NOVEMBER 2013 – Lobster and oysters are prized around the world, but seafood purists agree that the best catches of these seasonal delicacies are harvested from the waters that surround Southern Africa.
Since the earliest Portuguese navigators battled their way around South Africa’s windswept coast in the 1400s, the southern tip of the darkest continent has been famous – and infamous – for its oceans. The squalls that cast ships upon the rocky shores of the so-called ‘Cape of Storms’ ensured that sailors treated the Capes of Good Hope and Agulhas with the respect they deserve. These were dangerous journeys, but the spice-infused riches of India were reward and incentive enough. Centuries after those early voyages the oceans of Southern Africa remain among the most famous in the world, but this time for an altogether different reason. Today the treasures lie beneath the ocean waves, rather than across them in distant lands. Glistening in sunshine, these sparkling treasures are enjoyed in some of the most glamorous locations on earth, from the millionaire marinas of Cape Town to the boutique hotels that dot the continent’s coastline.
And perhaps chief among the treasures that are hauled from the icy waters of the West Coast is the sought-after Jasus lalandii. So valuable is this crustacean that the fishermen who have worked these waters for generations know it simply as ‘red gold’. The West Coast Rock Lobster isn’t the only species of lobster found off South Africa’s coastline, but it is by far the most valuable. An astonishing six million of them are hauled from the sea each season, and it’s a rare visitor to the Cape who doesn’t indulge in a perfectly grilled lobster doused in fragrant garlic butter and washed down with a fine Sauvignon Blanc from the nearby winelands.
Of course, rarity breeds exclusivity and there are few dishes on the Cape’s restaurant menus with quite the same cachet as lobster. But rare they certainly are: over 75 percent – and some fishermen suggest it’s as high as 90 percent – of the crustaceans are exported to the Far East, Canada and Europe. Most are loaded live, direct from the boats into refrigerated trucks on the quayside, and driven straight to the airport. Next stop: Asia. And when Chinese New Year rolls around, the demand is insatiable.
With prices varying from US$30 to $70 per kilogram, it’s a valuable industry, yet the debate over the use of South Africa’s limited lobster resources is ongoing. Should the prized shellfish be sent abroad for the valuable foreign exchange, or kept on local tables? Should large commercial boats get the largest quotas, or should in-shore artisanal fishermen who’ve worked these waters for generations get the lion’s share? Considering that lobster on the local market sells for a quarter of the export price, it’s not hard to see why cartons of red gold fly east every day.
Lobsters are found along most of South Africa’s coastline, but the East Coast Rock Lobster doesn’t compare when it comes to inside the kitchen, says Kevin Joseph, award-winning executive chef at The Oyster Box hotel in Durban. Despite the fact that his restaurant gazes out over the Indian Ocean, it’s mostly the sought-after West Coast Rock Lobsters from the icy Atlantic that end up on his menus. ‘The cold-water West Coast lobster gives a better taste than the warm-water lobsters here. I think it has a sweeter meat, and the meat has a firmer texture.’
And with stints in upmarket kitchens from London to Singapore under his belt, Joseph is a man who knows about seafood. He is the chairman of the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs in KwaZulu-Natal, from which The Oyster Box holds a prestigious Blazon. ‘I love working with crustaceans: crab, langoustines, prawns. I love the sweetness of the meat, and with good ingredients you don’t have to do much to get a wonderful flavour on the plate. I especially love prawns: I think there’s a real wow factor to serving prawns, and in our restaurants we sell around half a ton a month!’ And while many restaurants import prawns from Asia and India – where vast farms have a poor reputation for their environmental impact – Joseph brings his in from just across the border. ‘All of our prawns are Mozambican; the sweetness of the meat is incredible, and unlike Asian products, they haven’t been frozen for months. I also think Asian and Indian prawns have less flavour; they just don’t have the taste of the sea.’ For a true smack of the sea, it’s Crassostrea gigas that most summer visitors turn to… most frequently in the half-shell on ice with just a dash of lemon and Tabasco. The salty echo of Islay whiskies is equally a perfect companion. Why not charter a catamaran, chill a few bottles of local Méthode Cap Classique and enjoy the sunset off Clifton while shlurping back mouthwatering Pacific oysters.
It’s the same icy waters of the West Coast that have made local oysters famous worldwide. Oysters are farmed – and, to a lesser degree, harvested from the wild – from Namibia around to South Africa’s East Coast. Wild Peacock, Stellenbosch-based purveyors of highend sustainable seafood, sources oysters from across the region. ‘Oysters take on different characteristics according to the area they’re farmed in,’ explains the company’s Ross Baker. ‘Saldanha Bay oysters are from nutrient-rich cold waters so they’re sweet in flavour, whereas East Coast oysters are saltier and don’t have as much flavour.’
If that sounds a little like the notion of terroir, you’d be correct. In fact, an oyster farmer in Seattle even coined a term for it: ‘merroir’. And perhaps the finest merroir in Southern Africa for farming oysters is found an hour north of Cape Town in Saldanha Bay, where Antonio Tonin’s Saldanha Bay Oyster Company is the country’s market leader in producing oysters for the local and overseas market. Of the roughly 3.5-million oysters grown in South Africa last year, two million of them came from the company’s floating farms. ‘The cold Benguela marine ecosystem is a nutritious environment. Plankton densities in the water are extremely high, which is perfect for farming oysters,’ explains Tonin, adding that Saldanha Bay is one of the few bays along this stretch of coastline that can provide proverbial safe harbour from winter storms.
‘The Langebaan lagoon system also acts as a solar pond, so water temperatures in the bay are higher than the general sea temperature on the West Coast,’ says Tonin. ‘We farm the Pacific oyster, which originates from the Sea of Japan and is very well suited to aquaculture. It’s hardy, fast growing with a good taste and appearance.’
Around a third of Saldanha Bay Oyster Company’s production goes abroad. Just 36 hours after being plucked from their plastic crates in the icy waters, they’re offloaded in Hong Kong none the worse for wear. ‘An increasing number of oysters are exported,’ explains Tonin. ‘Our oysters have been very well received in the Far East and our expansion plans are focused on developing that market. The feedback we’re getting is that our oysters are on a par with those from France… we’re definitely preferred to Canadian and Australian oysters.’
While Pacific Oysters account for most of the oysters consumed in the world today, there is also ongoing research into farming indigenous South African wild oysters. Perhaps our local merroir will one day spawn a shellfish equivalent to local Pinotage?
And although oysters are harvested throughout the year, it seems that South Africans have lots to learn about making the most of these tasty bivalves. ‘The interesting thing is that our oysters are at their best – taste-wise – in autumn and early winter, when demand is lowest. Summer, when the demand is at its peak, is the spawning season for oysters and they can get a bit milky, with a creamy texture,’ says Tonin. ‘Winter’s definitely the best time to eat oysters as they’re sweeter in flavour. But nobody wants to sit in the rain and eat oysters!’ adds Baker.
But perhaps we should be more like the French and enjoy our oysters when they’re at their wintry best. In France, half the annual production is consumed in a single week, between Christmas and New Year. Maybe it’s up to the chefs to come up with a solution, and one young Cape chef making waves with her seafood is Tanja Kruger at Makaron, the awardwinning restaurant at Majeka House boutique hotel in Stellenbosch. Each year, during the southern hemisphere winter, Kruger spends time cooking in Europe’s top kitchens and this year she returned from Scandinavia brimming with ideas. While most chefs are content to serve oysters raw in the half-shell on a bed of ice, Kruger completely reimagines this decadent mollusc. ‘It’s really important to work at intensifying the inherent flavour,’ she explains. ‘We use West Coast farmed oysters and cook them sous vide in their shells for 45 minutes. They’re not cooked, but they’re also not raw, and again, it’s about intensifying the flavour. They’re then served with the oyster juices from the sous vide, mixed with fennel juice.’
Chef extraordinaire David Higgs, who heads up the Saxon’s Five Hundred restaurant, takes the same line with his oysters, which he traditionally serves as deliciously frozen macaroons as part of an opening salvo of preserved fish. This Christmas, however, he’ll be dishing them up in the guise of tapas: grilled, and served with truffled pea soup, sour cream and a glass of bubbly.
His Cape culinary counterpart, Margot Janse, offers hers both au naturel and with a cucumber and verjuice granita at The Tasting Room at Le Quartier Français. In fact, so popular are the delicacies that the restaurant has dedicated a series of Sunday gourmet gatherings to them (with, of course, a Bloody Mary on the side), which runs throughout the summer months. ‘Bright, briny and beautiful,’ is how the boutique hotel and restaurant’s owner, Susan Huxter, describes the molluscs, adding that ‘West Coast oysters are sublime: sweet and plump, with powerful seaweed umami flavour.’ While shellfish dominate the tables at five-star hotels from the Cape Winelands to the star-studded Atlantic Seaboard, South Africa’s lengthy coastline has offered a cornucopia of other fish over the centuries, and continues to do so. Plates of Loligo vulgaris reynaudii – the ‘Rolls Royce of calamari’, caught off the southern Cape – are rarely seen on local tables because the Cape Hope squid is so sought-after in Europe. Much of South Africa’s hake follows close behind as does highly-prized big-eye and yellowfin tuna, both found in the deep waters off Cape Point. With most local tuna polecaught, South Africa also remains one of few fisheries world-wide accredited as being dolphin-friendly, opening up lucrative export markets.
‘With wild-caught fish we’re very seasonal: snoek is generally a winter fish, yellowtail in the summer, kabeljou and geelbek are sporadic in spring and tuna runs from early summer all the way through until March and April,’ explains Paul Joubert, an ex-fisherman and owner of Southern Cross Seafood in Cape Town. ‘The quality of our seafood here in Cape Town is amazing, and it’s all local,’ adds Brad Ball, head chef at the stylish Bistro1682 on Constantia’s Steenberg wine estate, and a regular client of Southern Cross. ‘The one dish I really want people to understand is hake: generally people’s perception of hake is that it’s a bland, watery, floury fish. But fresh hake from our local waters is absolutely delicious; when cooked properly it’s a fantastic dish.’
And it’s an important point. While shellfish are perhaps the most glittering of South Africa’s marine marvels, there are other treasures waiting in plain sight. Look past the obvious and you’ll be surprised and delighted at what’s on offer. For, with such world-class produce on its doorstep, South African seafood, from shellfish to sustainable line fish, is most certainly flavour of the month.