Dreaming of the good old hunter-gatherer days
"Wake me if you see any lions," I whispered to the woman sitting next to me in the last row of the safari vehicle. Behind my sunglasses, I closed my eyes and drowsed in the Kenyan sunlight while we idled, waiting to be surprised by wildlife on the world's most uneventful and boring safari.
To me, the notion of a safari had nothing to do with hunting, and everything to do with the beauty and mystery of wild animals, danger, antiquity, open space, legends and fantasies. We hadn't had time to venture into the places where I'd really hoped to go: Tsavo East National Park and the bordering Mkomazi Game Reserve, located in north-east Tanzania, long considered the adventure lover's paradise and arguably the ultimate hunting destination in Africa. As a consolation prize, and because I was already in Nairobi on business, I found myself doing an urbanised and abbreviated safari in nearby Nairobi National Park, a few minutes outside the city.
Mkomazi game reserve is one of the only places in Tanzania where one can seek out a black rhinoceros, which is actually grey in colour and was brought to the brink of extinction by poaching for its horn. China wanted it for "medicinal" purposes, while the Middle East supplied a market for it by continuing to sponsor and sell ornately carved handles for ceremonial daggers called jambiyas. Bush meat hunting has also become a serious threat to wildlife.
My father had countless stories to share last month after returning from a hunting safari in Tanzania's Kilimanjaro Region, and he delighted in tormenting me with tales of nightly campfires, close calls in the brush, and tempting details of game dinners. This was an awesomely luxurious trip of big-game hunting, replete with cushy tented quarters and some of east Africa's best professional hunters, camp organisers and trackers on hand to assist.
I have never been hunting, but I'd like to finagle an invitation to go. The thought of killing an animal with a gun or a bow and arrow fills me with quiet dread, but I suspect that's just my hypocrisy talking: I do eat meat, after all.
Every year for around five years running, I've promised myself that in lieu of buying portioned meat at the market, I'm going to invest in a whole, naturally raised steer or wild elk, have it butchered, then work through it over the course of 12 months. Last month, while grinding elk steaks into forcemeat to make my beloved elk cannelloni (from Eugenia Bone's At Mesa's Edge), I decided I wanted to see firsthand where my elk had come from. And, truth be told, I'm nervous.
Last year, I had a particularly good meal made with wild ducks brought back from Pakistan. While wild ducks may have been prized, it's the houbara bustard whose capture is something of a national sport-away-from-home for Emiratis. The omnivorous houbara's diet varies, depending on whether it's in Morocco, Tanzania or Kazakhstan, but never having tasted one myself, I can't say whether or not I think it worth all the fuss. Traditionally, falcons are used to hunt down the bustards. To reward the falcon after it delivers its prey, it's given the still warm liver.
Les Jardins Sauvages is a wild-foods empire in St-Roch-de-l'Achigan, Quebec, owned by the veteran forager François Brouillard, who was born into the tradition, and Nancy Hinton, the chef at their country restaurant La Table des Jardins Sauvages. In her blog, soupnancy, Hinton writes: "Until the snow falls and for sometime after, we are busy sorting and cleaning, dehydrating, pickling, preserving, making pastes, pestos and powders, syrups, infused oils, blanching and freezing sous-vide, and more. To taste the full on experience with the widest array of wild edibles, dining at the table champêtre is a must, country setting and all. Afterwards, cooking with the wild stuff oneself seems less daunting, and not at all weird. We keep a few secrets too; the most precious or perishable items often don't make it outdoor."
Foraging is hardly a new trend. For a long time, it was simply the way things were done. Hunters and gatherers, take note. Our gardens often thrive with edible berries, roots, herbs and greens. These foods have a reputation for reproducing prolifically - sometimes so quickly people call them weeds.
I've tagged along with committed foragers who are able to recognise, harvest and make a finished dish out of wild foods. I love some of these so-called weeds, with a preference for Lebanese dishes made with dandelion leaves, chicory (hindbeh barrieh) and purslane (farfahin).
Obviously, certain wild plants are poisonous, and I've never had enough faith in myself to try to identify them, but nothing scares me like identifying mushrooms. My fear-driven justification for this is that there are few things worse than a mistake you can only make once, though I have also wondered about the potential negative impacts on ecological and aesthetic equilibrium. Turns out, it's perfectly sound to forage for plants; plucking stimulates them to regenerate. Harvest the plants only where they're abundant, and even then, take only a small portion.
Nearly a third of Tanzania has been set aside in protected game reserves, national parks or wildlife zones, allowing for free movement of the vast herds of game and tremendous fair-chase hunting opportunities. It's all well regulated and there are lots of rules to keep straight. For instance, there may be no hunting of pregnant females or young animals. and no overshooting of quotas set by the government. Also, a valid game licence is absolutely necessary, as well as any required accompanying CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) permits obtained from your country of residence.
On the last day of 2010 Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, released 170 captive-bred Asian houbara bustards produced at the National Avian Research Centre (NARC) of the International Fund for Houbara Conservation at a desert sanctuary in Dubai, in an effort to increase the bird's population and relocate it in the UAE and the Arabian peninsula and to protect the environment. Bustard-hunting takes Emiratis to Morocco and Afghanistan. I have never eaten bustard, but I hear it tastes a lot like chicken.
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Updated: May 11, 2011 04:00 AM