The pick-your-meat counter at the Butcher Shop and Grill in Johannesburg, South Africa

I’m always struck, when I travel to far-off places like Europe and Asia, with how good the food tastes and looks, compared to what I’m used to in the U.S. The egg yolks are orange, the butter is yellow, the meat dishes flavorful. In Europe, especially, raw milk is easily available and high quality. 

When I made plans last year for a March trip to southern Africa, I didn’t think much about the food. I mean, Africa connotes drought and famine and political upheaval, where farming can’t be very stable, or high quality. My mind was more on the wild animals I expected to observe, along with the relics of apartheid I was curious to view. 

Was I mistaken about the food. Now granted, I was eating at upscale restaurants and hotels, but still, most everything I ate was denser, prettier, and tastier than the same food at upscale places in the U.S. 

It started at the first place we ate out at—the Butcher Shop and Grill in Johannesburg, a mammoth 600-seat restaurant on the second floor of a busy mall in the middle of town, Prior to actually ordering, each of us–my wife and I and two friends– was guided by a butcher at the meat counter pictured here about our choices. The Butcher Shop has beef from Argentina and Europe, and even the U.S.—either grass fed or grain fed. 

Given that I was in South Africa, I wanted local grass-fed beef. The prime rib I selected was the best prime rib I’ve ever had, a large dense and tasty piece of tender beef that was a joy to devour. Everyone else felt the same about their cuts of beef. Indeed, if you look at TripAdvisor, most everyone who has reviewed the place loves the meat.

The good food times continued from there. At a restaurant operated by a French-style winery outside Cape Town, the slices of grass-fed Black Angus beef at a lunch were similarly succulent. A store at the winery offered many cuts of grass-fed beef for sale. 

Even in neighboring Zimbabwe, a country that has experienced years of terrible turmoil, including debilitating inflation under a brutal dictator, a locally produced steak served at a group dinner held at a local hotel was on a par with the prime rib in Johannesburg. When I expressed surprise to a local doctor who was present at the dinner, he said, “We may have lots of problems. But our farms are now producing much good food.” 

I guess I shouldn’t have been entirely surprised with the emphasis on good food. Most African countries have European roots from colonial days that stretched into the 1950s or so. The trends aren’t necessarily encouraging, though; since returning home last weekend, I read that American-style feed lots are expanding in South Africa. And raw milk seems to be severely limited in availability. 

For now, I’m not sure what makes the African beef so superior to grass-fed beef I regularly have at home. Perhaps it’s the dry aging? Or the quality of the soil and resulting grass that cattle feed on? Whatever it is, I sure hope they are able to keep it. 

Hippos grazing on the Chobe River in Botswana

By the way, the wild animals we saw in Namibia, Botswana, and South Africa were, if anything, more magnificent than expected. Seeing hippos, elephants, lions, giraffes, zebras, baboons, and wild cape buffalo in their natural habitats was truly awe-inspiring. A trip to savor.