Friday, December 14, 2012

South African Food - Oep ve Koep

There was a time when the phrase 'South African food' could send a shudder down the spine of anyone sensitive about eating well (I refuse to use the word foodie. I hate the word foodie). It was - with exceptional regional dishes - the worst of English and Dutch culinary traditions, boiled, baked and soused to death.

If you'd said "boerekos" the reaction might be different. To an Afrikaans speaker. Literally, boerekos means farmers' food, and it idiomatically paints a picture of a plate of food, filled to the edges and with impressive topography, of good things like venison pie or spiced (well done) roast lamb tasting of the land, of sweet pumpkin or sweet potatoes, and carrot salad, and roast potatoes, and maybe even yellow rice, as well - the more starch, the better... Good boerekos is, despite its heft, well, good. Bad boerekos is awful. The best boerekos I ever had was in the little town of Calvinia in the Northern Cape, in September - flower season. It was like a pie chart of deliciousness: a magenta wedge of vinegary pickled beetroot, grated carrot moistened with orange juice, a wedge of venison: flaky, dark, clove-spiced meat beneath golden pastry. Smooth sweet potato.

(And if you'd like to read and see more about traditional South African food I urge you to buy Karoo Kitchen. It is a new, beautiful and illuminating collection of affidavits and recipes by people - brown, chocolate, beige and pink - who live in that famous, dry region of South Africa. Written by Sydda Essop, published by Quiver Tree and edited by our friend Johan van Zyl)

Of course, things have changed. A lot.

But even within the atmosphere of burgeoning creativity and a new attention to ingredients and their origin, Oep ve Koep in Paternoster is a few light years ahead of the curve. It's not really fair to compare what Kobus van der Merwe is doing in his kitchen with what other good restaurants produce because he is in a rare category of his own,  a very small one, shared by quiet chefs and superstars sprinkled across the globe.

Each plate is a story. In the story you read about the place, the land, its seasons.

But first you start with some local wine or beer off the very local list, and with fresh bread and farm butter and a tapenade where the anchovies have been replaced by a West Coast legend: bokkoms. Reviled by outsiders, inhaled by locals: wind-dried fillets of the maasbanker: Salty, intense, oily. There is a syrup-preserved naartjie (NAAR-chee), what South Africans call mandarin orange or clementines. It is topped with a shard of locally produced salt.

And then you think about lunch. Or, if you are me, you just say, Everything, please. 

Smoked angelfish is another South African standby. It makes a wonderful pâté, and here it was translated into soft, creamy-white clouds to spread onto crisp toasts, its saltiness relieved by traditional korrelkonfyt (KAW-rull-cawn-fate) - I bought some in Kobus' mother's shop, which is part of the restaurant: a whole-grape jam, syrupy and concentrated and a typical companion to smoked snoek in the Cape. The fresh grapes were a good foil, though I can see this reaching new heights at the end of summer, when the hanepoot (HAH-nuh-pwhurt)- local Muscat grapes - are in season.

An aside. We were very lucky to be having lunch with good friends (and Oep ve Koep regulars) and seasoned media professionals who seemed unfazed by my hopping around to take pictures of everything, even moving distracting bottles and cutlery out of the camera frame before I could ask. Johan van Zyl, left, Peter van Noord (and Le Frenchie, of course). Johan and Peter live at Koringberg, the little wheatland town about an hour's drive into the interior, in a former schoolhouse with high ceilings and white floors and a stoep where they have a long, long table at which friends sit and eat. A dream. It was Johan's story about our terrace in Visi Magazine that crystallized my book idea, convincing me to make it highly seasonal. It was a beautiful spread.


It was this plate that blew my socks off. Well, blew my flip flops off, then.

On the menu it was called Mosselbank at Low Tide. I'd seen its evolution on Kobus' blog, so it wasn't a total surprise. But the forager and leaf lover in me rejoiced to sink my teeth into a plant I have never eaten before. See the succulent leaves in the centre, front? Mesembryanthemum crystallinum (thanks to Rupert Koopman, for his ID confirmation). Locally called soutslaai (SOTE-sly), salt salad - a plant that grows in the dunes of this long, long coastline.

Wow (useful word). Juicy, beaded with little shiny cells of moisture, intensely oceanic with squirts of sourness. Kobus said it is more intense in summer because of the low rainfall - in winter it plumps up even more. It is one of the plants that produces the commonly-called and ubiquitous vygie flower of the West Coast.  FAY-(g)hee. But the (g)h is soft, like a not-very-angry cat hiss. The softer emerald leaves are sea lettuce, gathered from the rock pools and beach, and the almond makes very respectable sand, so much better to eat than the real thing. 

That is the superstar dish. 

It's not just that there is story telling going on, here. It's that you can eat the story with relish - it's not inaccessible cerebral self indulgence. It's food, drawing on traditions of veldkos (field food, foraged food) and paying its respects to the immediate environment. And it isn't just hand-me-down foam, let's-copy-a-trend-that-started-somewhere-else-four-years-ago, and skid-mark-schmears-on-plates. This is honest. It is unique. This is the edible equivalent of writing about what you know, with great elegance and restraint.

Plate of rocks, Madam?

On the rocks were local oysters, barely cooked, topped with beurre blanc, grated green apple, unripe gooseberries (ground cherries, Stateside) and...samphire! Creamy salt air and sea marsh. Be still my beating heart.

I think this was Peter's plate. The ice cream is infused with rooibos (ROY -baws) - Aspalathus linearis, a local shrub whose leaves now make it into teas often available in the States. The powder is, we think, roasted naartjiepeel, offsetting the meringue's sweetness and juiciness of the ripe nectarines. 

I have gone on. But it is exciting to experience something fresh. And it is quite rare. If you are within spitting distance of Paternoster, go. It is an hour-and-a-half's drive from Cape Town, and there are plenty of good places to stay. Oep ve Koep is open for lunch and for brunch, usually Wednesdays through Sundays.

Don't expect a menu the size of telephone directory (remember those?). It is small, and it is perfect. Three starters, a couple of main courses, one dessert. 

Expect to be enchanted.


  1. You know you have found a special place when they serve fine food like that in such a casual atmosphere, food that says "You are here!" and that can knock your flip flops off. The oysters plate is a masterpiece.

  2. Your writing delights me. Thank you :)

  3. Thank you for your beautiful posts and visuals about South Africa. They make me want to visit South Africa: a thought I never had before. Is Mesembryanthemum crystallinum similar to the pervasive ice plant of California? And if so, and so tasty, why aren't the west coast "foodies" foraging it?
    It could be the answer to a plant that has taken over the dunescape of the west coast.

    1. Thank you, Deirde. And yes, I believe your ice plant ice plant. In South Africa we call it suurvy, or sour fig: Carpobrotus edulis (if it is the one I'm thinking of). It has become invasive in CA, and is native to South Africa. The fruit is very palatable after the flower has faded (the juice inside is like a sticky, clear syrup dotted with tiny seeds), and it is used, after it has dried to a brown nugget, in jams in South Africa, though by that time it is too strong for my taste. I think its leaves are edible.

    2. Marie, thank you, we have found same research, but have been looking for people who have cooked with it.

  4. Never mind the glorious South African food. I have taken a liking to South African wine. Our liquor board in Ontario are selling a gift box of Two Oceans wine, containing a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc and a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot, from the Western Cape.
    Good wine at a good price.

  5. we have had the pleasure, indeed, the privelege of eating with Kobus. He is a genius - GO as soon as you can. My only regret is that we can only go on Mon/Tues and he is closed on those days....
    Tracy & Massimo


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