Game hunt for gourmets

Cute Disney characters can't distract Kate Armstrong from her venison venture in South Africa.

It's called the Bambi syndrome. You head off on safari in an African wildlife reserve. You're in luck. You spot impala, springbok and kudu. It's an up-close-and-personal experience; you feel a connection with the animals. Later that evening, in the safari lodge dining room, dinner is served. Placed in front of you is - ta-dah! - a filleted piece of impala, springbok or kudu.

For some carnivorous guests, seeing the day's highlights on a plate is a little too much. For others, this is a treat. And that's good news: venison and other game is high on the menu in South African establishments.

I witnessed my first Bambi syndrome meltdown last year, while dining with a group of American guests in the remote wilderness park of Mkhaya in Swaziland. Our evening gourmet meal featured a poitje (pronounced poi-ky), a rich, thick stew prepared over a fire in a three-legged cast-iron pot. The waiter took off the lid and proudly announced: warthog!

(I admit, the word "cute" does apply to warthogs, which run comically behind each other, their tails straight in the air).

One guest, Carol, protested loudly to her fellow guests, declaring it cruel to be eating wild animals. Her husband desperately tried to appease her: "But honey, you eat chicken and beef and lamb.""But that's different," she replied indignantly.

Different country, same animals. This time I'm in South Africa and, thankfully, nowhere near the likes of Carol. I'm on a venison venture; it's on the menu at the country's most upmarket establishments on my route from KwaZulu-Natal, in the east, along the Garden Route, and Cape Town in the west. In South Africa, venison (generally defined as the meat of deer) extends to both deer and antelope species. Indeed, in culinary circles, and on the menus of swish restaurants, top-quality cuts of deer and antelope are listed as venison dishes.

I am accompanied by the next best thing to Carol: my friend, Emily, who insists on identifying our animal sightings with The Lion King's cartoon characters - from Simba the lion to Pumbaa the warthog. Thankfully, according to her, I haven't seen the film.

The head chef at luxury lodge Addo Elephant House, Kananelo Moikango, sees things differently. He loves venison virgins: "The best reactions are from guests who don't believe the animal meat is edible - or who don't want to eat it and then they do - and they love it!"

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A few days later, at the Mkuze Falls Private Lodge in KwaZulu-Natal, we sit at tables within a boma (a traditional enclosed area). Here, I taste-test my first ever kudu fillet.

It's superbly moist and tender and is similar to beef, only it tastes milder. A sweetened berry sauce accompaniment brings out its flavour. Then comes ostrich; we'd spotted a live one on our afternoon safari. It's a lean meat, with a texture more like lamb, although not quite as rich. I'm less enthralled with my next sampling: a large hunk of guinea fowl. It's darker and tougher than a chicken (this doesn't surprise me, these silly, easily startled birds will run in front of a car for kilometres, even though they can fly up to tree branches).

As aficionados know, there are rules when it comes to eating game. First, technically you could eat almost any animal (with the exception of waterbuck - their glands can taint the meat).

The most commonly served are kudu, impala, ostrich, springbok and guinea fowl. Less common is nyala, zebra, eland and hartebeest. Second, most game is best served as fillets, generally seared on a hot grill, or as a casserole. Third, game must be eaten rare or medium rare or it risks becoming dry and is best served with a sweet sauce, such as port, or with sweet-sour cape gooseberries.

When it comes to healthy options, venison is top of the list. By its very nature, it has advantages over cattle and sheep. According to Inge Johansen, the general manager of Hunter Hotels (which follows sustainable principles and whose highly regarded menus frequently feature venison), this meat touches the earth lightly. Indeed, it's a very lean and, therefore, healthy meat. Plus, farmed venison is kinder to the environment: the animals are not genetically modified, they don't require much water and don't play havoc with grasses and soils.

On my final night, I sample a loin of springbok. If you could sample the "prince of venison" anywhere, it should be here - in Maze, Gordon Ramsay's signature restaurant in Cape Town's newest hotel, the uber-luxurious One&Only Cape Town. The size of a generous Australian beef loin, the springbok is cooked to perfection and served on a wooden board, accompanied by a head of roasted garlic.

The meat cuts like firm melon flesh. It's velvety, with the fullness of beef flavour but not as rich. I jiggle with delight and groan with each mouthful. My dining partner, a vegetarian, declares my reaction is enough to turn her into a carnivore. Springbok is added to my "best ever" list.

A sommelier is on hand to recommend an appropriate wine. It's a difficult choice - there are more than 7000 bottles in the restaurant's cellar, a transparent wine vault under which visitors must walk to enter the restaurant.

As for Bambi? Who? I have to admit that in my mind he remains a mere cartoon character, not the impala-like creature I spotted the day before sprinting and jumping past elephant herds in Addo Elephant Park.

I can't help but picture Gordon Ramsay's reaction to the likes of Carol, she of the anti-venison league, were she served springbok in his restaurant. God forbid, he might just tell her where to shove her beeping loin. And (for once), I'd agree with him.

Kate Armstrong was a guest of South African Tourism, Qantas Airways and Maze Restaurant.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Qantas has daily flights between Sydney and Johannesburg from $1400 return. See qantas.com.au.

WHERE TO EAT

KwaZulu-Natal — Mkuze Falls Private Game Reserve, phone +27 (0) 34 414 1018, see www.mkuzefalls.com.

Eastern Cape — Elephant House, Addo Elephant National Park, phone +27 (0) 42 233 2462, see elephanthouse.co.za.

Western Cape — Hunter Hotels, Plettenburg Bay, phone +27 (0) 44 501 1111, see www.hunterhotels.com.

Cape Town — Maze restaurant, One&Only resort, Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, phone +27 (0) 21 431 5222, see oneandonlyresorts.com.

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