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Annabel Aston | Bush Gourmet, From Reflection to Renewal

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Meet Annabel Aston, Pioneer of Bush Gourmet Cuisine

Annabel Aston –‘SavannaBel’– the names that have become synonymous in the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area for delivering gourmet food from as close to the source as possible, taking local cuisine experiences to new heights for those visiting the region. As the creator of ‘bush gourmet’ cuisine, developed by fusing wild edibles and indigenous Zambian ingredients with locally-grown seasonal garden produce, Annabel has won multiple awards following the introduction of her food at The Elephant Café in Livingstone.

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Annabel’s Culinary Journey

Born in Kenya, educated in Zimbabwe, and now living in Zambia, Annabel’s journey has been what she describes as “a long and at-times confronting arc across many decades”. After leaving school in 1982, Annabel journeyed to England to attend culinary school but only cooked sporadically when she began a career in journalism instead. Later, Annabel relocated to Virginia where she lived in the United States, and she uncovered a heartfelt enthusiasm for gardening.

“I have always loved cooking, but loved writing more. In mid-life I transitioned from journalism into becoming a pro-democracy activist, which took me to Washington, D.C. in the United States. The job was relentless, traumatic, and very stressful. I lived in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the kitchen, the garden, and the natural world were where I mitigated the stress induced by my work.”

Such was its positive impact that Annabel later trained as a Virginia Master Naturalist, which led her to foraging and her interest in wild food quickly developed. However it was not until after Annabel moved to Livingstone in Zambia that she turned the combination of the kitchen, the garden and the natural world into the food she creates today. “It was here, living in a Kalahari woodland and growing an organic garden, where I coined the phrase ‘bush gourmet’,” says Annabel.

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Pork Belly, Wild Sourplum, Onion, Lima Beans

For Annabel, ‘bush gourmet’ is the appropriate descriptor for the food she creates:

“We are doing our very best with all that we have right around us in the upper Zambezi Valley. This includes collaborating with those who live in our area, many of whom have little or no experience in a contemporary kitchen or in growing a regenerative organic garden, but who have been nourished by wild and indigenous edibles since childhood. I teach and learn, as they teach and learn. Collaborating and training is, naturally, a critical element of my bush gourmet concept.”

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Living Close to Source

When Annabel first returned to Africa, prior to moving to Livingstone, she spent time at a safari camp in the Kalahari Desert working with nomadic San Bushmen, and it was here her love for learning about traditional cultures and their connections to the natural environments in which they live intensified. It was also during her time working with the San Bushmen in the Kalahari Desert that she witnessed first-hand the philosophy known as ‘sufficiency’, a concept that has been wholesomely embraced in both her ‘bush gourmet’ cuisine and the way she lives her life in Livingstone with her husband, Chris Aston.

“Living close to ‘source’ is the fundamental driver behind my whole bush gourmet concept. With a little imagination and resourcefulness, one can create so much with only that which is available right around you. In my instance, there are seasonal wild fruits, nuts, fungi, roots and leaves in the Kalahari woodland surrounding our house. When I first moved here eleven years ago, I planted a regenerative organic garden in which I now source all my regular fruits and vegetables. Our neighbours are riverside villages and small farms from which I purchase heritage grains, beans, maize and squash, as well as dairy, meat and fish. I shop for dried goods like rice at the native markets. Working like this grows the local economy and allows for a very small carbon footprint.”

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Utilising her organic garden is central to her ‘bush gourmet’ and from where the development of recipes, dishes and menus is inspired. Given the seasonality of some of the produce, creativity in recipe development is sparked according to what is available at any given time. The seasonal variations have also allowed for Annabel to learn the art of adequately preserving, processing and freezing gluts, allowing for utilisation of fruits and vegetables out of season.

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Liqueurs made with fruit from Annabel's garden and the bush.

Embracing Local Ingredients and Traditions

Through her time in Zambia, Annabel has garnered an immense amount of respect and appreciation for the cultural traditions amongst the seventy-three tribes of Zambia. She says so much of her ‘bush gourmet’ has been influenced by the learnings she has garnered from Zambians she has worked with about the edible wild and indigenous ingredients of the land.

“While I would never assume to ‘reproduce’ traditional dishes in my own kitchen –why, when there is a country filled with experts?– I am rigorous about only using the ingredients I have available to me here in the upper Zambezi Valley. This means I use a number of the same ingredients that are cooked in traditional Zambian kitchens, only I use techniques to create recipes and dishes that I learned at my Cordon Bleu-inspired culinary school, along with contemporary inspirations from all over the world. A big driver in what I create is our climate: it is, for most of the year, extremely hot, so I am naturally inspired by cuisines that are born out of similar climates, examples being Southeast Asian, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean.”

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Cured lechwe (venison) with roots and leaves from Annabel's garden.

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Mabisi, Strawberry, Fennel, Kammerjunker.

The journey however has not been without its challenges. “The biggest challenge promoting and popularising my bush gourmet cuisine locally is the veneration affluent Zambians have for imported food, matched only by their disassociation from wild and indigenous ingredients, which is seen, for the most part, as ‘poor people’s food’. Many ingredients I use are eaten by rural Zambians subsisting on the little that is available around them,” says Annabel. Her hope is that by turning unique and indigenous ingredients into high-end gourmet dishes, and then promoting them to international visitors, will add cachet to local menus. A successful example of this endeavour is the Elephant Café on the banks of the Zambezi River in the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park. After Annabel launched the café in 2016, it won both national and international awards in less than a year, showcasing the powerful influence that tourism can have in elevating locally-sourced and indigenous ingredients.

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The Chef’s Table Series

Annabel’s bush gourmet cuisine, promoted through her social media channels, has also opened up new doors, opportunities and reach, including an introduction for Annabel to the extraordinary Cape wine industry. It was through these introductions that an opportunity presented itself and Annabel created the ‘Chef’s Table Series’, an event that takes place once a year, where an international chef collaborates with Annabel, bringing a commitment to train the Zambian chefs in her kitchen and teaching them new skills and techniques about cuisine in which they are experienced.

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Danish Chef Nick Buus Nielsen with Annabel in her organic garden.

The first Chef’s Table collaboration was with a Danish chef who specialised in New Nordic cuisine, and last year Annabel hosted a Winemakers’ Lunch in which the team all learned about the Cape wines from the makers themselves. In May 2024 Annabel will be hosting a Cape-based chef who is highly regarded for his interpretation of Thai cuisine. Each series offers a multi-course tasting menu that is curated with fine wines from Under the Influence, an African wine company with whom Annabel partners. Tickets for the latest five Chefs’ Tables featuring Thai cuisine were sold out in less than a week.

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“The Chefs’ Table Series not only highlights the importance of sourcing ingredients hyperlocally, even when you live in the middle of nowhere as I do, but it also showcases what heights can be reached when you apply your imagination and creativity to these wild, indigenous and garden ingredients. The best way I can inspire local chefs with my bush gourmet cuisine is by illustrating what can be achieved with the ingredients that we have available to us. So much money is saved by sourcing locally, an important factor for food budgets in restaurants, lodges and hotels in Livingstone and Victoria Falls.”

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The Next Chapter

The journey for Annabel has once again come full circle and her journalism has been reincorporated back fully into her life following a decision to write a memoir. “I was inspired to write a memoir focused on the undoing of a belief system –familial, national, genetic– inculcated into me at birth, which was patriarchal, racist and privileged. In addition, it shows the undoing of an inherited belief in ‘scarcity’. Whereas the mind-set of scarcity drives a desire to possess or own more and more, a mind-set of ‘sufficiency’ –there is enough, we are enough– fosters collaboration, in which everyone’s unique ability to contribute is recognised and valued,” she said. It is, in part, a memoir reflecting the immense gratitude for the progressive and creative influence food has had on her own personal growth, and the book will be dedicated to her husband Chris Aston, the person Annabel calls ‘home’, where she healed and found love, and where the concept of ‘sufficiency’ has been fully embodied.

Annabel’s vision and dream is to continue the expansion of the community regenerative organic gardens on their farm and in the neighbouring villages, in the hope of growing the nutritional quotient amongst the community, whilst at the same time protecting the environment, and in particular the native trees of the Kalahari and riverine woodlands:

“All I can hope for is that the success of my bush gourmet cuisine inspires Zambians to respect and revere the unique and bountiful natural resources available to them at little cost. I hope by showing what can be done with hyperlocal ingredients, that more people will embrace the concept which will in turn enhance their health, their confidence and their livelihoods.”

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Image Credits: Annabel Hughes Aston, Karlien Geldenhys and Gareth Bentley.