Local, Travel

West Coast Wander: family ties, Finns and fishing in Velddrif

Georgia East
In a new House and Leisure mini series, writer and food stylist Georgia East travels along the West Coast in search of unique stories and recipes. Here she considers the history of Velddriff and her personal ties to the quaint and quiet town, which inspired a recipe for bokkom pâté with Cape gooseberry chutney and roosterkoek. Read the first instalment about St Helena Bay, here.
Of all the towns along the Cape West Coast, my favourite by far has to be Velddrif. Unique in its position, Velddrif straddles the Berg River mouth, spilling up towards Dwarskersbos and looking out over the Atlantic towards St Helena Bay. It's home to both a natural and constructed harbour, and also features the man-made delta of Port Owen replete with palm trees and pleasure yachts – but even this exudes the same sleepiness as the rest of the town. Little has been touched by modernity and one has a sense that perhaps the locals prefer it this way. There are no malls, no large-scale housing developments and few franchises to be found here. The town also marks the end of road, literally, for the R27 – the West Coast Road – and so for some, Velddrif is the furthermost point that they have explored. Although not sporting the abundance of eateries, blue flag beaches or holiday resorts as towns situated closer to the city, Velddrif has its own eclectic collection of unique attractions . The most popular of these is Bokkom Laan, a cluster of historic structures that were originally used to salt-cure and dry the small silvery haarder fish (also known as the South African mullet) caught from the river. Whitewashed and pastorally picturesque, the drying huts are listed buildings and thankfully have been allowed to remain in their original state – give or take a few small amendments from the restaurants that have taken up residence within them. For a number of years, only a few drying huts were in use while the rest fell into disrepair, but since the realisation that it takes capital to keep them whole, Bokkom Laan was reborn into a bankable tourist attraction – complete with Weskus fare, boat trips along the river, curious pelicans and charmingly dilapidated jetties. A few of the huts are still used for their original purpose, but due to decline in their numbers, haarders are no longer caught in the river, but rather out at sea. The only processing that occurs on Bokkom Laan is the making of the area’s namesake – that infamous West Coast delicacy, the bokkom. Like so many others, Velddrif is primarily a fishing town; its predominant livelihood is one that is linked to the river as well as the sea. The mouth of the river is rich in salt, and Cerebos and Khoisan Salt harvest the seasoning on either side of the Carinus Bridge. Birdlife is abundant too – flocks of pastel-hued flamingos, snowy egrets and the African fish eagle can all be sighted wading in the shallows or soaring overhead. Colourful fishing trawlers offload their catch into the numerous fish processing plants that make up the industrial area of Laaiplek. It’s this amalgamation of natural beauty and regional industry that lends Velddrif its distinctive appeal. An unspoilt place with a richly multicultural past, a community that exists in relative integration and a strong sense of identity, it is no secret that those to whom Velddrif is home value their situation and hold it dear. On a personal level, the family ties to this town run deep. Having originally bought a plot for their holiday home in 1983, my maternal grandparents became lifelong members of the Velddrif Yacht Club and both they and my mother sailed in the numerous regattas and races held there. My father happened to own the first house in the fledgling development of Port Owen and belonged to the yacht club too, where he sailed and stored his Finn. The Velddrif Yacht Club was renowned for their jubilant New Year’s Eve parties, which, fortuitously for me, is how my parents met, and I arrived on the scene a few years later. Early childhood memories include playing in the mud on the river's edge, its green water lapping gently on a shore shaded by the vast Australian imports of bluegum and manatoka, the warm Berg wind the only element stirring the stillness of summer afternoons. It is this same wind that has allowed Velddrif to produce its largest attraction – the bokkom. Small fish of the mackerel genus are caught, salted and finally dried by the arid wind that blows from the Cape Fold Mountain escarpment down to the coast. As unique as the wind that creates them, bokkoms are considered to be an acquired taste as they can be overly fishy in flavour for some. I’m not a fan myself, but I do find that when soaked in olive oil and used as a seasoning, these desiccated strips of fish have a flavour not dissimilar to anchovies. This is yet another surprising aspect to emerge out of an often overlooked town. Although our property in Velddrif was sold after my father’s passing in 2007, I find that I am drawn to the town on an increasingly consistent basis. Perhaps I keep returning to the places he frequented in Velddrif in an attempt to hold on to whatever memories I have left of him. Either that, or I’ve finally developed a taste for bokkoms.
Make bokkom pâté with Cape gooseberry chutney and roosterkoek inspired by the flavours and history of Velddrif.