When it comes to foraging, Kobus van der Merwe has a long held reputation for being the real deal. Over the past seven years, he has dedicated each plate in his restaurant to celebrating the biodiversity of the west coast region with plants handpicked by himself, often on the day of the service.
Now normally this is the part where we would wax lyrical about a chef’s past – like how he ran away from chef school to go to London; was a classical music columnist for Die Burger for a while and then Eat Out’s web editor. We’d also share his food philosophy – to create authentic West coast “Strandveld food” by sourcing seaweeds succulents and beach herbs from the Saldanha peninsula – and how that informs his practice of creating a seasonal tasting menu where each course highlights a specific wild herb or what else they can find locally. Then we’d ask why he took this particular direction in the menu – because he hates eating heavy rich food in Paternoster’s 40°C summer heat. And, of course, why you should find his work inspirational.
But, in all honesty, the incredible stories behind each of these dishes speak for themselves. So we will simply present to you Wolfgat’s summer menu and the true forager’s tale:
STRANDVELD SNACKSSwartmossel, elandsvy | Soutslaai, waatlemoen
(Carpobrotus quadrifidus, Mesembryanthemum guerichianum)
“The first half of the menu you eat with your hands, which I love, but some people find it very unsettling. It’s funny how often people feel uncomfortable when they are not presented with any cutlery. I find it’s the way you feel very directly connected to what you are putting in your mouth.
The very first bite is a succulent leaf stuffed with fish and watermelon. Then that’s followed by a crazy idea of savory milk tart made with mussels.
I like the idea of playing with milk tart. I looked at old recipes by C Louis Leipoldt, an Afrikaans poet and botanist who wrote a very famous cook book published in 1933. He also used a lot of veldkos and foraged ingredients and wrote a lot about South African heritage food. In his milk tart recipe there is custard with cinnamon, naartjie peel, nutmeg or rose water and even peach pip to give a little almond flavour. It’s this incredible layered and floral and fragrant dish using an amazing array of Cape Malay spices. So I just put all those spices in a milk tart and channeled it in a savory direction.
So it looks like a little tartlet with a pastry case but it’s filled with mussel stock and some coconut milk, nutmeg and cinnamon. And then we top it with some Eland's fig, which is a succulent fruit to give it some local flavour.
Then we have a signature bread course with butter made with our own bokkoms (salty sun and wind dried West Coast fish) and whatever fresh and wild herbs we have; either in the garden or in the veld.”
TJOKKAWild garlic masala, naartjie, slangbessies
(Tulbaghia violaceae, Lycium ferocissimum)
“Then we do a nice dish with tjokka (calamari) that we fry crispy and flavour with wild garlic masala and some slang bessies, which is an endemic wild berry. This is served on a raw cabbage leaf that you treat like a roti and then you roll it up and eat by hand with some chutney and yoghurt.
The Tjokka is so weird. I started looking for local calamari when I first got here and everyone was saying it doesn’t exist. All restaurants use Patagonian calamari or Chinese cuttlefish and then one day I was in a fishmonger in Saldanha and I opened the bait freezer and there was boxes of beautiful intact local pink fish or tjokka. I was like “why is this in the bait fridge?” and he told me that it’s only used as bait and I just thought that was quite ridiculous. Now we have it on the menu. It’s a little bit more work because you get the whole animal and you have to clean it but it’s not a box of, frozen on the boat, imported and heavily soapy product.
(Trachyandra cilliata, Spalmanthus canaliculatus, Tetragonia decumbens)
“Heerenboontjies are basically these heritage beans that have been grown in sandveld in the adjacent interior of the West Coast and there are only a handful of people that still grow them. Through the help of a friend I got hold of a number of a farmer and was so overjoyed when she said that they still grew them but if I wanted them then I had to buy the whole lot. So I now own 500kg of heerenboontjies. They arrived in a bakkie and I couldn’t believe my eyes. A half a ton of beans! I have subsequently sold a lot to some other chefs and I became a bean distributer on the side. So a signature course with beans sounded like a good idea.
So now we do a course with a very zinging zesty heerenboontjies pâté in the bottom of a bowl topped with bits of things we pickle in winter and other fresh succulents we have lying around. These are crudités (carrot sticks and the like) but with veldkool and dune spinach and kruipvygie and herrenboontjies. It becomes this textural dish and I’m quite happy with it.”
WEST COAST OYSTERQuince, Kelp | Pomelo, dune celery
(Laminaria pallida, Dasispermum suffriticosum)
“The oysters are served two ways. The one is cooked and served with preserved quince and kelp and the other is a raw oyster with grapefruit and dune celery, which is like a very nice bitter floral pairing. Then in the bottom of the bowl we create a base where these two oysters float by pressing juice from ice plant leaves; a plant that tastes a little oceanic and it enhances the oyster’s brininess and gives it a little acidity and grassy undertones.
SALDANHA BAY MUSSELSKilpkombers, papaja
“Because we already use the mussel stock in the little welcome tartlet, we serve the mussels out of the shell with paw paw and seaweed. Everyone thinks I’m crazy but I really like mussels with the custardy texture of just cooked fruit. Paw paw is so great because it has a little bit of bitterness and acidity and then we add really silky seaweed on top with quite a nice salty vegetal and sea-like taste.
I don’t like to over explain things at the table but one of the things I wish people knew is how special that little silky topping on the mussels is and it was a happy accident.
I have a friend who is a forager/nursery owner/botanist in Cape Town: Roushanna Gray. She is seaweed crazy and very knowledgeable and we always chat about new discoveries. At lunch at her house one day she made me these amazing seaweed crisps - like how people make kale chips - and we started using them a lot in the restaurant. Either as a vessel for serving things on top or using it to add crunch to something else or as a flavouring because it’s super flavourful. Then one day we crushed it into the mussels to season them and then they reconstituted and swelled to double their size again and became really silky smooth and not chewy - because if you just boil seaweed straight from dry or freshly picked it’s tough as hell. So we accidently came up with this twice-cooked seaweed."
“We have sourced local lamb from Elandsbaai that graze on the Verlorenvlei shores. I was quite scared to add meat on the menu, as most people have come to know us as a strictly seafood restaurant. But in my research about the Wolfgat cave I found that the early civilizations on the western tip’s diet was made up of staples of small game, sheep and shellfish. So then I was happy to include lamb on the menu.
I like the idea of costal lamb and imagining how they must forage to eat and how that must flavour the meat. So I serve this meat with some fishy accompaniments and coastal plants, dried snoek roe and some salty samphire.
Samphires are very crazy plants because in the height of summer when there is no water and everything is fried and shrivelled – even other succulents are on their last legs – the samphire pops up in bright green juicy tufts. It’s insane. They are considered the plant of the future because they need no fresh water to survive – they are halophytic so they can survive on salt water – it can be used for biofuel, animal fodder and it’s tasty for humans and nutritious. Fortunately for me, the farm where I live has a very nice patch of samphire growing on an old saltpan.
WILD SAGEAmasi, sage, ash, nectarine
I went to the Slow Food Festival in Torino tree years ago where they invite people from all over the world to showcase their indigenous cuisine. It is incredible. They literally plucked remote tribes from amazing South American locations and they bring stuff that we have never seen, tasted or heard of. The idea is to try make sure that their indigenous practices would not die out. I was there with Zayaan Kahn, the Slow Food Youth Network South Africa coordinator and she took me to the Kenyan stalls and we tasted this amazing yogurt made from sheep’s milk flavoured with ash. Originally the ash was added as an antiseptic and a bit of a preservative that basically makes that yogurt last forever. They put the sheep’s milk in a calabash that they burnt and add a spoonful of this very fine ash and it becomes this vivid grey drinking yogurt, it’s beautiful.
And then a friend of mine, botanist Elzanne Singels, she sent me photo of the excavation from the Wolfgat cave of an old digging stick with a weight that was a round rock with a hole in the middle. It was really inspiring. It looked like a plating to me; this digging stick surrounded by Stone Age tools that to my untrained eye looked like gravel. It was such a beautiful combination of textures and shapes in a pile.
So all of these things just came together - tasting that yogurt 3 years ago, seeing this picture of the digging stone and seeing the textures of the gravel in the cave - and it became an amasi ash ice cream with meringue shards flavoured with wild sage and nectarines smoked over wild sage branches.
I was a little bit scared to put this on the menu because I didn’t want to seem like I appropriated a traditional Kenyan product and I was tormented. But it was quite an organic process how it came out and Kahn advised me that if I do use it on the menu I should tell its story. How it is not just inspired by the Kenyan ash but also by the idea of techniques that would have been used by the cave dwellers of the region, using ash to preserve dairy, burning things on wild branches and fermenting milk. That kind of communication is necessary to understand appropriation and now this journey is explained at the table.