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‘Shopping’ for vegetarian lunch!

I PAID a periodic visit to the end-of-month Food and Book Fair at Doon Estate in Msasa, Harare on the last Saturday of the month (it was July) but was disappointed many of the stands and stalls I’ve seen and often patronised there over the last few years had disappeared.

Eating Out Dusty Miller

There’s another food fair/farmers’ market at Maasdorp Avenue, Belgravia, every Saturday morning and talk among would-be punters was that some of the more obvious “truants” had crossed the floor and set up stall with the opposition next to the Bottom Drawer coffee shop.

After checking out each stall and stand twice and deciding there was nothing I needed or wanted to photograph and it was a bit pointless buying anything which may go off, as I was within 10 very hectic days of leaving on a five-week overseas working holiday, I popped into Shop Café, more or less “next door” to the market square.

For those unfamiliar with Doon Estate, it’s a hodge-podge of arty-crafty gift shops and artisans’ emporiums making bespoke furniture, curtains, linens, leatherworks, pottery etc. There’s a take-away which has (again) just changed hands: it’s now called Wendy’s.

Also for the inner man is a first class Belgian chocolatier; pub and grill called The Flat Dig Diner (ex-Kalahari Canoe Club), a superb Thai restaurant, Chang Thai and the chintzy Shop Café. On “market day” there’s also usually a range of street food favourites like hot-dogs, hamburgers, steak rolls.

Sadly, like an awful lot of other eating outlets in this country, Shop Cafe was seriously under-patronised when I first arrived; but the punters seen were the rump of the late breakfast/ coffee-and-cake crowd.

I realised that when I ordered soup-of-the-day (home-made lentil: US$7) and was told they hadn’t yet begun serving lunch.
Sure enough glancing at my watch it wasn’t quite 11:50am.

A newspaper was hoisted out of the free-reading pile, a glass of chilled, refreshing, thirst-quenching home-made lemonade (US$1) ordered and –– unusually –– I had my choice of tables and chairs in the courtyard.

You can eat in total shade, in dappled sunshine under trees, beneath a sagging shade cloth with which the resident troupe of grey vervet monkeys frequently play havoc, or in full sun. Well, until it moves!

The crowd is cosmopolitan. Diners will often hear a dozen foreign languages: German, French, Italian, Dutch, Flemish, Chinese, Japanese, Hindu… etc, and a score of English accents and dialects: American, Australian, local and South African, Scottish, Yorkshire, Welsh, Irish, Cockney, etc.

It seems to be beloved by each fresh wave of incoming diplomats; by the time I left the car-park was filled with late model 4WDs, many carrying CD (Corps Diplomatique) and TCE (Technical Co-operation expert) plates.

There used to be a standing joke that CD meant Can’t Drive and TCE: They Can’t Either!, but driving nowadays in Ha-ha-ha-rare (Africa’s fun capital) is so appalling, life-threatening on a daily basis and scarily anarchistic that no one jests about the subject any more.

Well the lunchtime crowd must have been hungry because by exactly noon the three nearest tables were filled and half an hour later folk were beginning to glare angrily at early birds still finishing tea, coffee or the last morsel of light-as-air cake, before leaving.

My thick, dense, extremely complex, piping hot lentil soup came to the table almost on the stroke of noon, piping hot, steaming and accompanied by six chunks of three different artisan breads and butter, which were very more-ish.

Ladies who lunch lightly and languidly at the next table asked if the soup were very hot. “Yes, it’s lovely,” I said. “Surely you can see the steam still coming off from there?”

No, they didn’t mean physically hot from the saucepan. They meant was it chili/curry powder hot and if so to what sort of degree.

“Not at all,” I told them. “There’s some coriander in there and a few vegetables other than lentils, pulses and legumes, but it’s superb.”
Three of the four ordered this starter and said how pleased they were to have listened to me.

It was US$7: a bit costly for soup, but for one this good, intense and flavoursome, made from the finest ingredients procurable and with love by Kerry Wallace and his dedicated team, I’ll forgive them.

Kerry would have liked to have seen his Shop Café in the gritty eastern industrial suburb totally vegetarian, which of course the soup was: you could live on lentils and pulses; but market demands meant he initially had to add a meat of the day option.

Now that has expanded so there’s a beef (usually high-grade steak) of the day dish, chicken of the day and fish of the day (often tilapia: Kariba bream).

On my most recent visit, these were US$20 and US$18 each respectively; with haloumi cheese at US$18 and salad of the day US$15.

On weekdays (they shut Mondays) there’s a lovely, groaning help-yourself buffet, high in vegetarian specialities.

I remained vegetarian for a main course of blue-cheese and spring onion omelette: a good, fluffy, two or three egg mixture with plenty of pongy South Africa blue cheese cooked in, with scallions chopped and diced so finely, there was just a hint of green in the finished dish.

It came with a very substantial colourful side salad featuring garden leaves, sliced and cherry tomatoes, cucumber, big slices of avocado pear as creamy as butter, thinly sliced radish (when did you last see radish in a commercially prepared salad?) and “seeds”. I know one of them was sunflower, because I asked. Sorry, I forgot what the second one was.

Chefette Michelle Small told me they were lightly fried and doused in soya sauce, adding an interesting crunchiness to “rabbit food”, while being enormously good for you.

The omelette (one of a choice of three) was US$10.

At these prices, you could be served far more substantial plates of food at several outlets within a couple of kilometres but I doubt if you’ll find nicer food, better presented, pleasantly served in more interesting surroundings.

For once I was too full to order whatever the dessert-of-the-day was, nor a slice of fabulous cake.

Bottom line: home-made lentil soup, blue cheese omelette and salad, two home-made lemonades: US$19.

The Shop Café, Doon Estate, Msasa. Tel 446684. Child, handicap friendly. Not licensed to sell grog. BYOB, no corkage. Open breakfast to late afternoon Tuesday-to-Saturday. Also at the Gallery Café, National Gallery, Harare.

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