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Monkey Weddings & Summer Sapphires

South Africa to Nova Scotia: Stories, Recipes & Memories

Musher Chili

I grew up watching cowboy movies in the late 70s in South Africa and in particular, the spaghetti westerns of Terence Hill and Bud Spencer. Bowls of chili and baked beans around a campfire seemed to be a central theme in those cheesy movies, but it started a tradition of Sunday suppers at my cousin Nico's house. Sunday night was movie night at my uncle Jurie and auntie Mitzi, who had a mini movie theatre setup at their home, complete with a projector, pull down screen and red velvet seats. Auntie Mitzi would make a pot of steaming curried mince (which was as close to chili as we got) that we would sandwich between vetkoek (deep fried dough buns). For dessert there would always be sago pudding with a blob of apricot jam and then drizzled with condence milk. Later the movie repertoire expanded to Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris, but spicy ground beef and vetkoek remained.

I would have to wait about twenty five years to actually eat an authentic chili and adopt a recipe that would become a tradition and make a regular appearance at my own family table. Scrawled within my many notebooks and journals, I have had a bucket list of things that I write down at the beginning of each year of the stuff I'd like to do. I've been doing this since the age of eighteen, and I've more or less done it each year since then. The list has ranged from "See Paul Weller live in concert" and "Climb Mount Kilaminjaro" to "Start a beehive", "Publish a book and "Go dog sledding."

It was that, "Go dog sledding," that kept showing up on my list for almost two decades. In my late twenties I had a somewhat mild, armchair obsession with anything to do with mushers, dog sledding, and arctic adventures particularly after reading Winterdance by Gary Paulsen. The idea of actually ever accomplishing a dog sledding adventure of my own, was utterly inconceivable, given that I was living in the concrete jungle of Johannesburg at the time, with a 35 degree heat index.

I do believe however, and I am living proof, that life has a way of delivering the things you ask for when you put them out into the universe, especially in written form. I did get to go dog the Laurentian Mountains in Quebec - Nova Scotia having neither enough snow or teams of dogs to make it possible. On a particularly beautiful, insanely cold winters day, together with my husband and my son, we set out on the adventure of a lifetime, with two professional mushers and three teams of dogs, eighteen huskies in total.

In a shrinking world, where real adventure rarely makes an appearance in our urban existence, dog sledding has to rank up there as one of them. The dogs, with names like Oukiouk and Manuki were part of our team of huskies and malamutes and were handed to us one by one, to be harnessed up to the gangline. We were told to memorise their names, so that we knew our team and were able to call out to them while sledding. They had a power and wildness that resembled wolves more than dogs. Just holding onto the leash and leading them to the ganglines took every bit of strength in my body to control them.

The temperature that day was -25 with the wind chill, the mushers telling us that the colder the temperatures the more the dogs like it, the more excited they become, the faster they run. We travelled in pairs, our son in the sled with one of the pro-mushers, tucked in under thick fur blankets, only his big terrified eyes sticking out from beneath his toque. The sounds of eighteen insanely excited, howling huskies, freaking us out just a little bit. Thoughts of what a crazy parenting move this might have been on our part, allowing our son to be pulled through thick forest, on what looked like nothing more than a wooden toboggan, by wild howling beasts did come up once or twice that day.

The day as it turned out was good mix of equal parts terror, exhilaration and exhaustion. The cold unlike anything I had ever felt – the kind of cold that cuts through pretty much anything you could possibly wear and is an almost heavy, solid mass that you can push through. The frozen landscape through the Laurentian’s... breathtaking. Fresh snow had fallen and covered everything a mesmerizing white. Long trails of snow-covered paths had been cut through thick spruce forests that passed by frozen lakes the color of ice blue. The dogs exuded happiness and freedom that was contagious and had us squealing with excitement and adrenalin as they whizzed us down the trails at 30km per hour. Their power, intelligence and quirkyness reaffirming my belief that a life lived without dogs, is simply less of a life.

Dinner that night was in a small wooden shack in the forest. A large open fire warmed the small room that smelled of smoke and chili. Around a long communal wooden table, we were served bowls of steaming chili, freshly baked biscuits and strong coffee. We sat chatting with our mushers Elaine and Dominque, about life as a musher, the dogs, the cold and adapting to it, and getting a small glimpse into a life lived largely outdoors in the mountains. The day lived up to a twenty year long bucket list item. This was my Canadiana moment. My own true north. A fraction of what it must feel like to live a truly wild life. The power. The dogs. The beauty. The chili.

I had never made chili until that day, now I make it at the first hint of snow, always making more and freezing it for quick lunches after a day spent out in the snow. I have been experimenting and tweaking it for years, finally pinning down two ingredients that are game changes - cocoa powder and Ancho chili. You can buy ancho chili powder or make a paste from rehydrating dried ancho chili. Both ingredients add a depth and richness that is hard to achieve without them. As with all dishes like this, it is definitely better the next day, so it's worth making and then allowing it to sit for awhile.

monkey weddings & summer sapphires musher chili by author photographer colleen thompson

Yield: 4

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 medium onions finely chopped

2 cloves garlic minced

2 medium carrots finely chopped

2 sticks celery finely chopped

2 red peppers chopped

2 fresh red chilies chopped

2 teaspoons dried chili flakes

1 tablespoon ancho chili powder

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1 tablespoon cocoa powder

1 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 pound quality free range ground beef

1 can of red kidney beans drained

1 can of chopped tomatoes

chopped coriander for garnish

4 lime wedges

  1. In a large pan over a medium high heat, warm the olive oil and add the onion, garlic, carrots, celery, peppers, chilies, chili powder, cumin, cocoa powder, salt and pepper and sauté until softened, stirring regularly.

  2. Add the ground beef and cook for about 7 minutes until the meat is nicely browned.

  3. Drain the kidney beans and add to the meat together with the tomatoes and water. Stir to combine.

  4. Bring to a boil and then reduce the heat to low and simmer for an hour.

  5. Serve with a dollop of sour cream or yoghurt, sprinkle the coriander on top and squeeze with lime juice

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