In this episode of Fearless Chef, Kiran Jethwa faces the inhospitable climate of Northern Ethiopia to visit the giant salt lake Afedra and somehow, make ice cream.
The sun is just starting to rise above the shimmering surface of the lakes. It’s incredibly beautiful but already the big burning ball of beauty is sucking the life out of me. We pass the remains of a dead camel on the side of the track. Like these hardy beasts, my lifeline, 12 litres of fresh water, is carried in a pouch on my back. It’s so dry here, with the wind and the heat, that you don’t need to wipe sweat from your brow because it’s gone before beads have the time to form. My lips are dry, my throat is dry and I’m struggling to talk. You don’t realise the speed at which water evaporates from the body, in heats like these twenty minutes without rehydrating can be all it takes before you collapse.
We are in Northern Ethiopia, in the Danakil Depression—one of the hottest places on earth—and I am on a mission to make ice cream. Situated some 800kms north of the capital Addis Ababa, covering an area of over 5,000 square km, the Danakil Depression has an average annual temperature of 50 degrees centigrade. Its inhospitable climate makes for an otherworldly landscape of sand dunes, volcanic rock and fluorescent sulphur pools, where very little survives or grows. It is also home to the nomadic Afar people who for centuries have mined, extracted and shaped salt slabs in order to load them on camel trains for the two day long trip back to the market.
My journey starts at the giant salt lake Afdera, one of the lowest lakes on the planet. Next to the dormant Afdera volcano, more than 750 salt producers extract 1.2 million tonnes of this precious commodity every year. Spanning over 3 square kms are hundreds of salt fields. One harvest of a field of pure salt has an astonishing net worth of up to $80,000. To say it’s back breaking work is an understatement: I try my hand at it and have only been going for a couple of minutes before the heat begins to feel oppressive.
On my second morning we decide to head to Hamed Ela – a fairly featureless village that is home to the salt cutters and carvers. Here I also meet the camels who are the lifeblood of the Afar people. I am quickly put to work milking one of these prized beasts and find that pulling at their teats to get the milk flowing is a bizarre but oddly soothing experience. The milk, it turns out, is delicious. It tastes ever so slightly salty, is not quite as sweet and heavy as cow’s milk but it’s very rich and I’m told has got at least ten times the vitamin C.
From Hamed Ela we embark on our journey to the salt fields before the sun rises; the temperature is a humid 28 degrees Celsius. I meet Mr. Ali and join the men on the camel train who inform me I’m in charge of leading three camels. After 3 hours of walking through the searing heat, we eventually make it to our designated salt mine where we meet Noor, a salt carver. The tool Noor uses is incredibly sharp and allows him to carve every block exactly the same size. The salt is harder than it looks, by the time I finish chiseling one I am absolutely knackered. I look to Noor who chuckles, “it’s terrible”, before informing me does about 120 bars a day.
The next step is to carefully pack the salt in preparation for its long journey; a broken salt chunk can halve its value. I make an absolute hash of it and by the time I’ve managed to stack four, Ali has bound twenty. It’s now 3pm and we’ve been at this since half past 5 in the morning. Next we have to walk the 10km back to Hamed Ela, no easy feat after a day spent working in temperatures of around 48 degrees.
I like to keep myself in relatively good shape but clearly I haven’t done enough desert training. My throat is dry and I’m struggling to talk. Halfway to Hamed Ela and I’m absolutely shattered. Luckily for me the pace has been slowed down in order, I am told, to give the camels a chance to recuperate. The sun is relentless, you just can’t get away from it and there’s no shade. After 13 long hours, we finally make it back to Hamed Ela. I can’t imagine doing this one extra day much less for my entire life. I’ve drunk twelve litres of water today and only peed once.
After I recover I face a new challenge: making ice cream in the desert. My plan is to extract dry ice from a CO2 fire extinguisher I brought with me. I make a sleeve and secure it onto the end of the extinguisher and blast away leaving dry ice in the sleeve. I mix the dry ice into my ice cream mixture and it freezes instantly. Success! I have ice cream! Danakil camel’s milk and coffee ice cream with toasted barley covered with brandy snap, to be precise!
Ali and I sit down to try it. After experiencing 3 days of 50 degree heat it feels like an angel has come down and poured a drop of heaven down my throat. To Ali, who has never tried ice cream before, it is a revelation.
Ultimately I manage to succeed in making ice cream in the Danakil Depression with a fire extinguisher. So although I didn’t have much success with the salt, I can leave feeling more than a little accomplished and proud to have made friends amongst the Afar people.