Dating back to the mid- to late 18th century, the modern iterations of this aperitif were first produced in Turin, Italy. Despite an impressive first encounter with vermouth at a sleazy Bond-themed basement party in London in his early twenties, and a subsequent epicurean interlude with a pedigreed bottle in Turin, Kobus van der Merwe’s primary motivation to make alcohol-based herbal bitters stems from his nose. More specifically, from the desire to capture the scents that rush up as he walks the dunes and fields of the Strandveld.
‘To me it’s about capturing the scents that I experience on a daily basis. The earthy aroma of wet sand when digging up wild radish roots. The peppery fragrance of wild sage blossoms on a hot summer’s afternoon. The overwhelming sweet-stinky note of stinkkruid flowers when swishing your feet through overgrown winter veld. The ephemeral, almost eucalyptus-like smell of crushed Pelargonium fulgidum leaves when flower hunting in Cape Columbine in spring. In trying to capture these smells, I use everything from the roots to leaves, stems, flowers and seeds of all the aromatics I encounter in the Strandveld daily – both fresh and dried.’
In the past, Kobus felt drawn to making perfume and, judging by the startlingly pure and evocative flavours first served at Oep ve Koep and now at Wolfgat in Paternoster, it’s safe to assume that he possesses an exceptional olfactory system. A sip of Strandveld Fynbos Vermouth (SFV) rushes the tongue with authentic yet tough to define signals – descriptors that pair well with supermarket-made flavours fall short. Vivid floral top notes give way to a punchy yet fleeting base of wooded spice that leaves a lingering trace of absinthal minerality, and you begging for more.
Impressions of Patrick Süskind’s bestselling novel Perfume: The Story of a Murderer come to mind, including images of the monstrous and physically repulsive Grenouille, owner of the greatest nose ever, which he put to psychopathic use in pursuit of the ultimate fragrance. Noses aside though, Kobus couldn’t differ more from the notorious literary scent scavenger. His vermouth, like his cuisine, is the distillation of extensive knowledge, a hands-on passion for foraging and his pure, hair-trigger palate.
Kobus’ first batch using classical vermouth botanicals such as wormwood and gentian combined with orange peel, rosemary and juniper resulted in a beautiful, fragrant vermouth, albeit with a very continental ‘white Christmas’ character. He then became determined to do a version using fynbos and wild weeds that were indigenous to the southwestern tip of the African coast. Thus followed a period of experimentation and testing methods for obtaining botanical teas, as well as playing with different types of alcohol to best extract the purest fynbos fragrances. It has become a fine-tuned operation, with careful timing and specific applications for each herbal extraction.
SFV is made up of 80 per cent Chenin from a winery in Darling, 16 per cent Strandveld Fynbos bitters and four per cent honey. Kobus has summer and winter picking lists, with a few ingredients that remain constant throughout the year. Most notably stinkkruid (Oncosiphon suffruticosum), which imparts a medicinal, herbal quality as well as significant bitterness. Besides the musky, aromatic base notes of stinkkruid, the batch of SFV we sip on blooms with the savoury aromatics of wild sage and kooigoed, the slightly sweeter, nutty tones of kapokbos and the brighter, spicy floral notes of pelargonium. Two or more buchu varieties lend citrusy, pine-scented top notes, while wild radish root provides an earthy pedal point and dune celery adds grassiness.
Production of SFV averages about four litres per week with one bottle served at every lunch, either as an aperitif, digestif or as part of a dish. Batches differ dramatically from season to season. This past winter, pears poached in vermouth and paired with buchu ice cream and wood sorrel leaves were a menu staple. For a more summery incarnation, Kobus uses it in an iced sabayon, almost like a fragrant frozen wine custard.
‘The herbal quality of vermouth makes it versatile and easily applicable in both sweet and savoury dishes. I’ll sometimes substitute it for normal white wine.’ The minced limpets on his tasting menu bear sublime testimony to said versatility. Kobus uses a ‘pelargonium-forward batch of vermouth’ instead of the traditional West Coast white wine and nutmeg combination. The result is a fragrant marriage of sea and veld that will rocket to the top of your food memories list.
Vermouth is enjoying a renaissance, with various ‘artisanal’ producers emerging around the country. What sets SFV apart is the ever-changing and seasonal composition of its ingredients, which in turn is the playful reverberation of Kobus’ immense knowledge of the Strandveld’s edible gems. At the very base of this ephemeral sensory charge lies the single-mindedness of a scent hound crossed with the olfactory opulence of a happy scientist. Fortunately, he has plans to further explore the world of herbal bitters drinks. Amaro, anyone?