It’s not often you can tuck into a memorably excellent starter course and at the same time pat yourself on the back for aiding the ecology!
Eating out with Dusty Miller
Because I strongly believe that is precisely what you do at Miller’s (no relation) Café at Borrowdale when ordering delightful, delicious and protein-rich Kariba crayfish salad as an appetiser at a mere US$5.
I drove there on a frazzling super-heated Monday lunch, determined to order the excellent Miller’s Café Gorgonzola cheese salad, mouth mentally watering at the thought, while negotiating the traffic chaos of Harare’s leafy northern suburbs.
But managing partner Llew Hughes was so keen I sampled a yabbie salad that I instantly forgot about pongy blue cheese.
I’ve called it a yabbie salad above, as in their native Australia, that’s what these wonderful freshwater crayfish are called.
In their wisdom, our National Parks and Wildlife Department said there was no way they wanted these crustaceans (known in Latin as cherax destructor) imported here.
They are destructors: they speedily destroy piled earth dam walls, eat fish spawn, eggs and fingerlings and have no natural Central Africa predators.
But that didn’t stop them being exported to neighbour Zambia. Either the fish farmers involved grew bored with yabbie breeding or lots of them escaped into the river systems and they emerged on the north bank of Lake Kariba several years ago and now are frequently caught on anglers’ fishing lines on our side.
Parks and Wildlife don’t seem to know how to handle the situation. They threaten prosecution of folk catching the crustaceans without a permit, presumably to discourage them from taking live yabbies away and installing them in their own dams, pools and ponds and spreading the problem.
But these little monsters breed like billy-oh and with the exception of a very few small ones found in the digestive systems of cormorants and crocodiles and quite a lot grazed by human connoisseurs, nothing seems to being done to deal with them.
They are an invasive species which literally threaten the ecology of the region’s largest lake.
Instead of blocking people catching them, thought should perhaps be given to placing a bounty on each bucketful of yabbies handed over to Parks officers.
Locals should also have explained to them how really good, nutritious, protein-rich and delicious when cooked properly, the flesh of the yabbie is. (Apparently totems are a problem there.)
The crayfish “meat” I devoured lustily on Monday was certainly delicious. Chef Paul told me he boils the crayfish in their dull blackish shells for a few minutes then husks the crustaceans.
The firm flesh (now a lovely pink hue, like lobster or prawn) is marinated overnight in a secret lemon and garlic mixture and served on a bed of salad including lettuce, onion, cucumber, tomatoes, croutons, sun-dried tomatoes, capers and spring onions with just a hint of optional chili powder.
I thought it wonderful, especially for a mere fiver; if served with a nice roll or crusty bread and butter it would be a meal on its own for many, especially lovely ladies who lunch languidly.
After lunch I discussed with the chef and Llew what other dishes could effectively use this tasty and reasonably-priced protein.
We agreed crayfish thermidore and lightly curried crayfish (using a not to domineering fruity curry sauce so as not to mask the crustacean’s delicate flavour) were fairly obvious. It could also take its place proudly in so-called seafood pasta, a Cullen skink-type soup or stir-fried fish dish. Not forgetting a retro 1960s-style crayfish (instead of imported prawns) cocktail with 1 000 Islands sauce.
For mains I had two man-sized fairly thickly cut, lean, meaty pork chops. I ordered them grilled but they tasted braaied to me. With good-sized Idaho-style baked jacket potato served with sour cream in the tin-foil wrapping in which it was cooked and a selection of nicely roasted vegetables. The dish cost US$16.
I was amazed to see Llew, at the next table, tucking into what looked a very fine cottage pie, having not seen such dishes listed on the attractive colourful laminated menu.
He explained it was from a daily special table. That day it was cottage (or shepherds?) pie and/or chicken stir-fry, rice with vegetables folded in, plus fresh garden peas. You help yourself to a plateful (as much or as little as you want) then weigh the plate and pay US$1,50 per 100 grams.
It seems a great idea and, as a 250g helping would be ample for most people, an economical way to enjoy lunch.
It was too hot to eat in almost full, or slightly dappled, sunshine in the courtyard at Miller’s Café, in Borrowdale Village and seemed a shame to eat in a fairly gloomy (but effectively air-conditioned) interior, so I compromised with a table on the sheltered stoep, enjoying an occasional breeze, people-watching (including some very dodgy-looking Russians and Sub-Continental types whom, I was told, were illicit diamond buyers.
They certainly looked very sinister!) Skyline was all purple jacarandas in full bloom.
There are some wonderful-sounding puddings on the menu, but as soon as I heard the daily special was freshly picked strawberries and cream, I went no further. An extremely generous helping at US$6.
Bottom line: the crayfish salad was gratis as a sample dish; pork chops, baked spud etc; pudding and two delightfully chilled Golden Pilsener Lagers cost US$28.
(For the record the Restaurateurs’ Association of Zimbabwe held a very successful three-course Christmas in Winter lunch at Miller’s Café on August 5, at which turkey, plum pudding and all Xmas favourites were served. I attended and thoroughly enjoyed it, but as I was flying out that night on a five-week working holiday took no notes or photographs.)
Miller’s Café (no relation to author Dusty Miller) Borrowdale Village opens breakfast, lunch, supper, coffee etc daily. Fully licensed.
Attractive wine list. Child and handicap friendly. Safe parking nearby. Sport on TV indoors. Tel 853137.