“Bokkoms have a bad reputation,” says Kobus van der Merwe, the owner/chef of Paternoster’s Oep ve Koep. This cosy restaurant a few streets from the beach is a place where local isn’t just lekker; it informs every dish on the ever-changing chalkboard menu. Perhaps more than any other eatery in the Cape, this is a restaurant that takes its ‘terroir’ seriously.
“When I started out here I didn’t have a set idea of what the food would be,” says Kobus, 32, down a crackly line from Paternoster, “but I knew I wanted to offer something that was of the area [and] the more I started experimenting the more wild and regional the food became.”
And wild it certainly is. Much of the buzz around the menu at Oep ve Koep is Kobus’ use of hyper-local ingredients that include wild herbs gathered off nearby dunes, and fresh seaweed from the icy Atlantic shores.
Succulent Dune Spinach is wilted slightly before serving, while Klipkombers seaweed is used like a sheet of Japanese nori. Veldkool – “which is actually a flower bud that looks like an asparagus spear” – is picked in winter to be used raw in salads, or cooked into bredies.
Wild samphire, a halophyte that grows abundantly in the intertidal zone, has a similar appearance and transforms a plate of Saldanha Bay oysters – lightly grilled, and served with gooseberries, green apple and orange beurre blanc – into a true taste of the West Coast.
“The best way to taste a region is to start nibbling on things in the veld. You can’t get any more local or true to a region than by eating the wild greens,” says Kobus.
Wild greens aside, if there’s one local delicacy most people associate with the West Coast, it’s those bokkoms: salted, air-dried fish that are the biltong of the big blue. Aficionados will swear by the bokkoms from Velddrif’s ‘Bokkom Lane’ but Kobus, unsurprisingly, prefers to make his own.
“Traditionally they’re made with southern mullet (haarders) but as those are on the SASSI ‘orange’ list I started looking around for another fish to use. I found recipes that use maasbanker – on the SASSI green list – which I actually prefer as it’s slightly fattier.
“I also like to use them before they’re entirely dry. With a bit of moisture left they’re almost like charcuterie when served thickly sliced. I see it like a cured ham, and because the maasbanker is so fatty it adds a wonderful texture to the dish.”
Alongside the bokkoms, there is no shortage of hunted and gathered local produce on the menu. Snoek from the village fishermen is often available, while Saldanha Bay mussels may appear minced with lentils and re-imagined as a (delicious, trust me) West Coast take on traditional bobotie. Kabeljou from a fish farm in the village harbour is a new addition to the chalkboard; while winter is about the only time you’ll see red meat on the menu as fresh springbok arrives from a farm near Darling.
And while the ingredients at Oep ve Koep may be rustic, the presentation is anything but.
“At heart I’m a bit of a modernist, so I admire that style of cooking,” says Kobus, who counts Richard Carstens of Tokara as a mentor. “I’m quite a visual person and I get a lot of direct influence from the landscape: the lichens, the seaweed, the colours, the textures.”
If there’s a downside it’s that dune scrub and seaweed, served in portions that a hungry farmer might mistake for the garnish, haven’t always gone down well with summer visitors hoping for a plate piled high. Happily, three years after opening, that tide seems to have turned.
“It’s reached a point where the people who come here know what kind of food we do. This summer was the busiest season for me, and I could finally stop fighting people about the menu,” laughs Kobus. “I also think the South African eating public has undergone a bit of an evolution, and more people are happy with a plate that isn’t dominated by starch and deep fried things.”
As for future plans, Kobus is wary of sharing too many details.
“Somewhere in the back of my mind there’s an evolution I’m hoping will happen,” hints Kobus. “But I’ll always keep it small and local.”
Wherever the West Coast wind eventually blows Oep ve Koep and its unique approach to cooking local, you can be sure those bokkoms won’t be far behind.
St. Augustine Road, Paternoster
022 752 2105
9am - 2.30pm, Monday to Sunday