wolfgat: between land and sea
Straddling the dining and open kitchen areas at Kobus van der Merwe’s Paternoster restaurant, Wolfgat, on the West Coast, is a glass-fronted display fridge. It’s the same as those we see in supermarkets and fast-food outlets, but its contents couldn’t be more different. Inside, elegantly displayed in glass beakers like the ones used in laboratories, is an eye-catching plethora of indigenous herbs, flowers and succulents. Foraged on a daily basis and prepped for that day’s service, these are the essential ingredients of Kobus’ unique cuisine.
When you arrive at Wolfgat for a meal, the fridge will be full. In the pared-back restaurant space – which features traditional limewashed walls, vintage wooden tables and a mobile, steel-clad worktop on which meals are finished and plated – the colours and textures inside immediately draw the eye. Try to cast a look at it again as you depart, because it is highly likely that it will be cleared by the end of your visit. You’ll have eaten an almost completely locally foraged meal – and it will have been a deliciously unforgettable experience.
Wolfgat serves a tasting menu that varies from season to season and day by day, depending on what is available in veld and sea. When we visited to shoot the photographs for this story, meals were opening with an amuse-bouche of a cracker biscuit incorporating dried codium (seaweed), topped with a morsel of smoked angelfish, slivers of kelp and a rooibos-kombucha mayonnaise, served alongside one of Kobus’ house-made vermouths, garnished with fluffy-flowered kapokbos.
We next sampled the salvia-smoked mussels served in the smouldering branches of the wild-sage stalks that were used to infuse them with herby, smoky flavours. It’s a spectacularly lovely dish to look at, as well as being delectable to eat. Also up for tasting was the shoreline salad, that day featuring kruipvygie, dune spinach, soutslaai, sea lettuce and klipkombers seaweed with powdered snoek roe and a dressing made from freshly foraged sea urchin, amasi, sour-fig nectar and Strandveld honey. Note to sea-urchin virgins: this local species is sometimes referred to as ‘the vanilla of the sea’ and is not salty at all – rather, it’s fruity, almost loquat-like. Overall, the salad is a hugely complex dish, with multiple textures and flavours in every bite.
Seven years ago when Kobus opened Oep ve Koep, his first restaurant in Paternoster, it quickly became clear that he was doing something very new. Above and beyond his interest in hyper-local foraged ingredients (walk through the Strandveld with him and you’ll quickly be in awe of Kobus’ encyclopaedic knowledge of the area’s flora), it was also clear that his cuisine was swayed by his fascination with the history of veldkos and the writings and recipes of Afrikaans chef, poet, journalist and botanist, C Louis Leipoldt. Leipoldt’s books, including Kos vir die Kenner (‘food for the connoisseur’, which was first published in 1933 and contains more than 2 000 recipes) and Leipoldt’s Cape Cookery, have had an abiding effect on Kobus’ cooking.
That influence is still keenly felt at Wolfgat, where one of the highlights of the late-summer menu is a dish that Kobus described to us as ‘pickled fish with Leipoldt influences’. ‘Leipoldt often used cabbage and apple as base ingredients for curries,’ he says, explaining that having tried this, he’s found both flavours work incredibly well with curry spices, and the use of raw cabbage in this particular recipe is a revelation – its clean pepperiness adds a marvellous extra dimension to the meal.
The ‘curry’ flavour here is not provided by a sauce but via the blend of the elements in the dish: an angelfish fillet is cooked in wild garlic masala, then cooled and coated in coconut-milk powder, which adds a creamy dimension that contrasts with the finely chopped sambal – of onion, tomato, cucumber and bokkoms – on which the fish rests. Sweet pickled onion and raw cabbage are additional elements, and the final result is an extravaganza of sweet, spicy, salty and umami flavours.
Equally memorable is the new restaurant’s location. Not only is the building in which Wolfgat is situated more than 130 years old, but it’s also named for the ancient Wolfgat cave on the premises (the ‘wolf’ in question is the shy and elusive brown hyena). An initial archaeological survey of the subterranean chamber (done before it was sealed) revealed ceramic remains and sheep bones dating from some time in the past 2 000 years. Local legend suggests that some of its underground passages extend several kilometres inland. Wolfgat the restaurant also happens to have one of Paternoster village’s very best views, with the entire curve of the bay visible from the front stoep, on which most summer diners are seated.
There’s never been a more exciting time to be a food lover in South Africa. We have great restaurants, high-quality produce and excellent chefs – but we don’t yet have many focused on genuinely local, unique food. ‘South African cuisine’ has many flavours, many histories and many traditions, and frankly, not many of them are being explored in depth by local chefs and restaurants. That’s what makes Wolfgat so special: here, the past, present and future of one particular food culture is being carefully – and deliciously – created anew every day.