2004 Bush Banquet matched to fine Cape wines

Friday, 7 May, 2004
Myrna Robins
Sophisticated creations prevailed at this annual Challenge in Big Five country
This annual Challenge, which links the northern provinces of South Africa to the Western Cape during a fund-raising contest, has become a significant event on our gastronomic calendar.

The rains were late in the Lowveld this year, making the organizers of the 2004 Laborie Bush Banquet very, very nervous.

As in previous years, the spacious courtyard of the Southern Cross schools on the Raptor's View Wildlife Estate outside Hoedspruit in Limpopo province was to be transformed into a boma, where 27 beautifully dressed tables for 10 would be set for an al fresco dinner for guests who would be paying heavily for this privilege.

Behind the school buildings, the grassy school grounds would be home to a sea of large tented kitchens, from where the game lodge chefs and their teams would produce 3-courses feasts for the diners at their table.

For once the prayer was ‘no rain tonight, please.’ And the rain god resisted obligingly, contributing, no doubt, to a balmy Saturday evening where a new moon carved a thin crescent in an African sky studded with a myriad stars.

But, let's start at the beginning, which means turning back the clock to autumn 2002 when the first Bush Banquet took place. The Southern Cross independent schools are housed in a delightful thatched campus, reminiscent of a smart game lodge, where the environment features prominently on the curriculum. Not only its privileged children benefit, however, as the schools sponsor brings in classes from local disadvantaged schools each week for ecology lessons, as promised to pupils whose parents cannot afford the fees.

To help fund all these activities, energetic parents organized the first Bush Banquet three years ago. The second event attracted twice the number of contestants, and KWV Laborie wines came on as a welcome sponsor, bringing a range of fine Cape wines to accompany contestants' courses.

The 2004 Challenge followed the successful formula of its predecessors: the school committee invited local game lodges, (from 5-star to backpackers) to enter 3-course menus. Starter and desserts can be pre-prepared, but the main course has to be cooked at the outdoor kitchen set up at the school. Each course has to be matched to a Laborie wine and all three courses are presented to judges.

Once again I joined a panel of judges from Cape Town and Gauteng and was treated to a welcome dinner hosted by renowned chef John Jackson of Royal Malewane on the eve of the bush banquet.

By mid-afternoon on D-day, judges and officials were at the school, where a spirit of friendly rivalry prevailed. As guests settled into their seats, we finished judging the table settings just as the first of 27 starter courses arrived. For the next few hours we admired, dissected, tasted and spooned. And scored and re-scored.

It wasn't easy - it never is - but it's always exhilarating. The opulent table of Royal Malewane walked off with the award for best-dressed table, along with the title for best service, causing an eruption of delight from its staff.

Winners of the Silver Cluster Leaf were Shilavari, while Singita Lebombo and Tanda Tula shared top honours in the Gold Orb category. For me, the highlights of the winning menus were Tanda Tula's seared yellowfin tuna on rosti paired with ratatouille and Singita's trout, under a macadamia crust, sauced with orange and chilli and accompanied by macerated pears, blue cheese, a poppadum topped with marog on the side.

With the formal part of the programme complete, the party was on and any remaining wildlife in the area fled the scene. Gastronomic tourism, recognition of local talent, and job creation are other beneficiaries of this brilliant boost to the Lowveld. And 2005 will be even better, according to the dedicated organizers.