Seven years ago, bored and seeking a challenge, Kobus van der Merwe left Cape Town to help his retired parents run their country store of collectibles in Paternoster, Die Winkel, selling homemade jams, bread, cookies, old-fashioned sweets and special treats. He also helped with their eatery, Oep ve Koep, which offered a small food menu of fish and chips and calamari, "but there are six other places doing it and it's not from here,” Kobus says. "It's frozen and definitely not West Coast food. So I gradually figured out that I wanted to give people truly local food.” Oep ve Koep's blackboard proclaimed his cooking manifesto: “Hyper-local, considered, heritage, slow, seasonal Strandveld food served here."
This award-winning chef has walked the walk, through the Strandveld, in his red veldskoens, diligently researching local veld food, bringing it into his kitchen and developing a fresh approach to food with ingredients that are either newly discovered or have been ignored for generations. Although Kobus still oversees the menu, he recently cut the proverbial apron strings at Oep ve Koep to open Wolfgat in a beautiful heritage cottage at the beach, overlooking his hunting ground.
His new menu still showcases seasonal veld food and seafood of the West Coast, which he forages early each day from the edge of the sea and no meal is ever the same for Wolfgat patrons. Kobus's family sparked an interest in the use of forgotten foods and the importance of honouring the environment.
"My grandmother made things with seaweed and my father farmed in the Kalahari and we’d spend winter weekends picking wild cucumbers," he recalls. "My grandfather was a cattle farmer. His motto was 'you don’t farm with animals, you farm with grass’." But probably the most important catalyst for the development of his veld knowledge was meeting and collaborating with young botanist Rupert Koopman.
His beautiful cookbook, Strandveld Food, took a whole year to produce "because we wanted to document the seasons and the dramatic changes that happen in the Strandveld landscape.”
Earliest memories of food? Collecting seaweed off the beach at Jongensfontein with my maternal grandmother, Ouma Freda. She sun-dried the seaweed, possibly Gracilaria, and then cooked a jelly from it, which she flavoured with sweet wine and black pepper.
Why did you decide to become a chef? It found me in a roundabout way. Initially I wanted to pursue a career in classical music or fine arts — my two favourite subjects at school. At the time these didn't seem like the most realistic career choices, so I chose culinary school as a fallback. I grew up in a family with a big love for food and entertaining, so it seemed like a good choice. However, I didn't complete my course, determined not to end up cooking in an industrial hotel kitchen. I dropped out and went travelling. When I returned to Cape Town, I did a media studies course at Cape Peninsula University of Technology. I eventually became Eat Out's web editor, which made me realise that I missed being in the kitchen. I quit my city job, headed to Paternoster to join the family business and very gradually got back into the cooking groove.
How would you best describe your style of cooking? This is a little problematic to describe, because everything has become such a buzzword lately. I cook intuitively with ingredients from my immediate surrounds. And now we're heading into buzzword territory: the focus is on dishes that are seasonal, inspired by the weather, with a naturalist approach and minimum intervention, so that the ingredients — especially wild, picked ones — come into their own. Our own attempt at a label would be "Strandveld food".
What have you made for us? It's as simple as serving just-shucked oysters with young soutslaai (Mesembryanthemum guerichianum) leaves and freshly picked Cape gooseberries from Oep ve Koep's garden.
What inspires you the most? My immediate surrounds — the unique Saldanha Strandveld Fynbos vegetation, the Atlantic Ocean and the weather.
This is an extract from ‘Cooked in South Africa', an initiative of Wish Upon A Star, a non-profit fund-raising charity (Reg. No 2013/038478/08). Cooked in South Africa is about memories and journeys around food and will be on sale in leading bookstores from mid-November with all profits from the sales going to children living with disability. Photographs courtesy of Naashon Zalk and Cooked in South Africa.