our lodge manager serves eggs for breakfast. She also needs eggs for baking cakes and tarts, for making custards and if she is really adventurous, pasta and ice cream. Right now, she might be low on eggs and filled with anxiety as she awaits the arrival of the next delivery truck. And if that is not enough, she will pay a premium price for eggs that have travelled over a thousand kilometres.

In our model, things will be different. She would put up some seed money to buy chicks and contract expertise to train the community. The chicks would be given to members of the local community who would raise and take care of them. In exchange, the community will supply her with eggs at an agreed price much lower than what she currently pays. Once her quota of eggs is delivered the community get to keep the excess eggs, which they can use or sell as they see fit.

The same model could quite easily be followed with vegetable gardens, milk or even meat (chicken, pork etc.). It would only take a little creative thinking and some negotiations to start and maintain such programs, but I am convinced that such ventures will benefit all involved. It does not have to be expensive to start, it would require mutual trust and compared to current food and delivery costs, a small amount of cash and the returns would be substantial for both partners. I am convinced that it would enhance local food security, diversify local diets and create employment with extra cash income. Problems there will be, but none I believe, that would outweigh the benefits.

I am bothered by how little local ingredients find their way into the kitchens of lodges. I have never seen marula, maguni or Bambara nut (eefukwa), for example, on a table designed to feed tourists. I suspect it is because those running lodge kitchens lack the knowledge of what to do with these wonderful ingredients. Or maybe because few kitchens make their own basic components such as ice cream, pasta, stocks, sauces etc.

Please understand this, I am not trying to step on anyone’s toes here, and there might be some who feel I should not generalize so much, but bear with me, I am trying to inspire not condemn. I understand and have empathy for the challenges of being so far away from the modern conveniences that is the city. But, in my view, most of the benefits of being self-reliant are not explored properly and thoroughly. It is hard to argue against the fact that with a bit of flour and a few eggs, one could make pasta that is cheaper, fresher and tastier than what the truck delivers. All it requires is N$250 for a pasta machine and a bit of elbow grease. Add to that a few fresh tomatoes from a local garden, some fresh basil from your herb garden and you have a dish made in heaven at almost no cost.

As always on the long way back, I stop to pick up some of the local, traditional produce that is currently in season. Some of the first magunis for the season, some marula kernels and some Bambara nuts. It was the latter that occupied my thinking for most of the way back. They form a large part of the local diet, yet remain under utilised elsewhere, another of Africa’s “forgotten crops”.

I have been craving a good cassoulet for a while now, so I decided that that’s where my Bambara nuts are going. Being a classic French dish, it has many varieties but in essence it consists of beans and a variety of meats – pork, ham, lamb, duck or goose – depending on the region of origin. But given that mine is a Namibian cassoulet, I am cooking the beans with smoked ham hock (eisbein) and speck. To speed thing up, I am using a pressure cooker, and do not forget to soak your beans!

Maybe, just maybe, there is a lodge out there that would be inspired enough by this simple classic dish that they would put Bambara nuts on their menu too. Please let me know if you do.

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