Food & Drinks, Travel

Storied Seafood: An Abalobi-endorsed Menu at Wolfgat

Chef patron Kobus van der Merwe has joined forces with Abalobi to serve responsibly caught fish with a story at his celebrated Paternoster eatery.

Georgia East

Running a restaurant on the West Coast comes with its own set of responsibilities. Tradition, community and symbiosis are essential to success in what is often seen as an area slow to progress. Having adapted his own unique approach to the food of the region, chef patron Kobus van der Merwe’s cuisine at well-loved Wolfgat in Paternoster is predominantly a mixture of foraged botanicals, locally sourced ingredients and fresh-caught seafood. Recipes pay homage to the indigenous culture of the San hunter-gatherers and the flavourful mix of Cape Malay and Afrikaans fare – all served as an interpretation of the award-winning chef’s signature gastronomic concepts.

Fresh fish endemic to the Atlantic Ocean often feature on Wolfgat’s menu, with Cape bream, abalone and Mediterranean mussel appearing on a regular basis. What with the advent of Abalobi – an initiative that uses a mobile app to connect chefs with small-scale fishermen – the ability to source responsibly fished seafood has now been made easier for restaurants like Wolfgat.

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A daily catch from fishermen around the Western Cape is listed on the app for chefs to purchase the items they require. The catch is then cleaned and packaged (with an almost surgical neatness according to Kobus) and delivered at the restaurant in time for the day’s lunch and dinner shifts. Chefs then scan a QR code that lets them know where their fish was caught and by whom, closing the link between supplier and consumer. The fishing industry on the West and East Coast is rich in heritage and the small-scale fishermen and women that head out in their bakkies (small boats) each morning to hand-reel their livelihood are full of colourful stories to tell. Hailing from very poor areas, the sea is their only source of income and what with unscrupulous fishing permits and big business greed, these communities of traditional fishermen went unaided for many years. Now, through a driving force of demand for responsible methods of fishing, chefs and consumers alike are opting for seafood from a sustainable source.

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Caught off the coast of Struisbaai, the red stumpnose we sampled at Wolfgat was reeled out by Marthinus Newman – the fourth generation of fisherman in his family. Affectionately known as Oom T, Marthinus has been fishing for 43 years and skippers the boat Weltevrede. It is this 'hook to cook' connection that powers Abalobi, merging environments so as to educate and strengthen the relationship between ocean and kitchen.

Although the red stumpnose (also known as 'Miss Lucy') is listed as threatened by the South African Sustainable Seafood Initiative (SASSI), Abalobi’s CEO Serge Raemaekers explains that the app works closely with SASSI to ensure that both organisations are on the same page.

'Abalobi is a restaurant-supported fishery scheme, with only four red-listed species actually ending up on menus. These include silver kob, geelbek and red and white stumpnose. One can’t compare their status with that of the rhino for example, as with good fisheries management these species could rapidly rebound and become sustainable options again.'

Ultimately the aim is to help small-scale fishermen rebuild their businesses through legally managed quota systems and the traceability and transparency that Abalobi provides. Many red-listed species are labelled so because there is a concern for overfishing by a large informal/illegal sector or where there isn’t enough data to make an informed assessment. Abalobi aims to rekindle small-scale fishermen as stewards of our oceans – furthering awareness about responsible fishing using low impact methods.

Wanting to give back to the community that he calls home, Kobus cites working with Abalobi as a dream come true.

'Seeing the positive changes and ripple effect that an initiative such as Abalobi has made in the lives of small scale fisherman and their families, is heart-warming to say the least. It is excruciating how often our small fishing communities get the shortest end of the deal with regards to quotas and fishing rights. With Abalobi it finally feels like justice is being served.'

Kobus’ dish of red stumpnose honours both fish and fishermen; the largest Miss Lucy is swiftly filleted, with the rest of the fish headed for the stock pot with a mixture of wild garlic, fennel and pelargonium leaves – ensuring that nothing goes to waste. Kobus then thinly slices the fish to serve it raw. With fish this fresh, raw is the only way to properly enjoy it. Sprigs of succulent sea pumpkin, crisp sea lettuce, samphire and klipkombers are added – creating the kind of Strandveld cuisine that Wolfgat is known for. Finally, rooibos kombucha vinegar and a gelatinous seaweed broth gives the dish an earthy umami flavour that is best paired with a glass of Swartland-based Mother Rock white – an unfiltered blend of Chenin Blanc, Viognier, Semillon, Grenache Blanc and Harslevelu.

Now working with 87 chefs from top restaurants around the Western Cape, Abalobi has revolutionized the way South African cooks and diners see fish. Going forward, both Kobus and Serge hope to see more local seafood on menus as we have a wealth of top-quality fish that often get overlooked for imported exotics. As for the fishermen and women catching this bounty, Abalobi has returned to them their dignity, helping them pay off loans, buy better fishing equipment and even help less fortunate families pay school fees.

For now, the app only caters to chefs but Serge mentions that trials are in place to make it available for home cooks in the near future. 'We are trying to stimulate the consumer to at least ask who, what, where, when and how was this (fish) caught, and is it responsible.'

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