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Call of the Wild

STELLA GURNEY meets Claire Zambuni to hear tales from the riverbank, mountain and firepit, with food and its provenance high on the agenda

 Stella Gurney   Winter 2021

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“Shall we meet at Soho House?” Claire Zambuni asks crisply.

“Sure!” I reply, dubiously eyeing my battered Birkis, one big toe poking through a wet sock while trying to hunch myself aerodynamically around my phone in the wind.

It’s autumn and we’re packing down soggy tents at the end of another brilliant, bonkers camping season at Woodfire in Sussex. Between my lockdown slippers and camping sandals I’m not sure I can locate an actual pair of ‘town’ shoes but hello, London streets, hello busy, creative people popping into artisan sandwich shops and heading to your next ideation huddle.

Claire Zambuni runs the eponymous communications agency Zambuni, working with some of the best outdoor brands, including Orvis, Yeti, and Buff, and on environmental issues such as Salmon School (at COP26), the Missing Salmon Alliance and Fish Legal.

An expert angler and markswoman, she’s a regular ‘Top Shot’ in The Field magazine and the first, possibly only person, to have been sponsored by both Holland & Holland and Purdey – top brass heritage gunsmiths and clothing brands.

Zambuni is friendly, sharp, funny and not at all what I was expecting, which I confess was a certain private school steel if not nobility silver. “Zambo from Camden” spent her early 20s organising music festivals, travelling and living among communities in war-torn countries.

Back home and finding herself a single mum, she took all the jobs she could to support her toddler son, Conor, at one point working simultaneously as a receptionist at Winkworth estate agents, a bar maid and a tailor’s assistant.

So, I ask, hunting, shooting, fishing, how on earth did all that come about?  Well, while working for the London tailor, Zambuni represented the business at events frequented by heads of industry.

“The then vice-chairman of Holland & Holland said to me one day ‘Claire, you should shoot!’. He sent her on some lessons and invited her to a ‘Green Feathers Ladies’ Day’ hosted by the brand.

“I’ll never forget it. I thought ‘guns’ and turned up looking like Lara Croft with steel toe-capped boots, combats and a vest top. Everyone else had cashmere and tweed.”

But Zambuni was a natural and before long found herself invited to sit on the London Committee of the Game Conservancy (now the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust) and an undisputed initiate of the high-end London country set.

 

 

“It was extraordinary. Suddenly I was being invited on shoots with just seven or eight of us – the head of this and the head of that – access to the most incredible settings, castles and beautiful countryside on amazing estates. And I’d be the only woman, invited purely on my shooting merit.”

I can’t imagine how satisfying that must be, I say. No awkwardness? She hesitates: “Sometimes, the wives – who tend to lunch, not shoot – would be, ‘who’s she?’ and the men would feel threatened.”

But most initial suspicion quickly broke down as soon as it was clear she knew what she was doing. In fact, she describes shooting and fishing as a ‘passport’, bridging social, gender and even language barriers, particularly in her favourite place to be: Chalabre in the French Pyrenees, where she’s been going for the last 20 years, fishing the mountain rivers and a member of the local wild boar hunt.

But what does all this have to do with cooking over fire I hear you cry? Provenance, my friend, provenance. Imagine, as you’re flicking through those delicious game recipes in autumnal Sunday supplements, being able to head out with a cocked rifle slung over your shoulder, catch your dinner, and cook it there and then, rather than forking out for a frozen rabbit you suspect is from the Far East.

Zambuni, a vegetarian until her 20s when the Indian family she was staying with in the Himalayas killed and cooked a chicken in her honour, now only eats meat and fish she has caught and can prepare herself – often over an improvised firepit on the riverbank.

But she’s very conscious that this is an extraordinary privilege and our conversation moves to how few people really have access to the countryside, let alone the provenance of their food.

“There’s still a percentage of children who think sheep lay eggs. People say it’s terrible not to know where your food comes from, but why would they? I mean, why would you know where a sausage comes from when it’s in a plastic wrapper on a shelf? Everything’s so sanitised and distanced from its source now.”

Zambuni tells a fascinating story about how on her way back from stalking with

two Chinese water deer, skinned and gralloched (disembowled – it’s OK, I had to look it up too) by her in the back, she was let down by her usual game dealer and had to google game butchers in north London.

Eventually, she found a Greek butcher with a game licence in Haringey. “They

were delighted, but when I turned up there with these deer dripping with blood, a woman covered her child’s eyes in horror at seeing a dead animal! In a butcher’s! And another guy asked me accusingly whether they were an endangered species.”

If anything, Zambuni says, field sports reveals the sharp end of environmental issues and biodiversity loss, meaning participants often become keen conservationists.

Zambuni Communications was the lead agency working with an extraordinary global collective, Salmon School, working at COP26 in Glasgow to highlight the plight of the disappearing wild salmon, seen as a harbinger of our own decline in the face of the climate crisis, with Zambuni organising a stunning installation of 360 hand-blown glass fish created by artist Joseph Rossano.

But, most of all, field sports allow her to be outside, and here we wax lyrical about the sheer joys of living outdoors – the sense of expansiveness, the pressures of life receding, being in the moment on what she describes as a ‘pure level’ – and the converse mental toll of living in small spaces.

“I can’t imagine what it would have been like as a single mum in a high-rise flat in lockdown.”

Endlessly busy and inquisitive, Zambuni has plenty of plans for the future. “I want to bring the outdoors into urban spaces with bespoke brand events and festivals, as well as urban dwellers to the country with fishing, shooting and live-fire cooking events to join the communities we have already,” referring to her Orvis Saltwater Fly Fishing Festival and the Orvis literature festival, Fish in the Reads. Zambuni is also organising her own river festival at her home in Chalabre next year.

We part amid promises to take me fishing and go camping soon. Claire Zambuni, I’m hooked.

Stella Gurney runs Woodfire Camping with her husband Mark Griffiths. www.woodfire.co.uk

 


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