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Foraging with chef Kobus van der Merwe of the Award-winning Wolfgat

Foraging with chef Kobus van der Merwe of the Award-winning Wolfgat
Writer Tudor Caradoc-Davies and photographer Warren Heath met up with chef Kobus van der Merwe in 2016 to talk about his move from the city of Cape Town to Paternoster. Kobus was in the process of handing over his first restaurant Oep ve Koep to his family to focus on his latest endeavour, Wolfgat restaurant, which won the Restaurant of the Year 2019 at the World Restaurant Awards earlier this week.

Kobus van der Merwe’s daily commute to Paternoster features tortoises, farm gates, scrubby dunes, and plenty of wild pickings for his celebrated first restaurant, Oep ve Koep.

Nine years ago, Kobus van der Merwe quit his job as an online editor for a restaurant review website in Cape Town. He wasn’t quite sure what it was that he needed to do, but he knew he wanted to start afresh and do something more hands-on with food. And so he moved out of the city to the arid West Coast town of Paternoster to live in a beautiful yet Spartan cottage deep in the veld.

Chef Kobus van der Merwe of Wolfgat left Cape Town
Home is where the hearth is. Kobus' cottage sits in an expanse of West Coast Strandveld, ancient dunes covered in scrub that contains a larder of edible plants.
Chef Kobus van der Merwe of Wolfgat left Cape Town behind
Kobus' simple cottage is surrounded by West Coast Strandveld.
Chef Kobus van der Merwe of Wolfgat left Cape Town behind for Paternoster
When your neighbours are antelope and tortoises, who needs walls on your outdoor shower?

We’re Open. Come Inside

What happened next was even more unusual. Rather than opening a fish-and-chips shop or a classic seafood restaurant – businesses that would have an obviously decent chance of survival – he started something completely different with his first restaurant Oep ve Koep (Open for Business).

Unpretentious yet challenging, Oep ve Koep is a place radically different from anything to which even ‘foodie’ South Africans are generally accustomed, and it has rapidly become a benchmark for modern, adventurous, locavore food that also reflects on centuries of culinary.

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An Oasis in the Desert

The West Coast is a harsh, bleak part of the South African coastline, stretching from Cape Town to the Namibian border. The further north you drive, the drier the land becomes. Quite soon, it has become semi-desert. Trees are few and far between, farming is tough, the wind is a constant companion, swimming in the icy Atlantic Ocean is an activity reserved for the brave, and the weather is consistently harsh. Harsh and hot, or harsh and cold: take your pick.

Of all the coastal towns on the West Coast, Paternoster is the postcard-worthy jewel. Featuring whitewashed, old fishing cottages and a growing number of well-known eateries, during the summer months it attracts both foreign and local visitors willing to make the two-hour drive from Cape Town.

Chef Kobus van der Merwe of Wolfgat left his life in Cape Town
Simple and utilitarian, Kobus' cottage, a reclaimed farm building, maximises window space to take advantage of the views.
Chef Kobus van der Merwe of Wolfgat left his life in Cape Town behind
In the bathroom, natural light, exposed pipes, everything laid bare just like in the environment.
Chef Kobus van der Merwe of Wolfgat left his life in Cape Town behind for Paternoster
A bath with a splendid view.

Kobus’ family used to farm in the Northern Cape, an even drier region of South Africa further into the interior of the country. For most of his youth – until his parents moved there permanently – Paternoster was the family’s holiday destination.

Now the Van der Merwes run a shop (also called Oep ve Koep) in a building that used to be an oil factory. Situated on the same property, spilling out from his tiny kitchen into a small garden where its tables are set, Kobus’ restaurant has become the town’s most notable culinary drawcard.

Hidden Treasures

What Kobus drives through on his daily commute from his home – a tiny dwelling on an isolated smallholding about 15 minutes’ drive from Paternoster village – is Strandveld. Literally meaning ‘beach scrub’ in Afrikaans, Strandveld is a type of  vegetation specific to the West Coast. (Its full name is Cape Flats Dune Strandveld and it’s officially defined as endangered).

The Strandveld around Paternoster covers land that was once ancient coastline – aka the larder of hunter-gatherer-forager peoples the San and the Khoikhoi. Drive into town with Kobus on his commute and you’ll find him regularly stopping during the journey, and not just to move tortoises off the sandy road. Without a word of warning, he pulls up, puts on his leather hat and disappears into a clump of innocuous-looking shrubs growing in the sand, to search for plants that turn out to be edible, and very tasty.

For decades, we South Africans have been outward-looking, exploring tastes derived from what happened across oceans in another hemisphere. This included the national palate, which was borrowed from Europe even though there’s a wealth of distinctive indigenous ingredients from which to create truly local dishes.

Kobus is at the vanguard of a new South African pride in valuing our culinary heritage. “I’m extremely inspired by the landscape of the West Coast and its wild food offerings,” he says. “The more I’ve experimented, studied and researched, the more fascinated and obsessed I’ve become. I think South Africa’s love of exoticism is finally changing. Even just on a small scale – such as using local olive oil instead of imported.

Chef Kobus van der Merwe of Wolfgat forages
The rock pools and shoreline of the West Coast are a rich foraging area for Kobus.
Chef Kobus van der Merwe of Wolfgat forages for his ingredients
The West Coast is harsh. Searing heat in summer, cold winds in winter and icy ocean water year round (it's often colder in the summer than it is in the winter). From plants to animals and people, it pays to be hardy and equipped with thorns, horns and an ability to find your food.
Chef Kobus van der Merwe of Wolfgat uses what is around him in his dishes
Chef, forager, culinary historian and West Coast local Kobus van der Merwe left the city to build a quieter, more creative life in Paternoster on the West Coast. WIth its innovative, foraged, locavore food, his restaurant Oep ve Koep is redefining South African cuisine.

“I think the foraging trend will blow over, but to me, being ‘on trend’ has never been the point. Anyway, we don’t have the abundance of wild food to sustain everyone suddenly picking dune spinach willy-nilly. It’s rather about rediscovering forgotten indigenous flavours and appreciating, nurturing and cultivating a culture of understanding and pride in what’s truly ‘homegrown’.

“Hopefully that includes the possibility of sustainably propagating indigenous species in a kind of small-scale permaculture or eco-agriculture… but even if it’s just planting your own wild garlic and kapokbos [indigenous wild rosemary] in pots at home, that’s already great.”

You also might like: Q&A with Famous Forager, Roushanna Gray

Finding Inspiration in Our Heritage

Kobus’ adoption of local and indigenous coastal ingredients is informed by the past, the distant past and the present. Before it became cool to forage, Kobus was digging around in the dunes for long-forgotten succulents and other plants. Much of his inspiration came from the legendary Afrikaans poet, cook and naturalist C. Louis Leipoldt.

“I grew up with my parents and grandparents using Leipoldt’s cook books,” says Kobus. “I’ve always admired his extensive knowledge of indigenous veldkos [bush food] and his passion for cooking innovative, truly local dishes with it. He was a true Renaissance man – physician, botanist, chef, poet. There’s a bit of hero worshipping from my side, and his 1933 book Kos vir die Kenner [Food for the Connoisseur] is my heritage-food bible.”

Chef Kobus van der Merwe of Wolfgat finds inspiration in our heritage
The kitchen is tiny, but Kobus works wonders in it.
Chef Kobus van der Merwe of Wolfgat finds inspiration for his dishes in our heritage
With herbs drying overhead, Kobus alternates between prepping on a central table, cooking off a small gas hob and fetching ingredients from an old Coca-Cola fridge.
Chef Kobus van der Merwe of Wolfgat finds inspiration for his menu in our heritage
Like the building it occupies – an old oil factory – Oep ve Koep holds a place in time between the past, the present and the future. Old found objects like a stove or rusted pots are repurposed to house indigenous succulents.

Behind Kobus’ small house – it’s dwarfed by the expansive landscape in which it’s set – lie ancient archaeological sites of the San people. These are concentrated around Kasteelberg, a rocky pinnacle, but the cave paintings and shell middens of the area’s original foragers are found all along this coastline.

Initially, when he was trying to understand where he could find edible plants, Kobus asked for the help of expert botanists. But as he grew to understand the Strandveld better, the penny dropped. Everything he needed was right there in front of him: it just emerges when the time is right. Which means that, like the San used to, Kobus forages according to the seasons – and his menu at Oep ve Koep changes accordingly.

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“In winter there’s more of a creamy umami, seaweed focus and in summer it’s more fresh and zingy. I find the transitions hard. I’m very connected to the weather. If the sun is out, my mood changes. It’s hard to make a shift like that. Yesterday the wind was blowing, it was really cold, misty and wintery and today it’s perfect, sunny and blue. Bang.”

On the blackboard, Kobus gently educates visitors about a forgotten culinary heritage they have driven past many times.
Chef Kobus van der Merwe uses lots of local ingredients in his cooking
A Strandveld plant is displayed in Kobus' restaurant's attic.
Chef Kobus van der Merwe uses lots of local ingredients like bokkoms
Eaten as they are, ground up as seasoning or infused into broths, bokkoms – the dried salted sardines of the West Coast – deliver a powerful umami kick.

As much as possible, the focus of Kobus’ food is local. That means many of the ingredients – Strandveld plants like soutslaai (literal translation ‘salt salad’), dune lettuce, dune spinach and dune celery, as well as seaweeds such as sea lettuce and kelp are foraged. Then there’s the fast-disappearing and slow-growing heerenboontjie, a small South African heritage bean similar to a Lima bean that few farmers grow nowadays. Kobus has also begun distilling indigenous herbs such as buchu and wild garlic into vermouth.

All the menus at Oep ve Koep are constructed in relation to Kobus’ commitment to sustainability. His foraging efforts, for example, are conducted with great care for the vulnerable Strandveld vegetation. Mediterranean mussels, a widespread alien species in South Africa, are picked off the rocks in front of Paternoster to feature on the menu, and the fish he uses – such as angelfish and locally caught kob – are all sustainable.

You also might like: West Coast Mussels with White Wine, Leeks, Lemon and Cream Recipe

Chef Kobus van der Merwe of Wolfgat experiments in the attic of Oep ve Koep
Part Laboratory, part dining space: in the attic of Oep ve Koep, Kobus would experiment with making vermouth and liqueurs infused with indigenous botanicals.
Chef Kobus van der Merwe of Wolfgat lives amongst the Strandveld dunes
If an Englishman's home is his castle, a South African's braai [barbecue] is his kitchen. In the background lies the pinnacle of Kasteelberg, an ancient archeological site of the San people.
Chef Kobus van der Merwe of Wolfgat forages to add to his pantry
Between what he can find on the shoreline and what he forages in the deceptively rich Strandveld dunes, Kobus stocks his kitchen larder with a unique variety of indigenous plants that in his hands are not just edible, but delicious.

At Oep ve Koep, you won’t find the crayfish so ubiquitous in other Cape restaurants, as the industry is under immense fishing pressure. And you’ll also probably receive a subtle introduction to
bokkoms, the plentiful sundried sardines of the West Coast. Loved by locals, and in the past treated with suspicion by outsiders, they deliver umami in force.

After lunch service, if it’s a double-shift day Kobus takes another short coastal drive to Mosselbank to swim and clear his head before returning to the kitchen for the dinner. And if he isn’t serving dinner that day he heads back to the farm, foraging along the way to come up with new dishes for Oep ve Koep, which he tries out at home on an outdoor braai.

“I thought I’d come to Paternoster for a year to help my folks set up the eatery side of the shop,” says Kobus. “Now it’s nine years later. Unexpectedly, I guess I found my groove.”

Oep ve Koep

+27 (0) 22 752 2105

Find Oep ve Koep on Facebook

Wolfgat

10 Sampson Street, Paternoster

[email protected]

Lunch is served at 12:30pm from Wednesday to Saturday, and 12pm on Sundays. Dinner is served on Friday and Saturday evenings at 6:30pm for 7pm.

Words Tudor Caradoc-Davies

Photography Warren Heath

Production Sven Alderding

Bureaux.co.za

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