Simply eat everything

Although it has not been immune from development, the West Coast fishing village of ­Paternoster, 120km north of Cape Town, has maintained much of its charm.

As you enter the town, you will find on your left the Oep ve Koep general-dealer store, a relic from a bygone era that has survived. Behind the store is a tiny bistro, ­seating 30 people at a push, although the chef-­proprietor silently hopes he will never have to entertain such ­numbers.

Chef Kobus van der Merwe runs a one-man show. His kitchen is neatly organised and has a small office at the back. The batterie de cuisine is certainly modest, but what this chef has is a superlative command of presentation and an acute sense of taste and balance.

Most importantly, Van der Merwe has a yen for adventure to match his remarkable palate.

Indigenous ingredients
Here all the elements for a good story come together; he is what food critics dream of finding.

He is world-famous in Paternoster. His operation (started last season) is artisanal, intimate, personal and off the beaten track, yet the finished product is consummately professional. A plate at Oep ve Koep looks as though it came out of the kitchen at Jardine’s. Best of all, Van der Merwe is forging a new cuisine, introducing us to tastes most of us have not experienced previously — and he is doing it with ingredients indigenous to the Cape.

In the gravel courtyard at the back, fringed with multicoloured bougainvilleas and surrounding a manatoka tree, are a few stone chairs and tables covered by funky tablecloths, sporting such themes as Facebook or football. Bordering the dining area are a vegetable patch and organic herb garden cultivated in old wooden fishing boats to which the chef makes intermittent trips during the course of the meal.

In pots beside the kitchen door he keeps edible fynbos. You will find wild sage (Salvia africana), dune ­salvia (Salvia africana lutea), Cape sour fig (Carpobrotus edulus) and its relative, the eland vygie (Carpobrotus quadrifidus), which has ­bigger fruit and yellow flowers. There is dried red seaweed, sea lettuce — a bright-green edible algae that looks remarkably like lettuce — and some fynbos herbs used to smoke food. The curiosity to see what he will ­produce with all this certainly excites the appetite.

While we consult the menu, three of us unwind with doorstops of white plaasbrood and a very fine chenin blanc from the tiny Secateurs Estate in Paardeberg, which has a claim on its label that it is “handmade”.

The amuse-bouche is served on a block of painted white wood and consists of crumbly porcini mushroom “soil”, sour figs, freshly picked rocket and moskonfyt (a Cape grape-must jam, once ubiquitous and now increasingly hard to find).

The menu, chalked on a blackboard, varies daily. Choice is easy; we decide to have everything.

For starters, a West Coast salad (R40) with slices of quince balanced with segments of grapefruit, feta to add body, and the descriptively named seekoraal (as it looks a bit like ­fingers of thin coral). Also called sea asparagus or samphire, it grows in specific patches along the coast as well as further inland in brackish vlei waters.

The other starter, strips of calamari (R40) in a bowl of hot and sour broth garnished with coriander, was inspired by local kreef curry, but Van der Merwe is allergic to crayfish.

Main courses
We also opt for a main course to share as a starter — bokkoms (salted and wind-dried fish fillets) from maasbanker (horse mackerel) slightly reconstituted in a marinade of olive oil and lemon juice, then pan-fried and served on thin slices of toast with green-apple slices, ­citrus beurre blanc, basil, poached egg, seaweed garnish and a few gooseberries. It is a main course, but unless you have acquired a taste for bokkoms, which I recall years ago hanging in rustic pubs above bar counters like tobacco leaves, the fish will be too pungent. Using thin slices instead of the whole fillet would make this a perfect dish, to my taste.

The main courses: Paternoster palak paneer (R55) made from homemade buttermilk ricotta, topped with buttermilk ice cream and accompanied by dune spinach (Tetragonia decumbens), which is wilted slightly. Raw it is a bit woolly but blanched these bright-green leaves make a succulent warm salad. The young tips of the plant are cooked in a masala sauce.

Sandveld potato dumplings in a Polish style (R60) are shaped almost like oversized ravioli, sprinkled with whole blanched almonds and mangetout, and ladled with a sauce of mushroom and herbaceous, slightly nutty purslane.

Unusual but successful combinations
A square of beef and lentil bobotie (R75) garnished with baby nasturtium leaves is accompanied by ­beetroot, cabbage and apple, a condiment of fruit chutney made from peach and prune, and a delicate ­sambal of coconut and banana.

Umqa (R48), made from Invicta Maize Rice, is traditionally cooked with pumpkin and butternut. Van der Merwe has transformed this by cooking it as a creamy risotto, adding wine first and then, ladle by ladle, chicken stock. The finished dish also has slow-roasted tomato with a little balsamic vinegar, combining familiarly with the parmesan.

For dessert there is a choice of sorbets, including rose geranium (Pelargonium graveolens) and such unusual but successful combinations as grape and olive oil with basil, and pineapple and lemon grass. He also makes an avocado sorbet, but it is not served as a dessert. Finally there is honeybush-tea panna cotta and moerkoffie.
This is one local gastronomic ­experience not to be missed.

Oep ve Koep Bistro, Saint Augustine Road, Paternoster. Tel: 022 752 2105. Open Wednesday to Saturday for breakfast 9am to 11am, lunch 12:30pm to 2:30pm, Sunday from 9am to 10:30am and noon to 2pm

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Brent Meersman
Brent Meersman
Brent Meersman is a political novelist Primary Coloured, Reports Before Daybreak. He has been writing for the Mail & Guardian since 2003 about things that make life more enjoyable – the arts, literature and travel and in his Friday column, Once Bitten food. If comments on the internet are to be believed, he is a self-loathing white racist, an ultra-left counter-revolutionary, a neo-liberal communist capitalist, imperialist anarchist, and most proudly a bourgeois working-class lad. Or you can put the labels aside and read what he writes. Visit his website: www.meersman.co.za

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