Over the last few weeks I’ve found myself with a lot more time on my hands than I’m used to – as I’m sure many people have – therefore instead of sharing my love of the African bush with visitors to Londolozi I’ve resorted to other activities to keep myself busy.
One of the ways I have been occupying my mind (in addition to studying hard facts about plants and animals, of course) is by helping out in the kitchen at home and watching a few different cooking shows on TV. The extra time spent grappling with the culinary arts got me wondering whether there is a way to combine ingredients that one can find in the bush with modern cooking to create a unique and delicious meal.
Luckily, my game drive partner and friend, tracker Life Sibuyi, is a wealth of knowledge when it comes to local indigenous plants and he has shown me many edible treats hidden away in the bush. There is one ingredient in particular, that Life and I agree is our favourite – the Marula (Sclerocarya birrea) fruit.
Londolozi is home to thousands of Marula trees.
Marulas are tall and tend to grow on open grass covered crests, making them the perfect trees for leopards to hoist their kills in. When the Marula trees aren’t playing host to leopard dinner parties, they themselves provide food for many other species of animals. Giraffes will eat leaves during the summer and sunbirds will eat nectar from the flowers in spring but when February comes around, the Marula trees are inundated with hungry visitors. The reason for this sudden popularity is because February is the time of year that the Marula produces its delicious fruit. The Marula fruits are about the size of a golf ball, are orange/yellow in colour when ripe and have a sweet, tangy almost citrus-like flavour, additionally Marula fruit’s flesh is rich in vitamin C.
These fruits are seriously popular with the local wildlife, especially elephants, which will travel many kilometres to areas abounding with Marula trees. Despite the fact that the enormous elephants seem to eat most of the fruit, animals like baboons, vervet monkeys and warthogs all manage to get their fair share of these nutrient rich fruits. Although many animals love the fruit, humans have also been using the fruit for at least 10,000 years. Maybe now is the time to relook at how we can use this ancient fruit in new and exciting ways.
The flesh of the fruit can be particularly useful. One example is how Londolozi Executive Chef Anna Ridgewell makes a jelly with the fruit that is served as an accompaniment at dinner.
The flesh could also be used to sweeten desserts as an alternative to sugar or it could be used in savoury dishes as chutney or a glaze – the possibilities seem endless. Life Sibuyi also told me how local Shangaan people also use Marula fruit to brew beer.
To brew the beer, the fruit is removed from its skin and left in water to ferment. The beer is tasty to drink on its own but it could also be used to flavour stews and gravies or even to help make bread. Probably the most well known use of Marula fruit is its role in flavouring the creamy Amarula liqueur. Amarula liqueur tastes delicious when poured over ice or mixed with coffee on a chilly morning game drive but it can also be used in a myriad of ways to create desserts and even play a role in savoury dishes too. A popular dessert at Londolozi is Chef Anna’s ‘Londolozi Sunset’, that features an Amarula flavoured custard and just proves that there’s more to this little fruit than meets the eye.
The nut housed inside the fruit is very popular with tree squirrels and people throughout southern Africa. The Marula nut tastes similar to a pine nut and is rich in protein and energy as well as containing minerals such as iron, magnesium and zinc. The nut too can be used in an assortment of ways. The Marula nut’s similarity with pine nuts makes it a great substitute in any kind of pesto and it can be toasted and used in conjunction with healthy Marula nut oil to make a paste to be used in curries or smoothies. The fact that the Marula nut is also tasty and nutritious just shows why this fruit is highly prized by animals and humans alike.
The uses of Marula fruit in cooking may strike you as an odd topic to write about but I like to think that it represents a much larger idea. So often we look straight through opportunities when there are in fact things of huge value hidden all around us. As a society, we need to view food differently in order to help protect the planet. By choosing to cook with locally sourced, indigenous ingredients and using them in creative ways, we can reduce the impact that our food has on the earth. The choice to eat and indeed, live more sustainably is one that will help protect the last remaining wilderness areas around the world and it will and ensure that there are leopards, elephants and even Marula trees to be found in places like Londolozi for many generations to come.