Meet Annabel Hughes Aston from SavannaBel-Bush Gourmet in Zambia

Annabel Hughes Aston is an award-winning chef, organic gardener, forage and writer, who lives with her husband on a farm in the Zambezi Valley, upstream from Victoria Falls in Livingstone, Zambia. She is the creator of “bush gourmet” cuisine, developed while experimenting with, and fusing, wild edibles and indigenous Zambian ingredients with fresh local produce, mostly grown in her organic vegetable garden. 

Annabel trained as a chef in England, but only cooked occasionally after choosing a career in journalism instead. She started gardening, and cooking what she grew, following a relocation to Virginia in the United States in 2003. In 2011 she completed the Virginia Master Naturalist program, which introduced her to the joys of foraging.

Annabel’s “bush gourmet” cuisine—the corollary of her desire to live as close to ‘source’ as possible alongside her passion for gardening, foraging and feeding people—has won multiple awards after she introduced it at The Elephant Café in 2016.

Annabel moved back to Africa, where she was born and grew up, at the end of 2012. Previously, she worked as a journalist and pro-democracy activist in London and Washington, D.C., focused mostly on nonviolent democratic change in Zimbabwe. Working for nearly seven years amid death threats, abuse, loss, and trauma, it was to the kitchen, the garden and the natural world she turned to relax and recuperate. She was banned from returning to Zimbabwe in 2002 for her part in steering targeted sanctions, against the country’s political elite, in to law through the United States Congress. At the same time her family’s farm in northern Zimbabwe was stolen at gunpoint. 

Food also became a channel through which she witnessed the healing effects of the natural world. When Annabel first returned to Africa, she landed deep in Botswana’s Kalahari Desert at a safari camp that worked with nomadic San Bushmen. By then, she had been influenced by the concept of “sufficiency”, a term coined by American inventor, Buckminster Fuller, who believed that “if we looked around us and within ourselves, we would always find what we need.” To her, no way of life exemplified this more than the Bushmen’s. Even though their hunter/gathering existence had been upended and overtaken by the modern world, the people she walked with, and learned from, showed her sufficiency through taking from their meagre natural resources only what their bodies needed in that present moment. It was a context which informs the way in which she tries to live and work today.

“Land is the place where lessons are taught, where Wisdom abides; where we learn lessons about life and death from the seed broken open in darkness, dying in order to come to life in a different form, and from the compost which teaches us that decay is needed for life’s richness. Land is the place where we are healed when no words can comfort or explain. It is the place where we are taught about and find community; where everything is connected to everything else, and nothing exists independently; the place where everything feeds on and depends on the other.”

I borrowed this quote from a Dominican Sister in New York, to illustrate a concept document I drafted in 2009 when I lived in a small hamlet in Virginia in the United States. I had envisioned turning forty-three acres of unused land beyond my house, beneath the Blue Ridge Mountains, into a healing retreat and organic garden for those “in need of peace, reflection, and nourishment.”
It was an ambitious vision, one which I thought was my life’s calling. Today that sanctuary is built and operational. My concept document turned into a rural retreat for wounded veterans, only it did so without me. One year into the project, the investor I secured to help manifest my vision took it away from me. With it he took away my connection to the place in which I had bought my first house, in an adopted country in which I believed I belonged. I lost everything. America gave me my dreams but she also took them away.
What wasn’t taken away from me was my reverence for the natural world. Nor my love for growing things and feeding people. When I decided to return to Africa, the continent that grew me, before I moved back I pared myself down to nothing. I dissolved all my expectations, I sold or gave away my remaining belongings. I never wished to bear such weight again. On the outside or the inside.
The empty, white landscape I ended up in, Botswana’s Kalahari Desert—a place so flat you can see the curvature of the earth’s surface—reflected that nothingness. I had travelled there to sate the aspiring naturalist in me, and in particular to learn about wild food from the San Bushmen. But a tragedy in my family cut short my time in the desert, and I moved to a farm in Zambia’s Zambezi Valley, upriver from Victoria Falls in Livingstone. There, I gave up running from my aloneness and fell in love.

Where we live

When I moved in with my partner Chris nearly nine years ago, we committed to embrace a way of living fused in the “principle of enoughness”, a phrase coined by Ghandi, and a norm for indigenous people like the San Bushmen. As it was, we had each been pushed towards living “sufficiently”. The preceding years had been tough for both of us, on many levels. While I had lost everything in America, Chris had lost his farm in Zimbabwe, followed by his partner, who succumbed to motor neuron disease not long after they took a massive loan to buy a new farm in Livingstone in Zambia. 

There is nothing like scarcity to make you forage deep into your creative resources. In my kitchen in Virginia I would make wild pesto out of garlic mustard, a ubiquitous invasive weed that surrounded my boundary. I would make jam out of wineberries, harvested from vines scrambling up and down the sides of the road running past my house. Here we are forever improvising or “making a plan”—a truism common throughout southern Africa—be it renovating our house using bricks made on the farm, or designing kitchen tables and shelves, window and door frames, bedsteads and garden sheds in our farm workshop. We recycle where we can, and we fix what is broken. We eat out of the garden and we eat wild edibles foraged in the bush around our house; we buy indigenous food from neighbouring villages and support our local food producers as much as we are able. We do our best not to be wasteful.

Living simply does not mean we live without aesthetics. Chris designed and built our house borrowing principles from Australian architect Glenn Murcutt, known for marrying “modern architecture to the place, the territory, the landscape.” Built deep in Kalahari woodland among the mukwa and teak trees, and made from corrugated sheeting and steel girders, its original iteration cost Chris a total of $1,700. 

SavannaBel – Bush Gourmet

When I first learned from our Zambian housekeeper—who I trained as a chef and who later joined me in cofounding The Elephant Café—that the nuts of the mongongo tree in the centre of our house were edible, so began my exploration into this country’s diverse array of wild ingredients. 

I began to experiment with, and blog about, the wild food we found in our surrounding woodlands. Called SavannaBel – Bush Gourmet, I wrote about what we foraged through the seasons and how we used each ingredient. I discovered, among others, the fruits of muchingachinga (northern dwaba berry), nsumo (false wild medlar), and mungomba (wild sourplum). In midsummer, when it was pouring with rain, we uncovered chinika and kapuipui wild mushrooms from beneath the leaf litter on the forest floor; in late winter, when the bush appeared almost dead it was so dry, we collected mongongo nuts and mubuyu (baobab).

Always, I was told by the Zambians with whom I worked that bush fruits were mostly eaten raw … by children on the way to school; by cattle or goat herders; by impoverished families upping the nutritional value of a limited diet. But as a chef and a forager, each time I tried something new from the wild, I was blown away by all the inimitable flavours. I intuited how well these bush fruits would translate in to jams and jellies; how the wild nuts like mongongo and mobula would enhance my baked goods, desserts and salads. I sensed that the sourness of mubuyu and musika (tamarind) was a perfect substitute for unavailable ingredients like sumac, and as soon as I first smelt chinunkanunka wild basil after it flowered in the rains, I knew I could use it as a ‘hardy’ herb. Today I make Chinunkanunka Wild Basil Salt, a finishing herbal salt to flavour breads, pizzas, dips and various meat or fish dishes.

My blog led me down many paths—to commissions, consulting jobs, and cooking classes, but the most thrilling of them all was to co-founding The Elephant Café in 2016. Within four months of opening we won Zambia’s Best New Restaurant; within seven months we were voted Boutique Restaurant of the Year (Africa and Middle East) by the Luxury Travel Guide Awards. It was a heady, exhilarating time that illustrated to me the potential of this hyperlocal bush gourmet cuisine I had dreamt up in the shadow of a massive wild mongongo tree.

Since those early days, I now only use Zambia’s heritage grains and beans, as well as many other traditional ingredients bought from village gardens. A good example of my collaboration with neighbouring villagers is how I use the calyxes of sindambi (wild hibiscus) while they eat the leaves. Until now the only value in the calyxes was to dry them for adding to relish, while saving the seeds. I purchase them fresh and turn them into deep crimson ‘flowers’ for garnishes and drinks, or otherwise process the calyxes into syrup, cordial and jelly. We purchase the sindambi from neighbouring growers and then, after removing the calyxes, return the seeds for planting the following season. 

I have set up a small women’s collective led by a single mother who works here on the farm. She organises the procurement of all these ingredients from the village and the market, as well as foraging teams for the wild ingredients, for my growing food business. Each element not only enriches our neighbouring community, but it also adds value to our woodlands. I hope over time these positives will also enhance the biodiversity in this wild environment in which we are so privileged to live. 

To me, there is an obvious democracy in food: it is a social and cultural leveller; it is an icebreaker among strangers; it is a unifier among disparate groups. It is what provides me with the best part of what I do. Food allows me to collaborate with Zambia: its native people, its native plants, its terroir. I am learning daily from the people with whom I collaborate, while I am teaching them how to reimagine their indigenous and wild ingredients into contemporary dishes and products that showcase the very best of this diverse and unique country.

SavannaBel – Bush Gourmet Food Experience.

Situated on a beautiful working farm in the Zambezi Valley, approx. 23 km upstream from Victoria Falls, is one of Livingstone’s most exclusive – and remote – food experiences. 

Annabel has spent the past eight-and-a-half years, since moving to Livingstone, developing an organic garden and experimenting with, and fusing, wild and indigenous ingredients with the produce she grows. She uses locally-produced dairy, meat and fish, while the garden, the market, the village and the wilderness make up the mainstay of her pantry: fresh organic garden produce, indigenous heirloom grains and seeds, bush fruits, tree nuts, wild mushrooms, legumes, roots, leaves and more, which she expertly crafts into an ever-changing menu according to the season. 

There is a large focus on community empowerment and sustainable harvest practice in SavannaBel’s ethos. Poverty alleviation through fundraising for accessible water and solar irrigation for small-scale gardens; collaborating with neighbouring villagers on sustainability and best practice methods for the utilisation of wild edibles; information and knowledge sharing, discussion and partnership opportunities, the latest of which being a women’s procurement collective set up and run by a single mother on the farm. It is Annabel’s sincere hope that by promoting the use of these inimitable, and largely unexplored, natural resources—this wild and indigenous food—the local economy will also be enriched.

Soon to offer a hyperlocal & wild gourmet food experience upstream from Victoria Falls in Zambia.

An all-inclusive bush gourmet food experience in a contemporary farm homestead, set in Kalahari woodland upriver from Victoria Falls in Livingstone, Zambia, offering any of the below:

  • A high-end, inimitable five-course meal, involving wild and indigenous flavours most diners will not have tasted before. Drinks included, excluding luxury brands.
  • A guided tour of an indigenous market in Livingstone before driving out to the farm, followed by a walk-through of Annabel’s organic garden, followed by an all-inclusive five-course lunch at the homestead.
  • A tour of the organic garden, the preschool and the farm, which can also include the neighbouring state-of-the-art fish farm, followed by an all-inclusive five-course lunch at the homestead.
  • A visit to a neighbouring village to meet some of the small-scale producers, and to witness how native Zambians work with the seasonal wild/indigenous ingredients – traditional food preservation methods, opening mongongo nuts, expressing its oil, distilling alcohol from wild fruit and maize—followed by an all-inclusive five-course lunch at the homestead.          

You can follow Annabel’s journey on the following links:

Text and photos provided ©Annabel Hughes Aston/SavannaBel – Bush Gourmet


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