West Coast Wander: remembering the St Helena Bay butchery
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 pens an ode to the butchery of St Helena Bay's past, which inspired this recipe for braised lamb chops with garlic, lemon and rosemary.
Leave behind the picturesque uniformity of Paternoster and drive past the moneyed mansions of Britannia Bay and Shelley Point, with their displaced palm trees, electric fencing and genteel golfers, and you will come across a small half-moon of development that hugs the coastline in a far more understated manner.
Looking out across the Atlantic Ocean to the Berg River mouth on the opposite shore, St Helena Bay was the first point of access for Portuguese pioneer Vasco da Gama and now serves as one of the busiest fishing towns along the Cape West Coast.
St Helena Bay is not a pretty town, and predominantly industrial – none of the celebrated eateries, boutique hotels or holiday resorts that draw tourists to the West Coast reside here. While the view over the sea is breathtakingly beautiful, as is typical of the Cape West Coast, in the town itself, stretches of warehouse once used for sorting and canning fish lie derelict or demolished. But don’t let these mislead you – along with Velddrift, St Helena Bay is one of the largest fishing zones along the coast, abundant in snoek and other pelagic fish, and celebrates its ongoing marine history with an annual summertime Sea Festival. Two major fish-processing corporations have their plants here and the local community is one with its feet firmly in the surf. This is a relationship that has lasted through the decades, from generation to generation: the sea gives life, it gives nourishment, and it provides work.
But they also know that the ocean is a mercurial provider. What happens when the snoek swim away, when sardines are scarce and even the successful netting of small, silvery harders (mullet) is sporadic? The locals turn to the land for sustenance and meat has become the staple diet of those who need to survive slow fishing seasons. The indigenous Khoikhoi people practised nomadic pastoral agriculture and kept herds of nguni cattle, goats and sheep, and the land surrounding St Helena Bay is in close proximity to the breadbasket that is the Swartland, an area prolific in wheat and sheep farming.
In the past few decades, the St Helena Bay butchery offered produce in the form of lamb chops, sausages, roasts and kaiings – the fat from a sheep’s tail, cubed and fried until rendered and crisp. Housed in a building that was erected in 1891, the butchery served its customers for a number of years until it closed in the early ’90s. Although I’ve been unable to unearth much tangible information about its history, I do have the stories told to me by my parents who would frequent the butchery on a Friday drive up from Cape Town before heading to my father’s house in Port Owen for the weekend.
Customers gained access to the long, low building through a swinging fly-screened door. Overseen by the butcher in his bloodstained overalls, the interior consisted of three counters that displayed its wares in a way that would probably be right at home in the current resurgence of authentic meat suppliers – frilly parsley, scalloped tomatoes and citronella candles would arrive only with the influx of franchises in a few years time. Notably, the St Helena Bay butchery was also one of the few places that practised integration in a time when 'whites only' signs divided towns and legitimised discrimination. It would serve everyone from holidaymakers to farmers and the fishing community, and was the only place to obtain thick-cut bacon, strings of boerewors piled haphazardly next to fresh lamb chops and kraakers – a form of fatty sausage that could be cooked over hot coals on the blade of a clean shovel.
This was a time before buzzwords such as 'organic' and 'grass-fed' were prevalent and when the concepts of feedlots and genetic modification sounded like something out of an Orwellian novel. Today all that is left of the butchery is a ruin, mournful in its dereliction. The pitched corrugated iron roof sags, the rafters hacked out for firewood, the window-glass smashed, the counters torn out and the doors gone. The cheerful chirruping of the starlings that nest in the remains of the eaves are an antithesis to the ghostly moan of the wind through the empty spaces. Small wildflowers peep through the original stone masonry at the building’s base, but otherwise it is entirely dormant in an open field next to the road.
It's hard to fathom why places like St Helena Butchery and those like it – services that once were an integral part of the community – have disappeared. The ruins stand testament to how the neon convenience of modern supermarket franchises have eclipsed independent retailers such as this one. Here's hoping for a resurgence of the mom and pop stores of the past century – the ones that are all about slow food and family.
Make braised lamb chops with garlic, lemon and rosemary inspired by the flavours of St Helena Bay.