I recently had the most extraordinary and satisfying restaurant meal in a sunny backyard on South Africa’s West Coast. Rays of light scattered through the trees onto the white table cloth as the chef himself served each dish of the seven course tasting menu. It was a Friday in March, as the menu simply declared.
“The menu has been designed as a celebration of succulents,” chef Kobus van der Merwe explained as we asked about the tangy green juice on the oysters we had just devoured.
The liquid was from pressed wild succulent that Kobus van der Merwe had foraged in the morning to serve to his guests for lunch. Or you could say it was an oyster presented ‘in its element,’ as the dish was aptly named. Balanced by a litchi granite, the pressed salicornia capensis added a spicy note to the oyster that was nothing short of spectacular. My lunch company and I recognized in an instant that we had never tasted oysters like this before. It was an almost startling moment of awakening, a sense of having entered a new universe.
The creations of Kobus van der Merwe are truly different from what you normally get served in restaurants. At Oep ve Koep in Paternoster, a small fishing village about two hours drive from Cape Town, he serves meals based entirely on local ingredients. They are inspired by the seasons and informed by his own explorations and the few historical records he has been able to find of local wild foods.
“You don’t find locals eating these plants today, but you sometimes see children play cooking with them. That might be a remnant of the past,” the chef told us.
In his cookbook Strandveldfood: A West Coast Odyssey, he writes: “The idea of presenting hyper-local tastes appeals to me, so I started experimenting with pairing only ingredients found in a specific locale. It’s the only way to truly taste a region: by nibbling on the wild leaves, roots, flowers, seeds and shoots inherently produced by the very earth you tread on. I wanted to know what tastes and fragrances represent the Saldhana Strandveld region. The more I explored the wild food of the area, the more I started discovering truly new tastes.”
Following the oysters, we bite into a beautifully assembled canapé of ice plant, white fish pickle and red grapefruit, for another novel taste sensation. It’s salty, fresh, sour. Each bite beckons for more, while at the same time you wish the single serving will not be gone so soon. The ashbread, served straight from the fire with a cast iron pan full of melted bokkom butter that follows provides both some solace and volume. Bokkom is salted and air-dried fish, often mullet, that is umami-rich in taste and for sale along the roadside in the region.
After the sooty bread, a soft salad of seaweed and garden leaves falls lightly on the tongue. Then balls of smoked angelfish are served nestled in a succulent plant, a feast for the eye as much as for the mouth. It’s followed by a Cape Malay-inspired dish of piekelvis, pickled fish, wild garlic masala and bokkom sambal. The final dessert is amasi ice cream, made with traditional soured milk, served with shards of dune celery meringue. The meal is both inspiring and unpretentious. It’s genuine nourishment for the palate, the mind and the soul.
It leaves you wondering – what does the rest of the world really taste like?