The Eggs Benedict incident

Some people have a signature dish by which they measure restaurants. I have a friend who rates Thai venues on their massaman beef, irrespective if the red duck curry or larb salad are below par. And a globetrotting colleague has a short-list of soft shell crab hotspots (Mahjong in St Kilda, Melbourne is a recent addition, while Gotham Bar and Grill in New York remains a firm favourite).

For mine, you can’t beat Eggs Benedict for brunch. Simple ingredients, subtle flavours and perfect textures. But rarely do all the elements align sublimely. But they did last October, at New York’s Waldorf=Astoria; home to one of the more dubious origin myths of this classic dish.

The story goes like this: In 1894. Lemuel Benedict, a Wall Street stockbroker, needed something to quell a nagging hangover. He goes to the newly opened Waldorf Hotel on Park Avenue (the Astoria addition came later) and after consulting staff, settles on “buttered toast, poached eggs, crisp bacon, and a hooker (pouring jug) of hollandaise.”

So almost 120 years later, and keen to sample what’s become of Lemuel’s legacy, I made my way to Peacock Alley, the Waldorf=Astoria’s famed lobby restaurant. Coincidentally, I too was nursing a nagging hangover. As for the Eggs Benedict; all boxes ticked. Best I’d ever eaten. This was confirmed with a second serving. Seriously. By the time I’d waddled back down to Grand Central and along 42nd Street to Times Square to pick up my Mary Poppins tickets, the nagging hangover had well and truly vanished, only to be replaced by a nagging stomach ache.

Perhaps my glowing gastronomic appraisal was emotionally tainted, what with being swept up in the dish’s ‘colourful’ history, as well as being seduced by the hotel’s nostalgic grandeur and glamour. After all, a venue’s décor and decorum, your demeanour and digestive expectation, not to mention dollars paid ($95 a head, plus taxes and tip, in case you’re wondering), can all contribute to one’s assessment of a dining experience or individual dish.

Then a few months after the Waldorf=Astoria euphoria, I had Eggs Benedict while on safari in Tanzania, at a luxury tented camp called Kirawira.  The camp sits high on an escarpment with sweeping views across the western corridor of the Serengeti National Park. Not far to the north lies the Kenyan border and the Maasai Mara Game Reserve. The eastern shore of Lake Victoria is a short drive west.

Kirawira’s relative isolation means that much of its produce is either grown, baked, smoked, reared, slaughtered, harvested, cured, aged, churned, roasted, frozen (in the case of home-made ice-cream) and prepared on site. To say their Eggs Benedict was free range is a slight understatement, in an East African kind of way!

Sure, the poaching and English muffin baking were perfect. You can be served those at your local café though. In Kirawira, the first hint that this might have been something special was the presence of speck instead of ham. Unlike prosciutto or other pork products, speck is cold-smoked and boned before being cured in salt and various spices. Traditionally, this can impart a distinctive but subtle hint of juniper. For mine, the speck option shines.

And if this meaty treat wasn’t enough, the highlight turned out to be the hollandaise – a luscious velvety triumph of deliciousness – helped no doubt by the ‘free-est’, yummiest egg yolks this side of the Mediterranean.

I don’t like the Gordon-Ramsey-clarified-butter approach to hollandaise (slowly heated until the water, milk solids and fat have separated, and then drained to give pure milk fat) because you can end up with a ‘stiff’ sauce; its consistency resembling mayonnaise. I prefer a hollandaise that can be comfortably poured rather than laboriously spooned. Regular unsalted butter better achieves this, which I later discovered is the Kirawira way. Accordingly, only the slightest squeeze of lemon is required to counter the fatty richness of the butter during prep.

So, with all ‘foodie’ things considered, not to mention the panoramic uniqueness of the whole 5-star luxury ‘tent’ experience, Kirawira’s version got the nod over New York’s. Wasn’t expecting that!

A few hours before the best Eggs Benedict

I had risen, unzipped the ‘tent’ and was standing barefoot and dishevelled on the elevated deck wiping sleep from my eyes when Victor arrived. Shook my head and looked down at the bottom step again. He was still there holding a crowded silver tray. I wasn’t expecting a ‘wake-up call’ delivered personally. At Kirawira, they don’t contact you via phone at some designated time, as most normal hotels do, including the Waldorf=Astoria I suspect. Instead, staff arrive at your tent bearing, in our case, a double espresso, a pot of tea wrapped in a blue cosy, and an assortment of freshly baked mini muffins (pre-ordered the night before, which I thought was to be our regular breakfast).

Victor’s ‘routine’ commenced with a friendly Swahili greeting. He then set the tray down – with its Villeroy & Boch crockery and sterling silver cutlery – on the outdoor table.  A weather forecast soon followed: “Humid, mostly sunny, high twenties, but it feels warmer, chance of late afternoon thunderstorm.” Could have been a CNN sound bite. Probably was. Nonetheless, it proved accurate most of our four days in camp.

He left. I sat. Off in the distance a troop of baboons were cavorting and squealing in the predawn light. Clumps of flat-topped acacia trees seemed to be brimming and singing with exotic bird life. Then a hot air balloon drifted into view. Sipped the steaming cup of locally grown brew and wondered what word atheists use instead of ‘heaven’.

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The night before the best Eggs Benedict

T’was our first night in ‘camp’ and following a bountiful table d’hôte dinner and multiple glasses of South African pinotage in the fine dining tent, guests adjourned to the sumptuous lounge ‘tent’ for cognac and cards. But I needed to grab a sweater because the evening air had cooled considerably (after a searing day out shooting*). As I was about to head off to our tent, one of the waiters diplomatically yelled:
“Wait. I call security.”
“Sorry?”
“We are not fenced in. Animals are very active at night. Some come into camp. Not safe to walk by yourself after sunset mister Grant,” he explained.

Actually, this was all explained on arrival earlier that day, but I’d forgotten some of the detail thanks largely to the pinotage.

A big burly, uniformed, armed and silent guard duly arrived, wearing a rather fetching beret. He carried a torch the size of a truncheon in one hand while a rifle was slung across the other shoulder. He then proceeded to escort me to and from tent #6, free of incident. Later, I lost the poker pot in a cliffhanger. You don’t see that too often, having an armed guard accompany you to and from your hotel ‘room’ at night, that is.

Two days before the best Eggs Benedict

Nor do you see a million or so wildebeest on any given day of the week. Our drive to the tented camp in a 4WD Land Rover crossed smack bang in the middle of one of the largest herds on their southern migration. The way ahead was clear as we approached a group grazing just off the side of the bumpy rutted road. But like sheep, one wildebeest looked up, and likely thought: “I’m feeling lucky. I’ve survived lions and crocodile attacks so far this season; the worst dangers are out of the way.  Why not play ‘chicken’ with this oncoming car?”

So it waited, and waited until we were almost adjacent, then bolted right across in front of us. The next one followed immediately, then the next, so we braked, because animals naturally have right of way, and before too long, a few hundred thousand more had mobilised to play ‘follow the leader’. An hour later (OK, it was probably closer to 15 minutes), a gap appeared, our driver slipped the vehicle into gear and we continued westward, deeper and deeper into the Serengeti.

Earlier that same day, we’d climbed a hill to try and get a better ‘picture’ of this massive animal movement. In sections they were almost in single file, but you couldn’t see the start or end of the line, for it stretched to the horizon in both directions. Yet in other parts of the verdant, flat plain, scattered groups filled the entire landscape, like small dark pebbles randomly strewn across a giant green blanket, necks bent grazing on the lush grass. Being less than 5 degrees south of the equator, the sun bears down with typical tropical intensity.

Guidebooks refer to the wildebeest migration as one of the greatest wildlife spectacles on Earth. Hard to argue with that. If you time your visit with theirs, bring heavy-duty insect repellent. Hundreds of thousands of feeding bovines tend to drop dung by the bucket load, which encourages a few billion flies to join the ‘party’. And these flies bite.

Four days before the best Eggs Benedict

We left our room at the Ngorongoro Crater Lodge to head to breakfast, and being room 68 of 72 (with the restaurant located on the far side of room #1), there was a decent walk of several hundred metres along an elevated, open-sided verandah to get there. On exiting the room, we were confronted by a family of buffaloes – mum, dad and junior, less than 10 metres away – casually munching the dewy grass. Mother and child looked momentarily at us, then continued their own breakfast. The bull however, about the size of a small car (adults can weigh up to 800 kilos), stared intently. He had a shiny moist nose and tufts of grass protruded from his mouth. We eyed each other across a simple post-n-rail balustrade, nodded ‘good morning’ and went our separate ways. You don’t see that too often, at least not first thing in the morning.

Five days before the best Eggs Benedict

Still at the Ngorongoro Crater Lodge, we were having pre-dinner Kilimanjaro beers in the cavernous lounge, watching the Maasai dance and acrobatic troupe, when an elephant emerged from the dense bush on the crater’s rim, just on dusk, and casually meandered to within about 50 metres of us.

All elephants are big, but this guy was enormous. He was ‘long in the tusk’ too, probably older than 60, according to the lodge’s resident naturalist, who explained that many elephants ‘retire’ to the Ngorongoro Crater because a lack of adequate teeth in old age means their diet is increasingly restricted to softer grasses, which are found in abundance in sections of the crater’s fertile, but swampy floor, more than 600 metres below our terrace bar. But up on the rim, oblivious to the armada of Nikons and Canons aimed at him, he lazily lumbered past soaking up the attention like a slow motion celebrity milking the red carpet for every last snap of the lens. You don’t see that too often, at least not while having pre-dinner drinks.

Then there was the intimate encounter with a leopard, daily prides of lions to admire, boy zebras fighting over a girl, a family of white rhinos that … oh, you get the picture. Seriously, it had been that kind of week – action packed and incident filled – since arriving at Arusha, in northern Tanzania, ground zero for the country’s famous safaris. And who would’ve thought that I now have a new benchmark for Eggs Benedict, found high on a hill in a tented camp of unbridled luxury overlooking the vast Serengeti.

* Nikon D90, 18-200mm DX Nikon lens, circular polarising filter; Nikon D3100, 10-24mm wide angle Tamron zoom lens; Fuji X10.