Wolfgat, a 20-seat restaurant outside Cape Town, is leading the way in a time of drought (@IshayGovender), For Saveur Magazine, Oceans Issue, 2018
The salty tang of fresh kelp lifts on a crisp breeze, across the cream-colored sands of Die Krans in Paternoster, once the lookout for fishermen monitoring the weather. Kobus van der Merwe stands on the verandah of his sparse 20-seater restaurant, a 130-year-old fisherman’s cottage called Wolfgat, about two hours from Cape Town, overlooking this point. Seated here, you’re meters from the shore, where fishermen pull in their wooden trawlers filled with the day’s catch and lovers stroll hand-in-hand before sunset. A snack arrives in the form of a fleshy vivid green soutslaai leaf, harvested just outside Kobus’ farmhouse, folded like a taco and filled with slivers of cured angelfish and watermelon. The leaf releases an ocean-spray and is tempered by the silky lemon-spiked fish and the chilled sun-sweet melon. This is what Kobus calls “strandveld kos” – or food from the beach and field. “We only pick species that grow almost “weedy” and abundantly, taking only shoots or leaves, always leaving the plant and roots intact,” Kobus says. Seasonal, thoughtfully foraged ingredients unique to the West Coast Fynbos Biome or Saldanha Strandveld find their way onto plates that replicate the beach surrounding Wolfgat– the frothy waves, succulent, sometimes hardy mollusks, salt-rich stems and leaves of beach scrub; even heritage beans that grow in the sandveld interior adjacent to the coast and, occasionally, lamb from nearby Elandsbaai that graze on the Verlorenvlei lake shores.
Kobus van der Merwe Forages at Wolfgat
Wolgat, which opened last year, is named after the “wolf den” or hiding place of the brown hyena where excavated archaeological remains – ceramic shards, sheep bones, and marine shells– give us important clues about the human inhabitants who lived here 2000-years-ago. Several ingredients on the menu are grown or harvested within a handful of miles from Wolfgat, yet few people consume them today. Take the halophytic samphire or “poor man’s asparagus” that can thrive in the driest saltpans, that Kobus serves with slow-cooked coastal lamb and a grating of dried fish roe. It’s Wolfgat’s link to the past (the reason he chose this space), and the slow loss of culinary knowledge that Kobus has become invested in.
Nine years ago, he was a web editor for a food magazine before he took the plunge to help his retired parents run a casual eatery in town, based on similar principles of sustainable foraging. Exploring the region with botanist and horticulturalist friends, Kobus became convinced that what Paternoster provided was sufficient to enthral diners. But it had to be executed in a way that didn’t disturb the land or the sea. Together with a staff of six locals (“There’s no hierarchy here; we all serve, clean and cook” he says), Kobus combines these years of experimentation and study and presents it on a daily-rotating seven-course menu. What’s on the plate depends on what he finds on his 7AM forages. One morning will bring a bounty of seaweed species like splitfan kelp, codium and sea lettuce, and in low tide around full moon, spiny urchins plucked from the rock pools. Kobus gathers dune celery, leaves and delicate flowers from the shoreline. “In stark contrast to the romantic idea of foraging, you’ll often find me in the unsightly open plots picking soutslaai and weeds,” he says. In summer when some species like sour figs grow in abundance, the team commences pickling and fermenting in the kitchen, visible to diners – a tidy science lab of edibles.
After the day’s forage is stored, a fisherman arrives with a fresh catch. The team prepares tjokka, local squid used as bait that Kobus has found to be superior in texture to Patagonian calamari, and limpets (aquatic snails) that locals have long consumed when money for food has been scarce. The limpets, served in their shells on smoked salt, are chopped finely and poached with garlic and white wine.
While Cape Town’s three-year long drought made headlines last summer, Paternoster, Kobus says, has been dealing with a water shortage for much longer. There are days when the taps simply run dry, which may seem strange in a place surrounded by an ocean. Queuing for water from a truck has prepared the community for dealing with the drought’s consequences. “This has made me much more conscious of the way water is used in the restaurant. It’s not finite!” he says. He starts his municipal water-saving efforts each morning by rinsing the sandy foraged pickings in rock pool water. Wine glasses aren’t changed – an act he calls unnecessary, and most courses are to be eaten by hand, eliminating the need for washing up. Indigenous food expert Loubie Rusch says: “Many chefs approach foraging only for its novelty value.” Kobus, she says, adopts a different approach. “He is exposing diners to the reality that extremely good food can be produced from ingredients found even in the drought-stricken strandveld.”
Kobus has begun plans to cultivate many of the foraged indigenous wild foods on a plot nearby, together with Loubie and Elzanne Singels, a botanist-anthropologist. His goal is to remove the pressure from the Paternoster strandveld, replace dust bowls created by failed exotic crops and to introduce plants that are currently not available to forage sustainably. One of his long-term projects is to assist the local community to reconnect with their food heritage. Without Paternoster, Wolfgat could not exist, Kobus says: “It’s intrinsic to Wolfgat’s spirit and what we do here.”