Bokkoms up on South Africa’s west coast

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence - AN­DRE PRE­TO­RIUS

THERE is no mis­tak­ing the odour. They are bokkoms and there is per­haps no food in South Africa that ex­udes a sense of place quite as po­tently. The place in ques­tion is the coun­try’s west coast.

Leave cos­mopoli­tan Cape Town be­hind to head north along the coast and soon you en­ter a des­o­late land­scape where the At­lantic surf crashes against the arid plains of the in­te­rior. It is a sparsely pop­u­lated realm of iso­lated farm­steads and scruffy vil­lages. Its prin­ci­pal bounty is the ocean, even if some of that catch — rock lob­ster, abalone — now re­quires strict pro­tec­tion.

None of these fruits of the At­lantic, how­ever, evokes the coast as strongly as the hum­ble bokkom: a small fish pick­led and hung out to dry on string in times of plenty to pro­vide for leaner days.

Like so many of the world’s foods that con­vey a sense of place, bokkoms were born of ne­ces­sity. The twisted forms of this re­gional spe­cialty echo the parched land­scape and the gnarled faces of the men who for years have fished in these waters.

I first en­counter bokkoms at the fish mar­ket in Pater­nos­ter, one of the iso­lated towns strung along the coast. Early Por­tuguese sea­far­ers called here and at nearby Sal­danha Bay cen­turies ago and the town’s name may have some­thing to do with the Latin ver­sion of The Lord’s Prayer. Pater­nos­ter has be­come an artists’ haven of sorts, but it re­tains a strong flavour of the fish­ing vil­lage it once was.

Bokkoms are an ac­quired taste, some­where be­tween an­chovies, gen­tle­man’s rel­ish and the fish sauce of South­east Asia, com­bin­ing sea, pu­tre­fac­tion and salt.

In ad­di­tion to the na­tive form, the fish­mon­ger also of­fers Pater­nos­ter First Aid Kits, plas­tic bags con­tain­ing two bokkom fil­lets and a minia­ture of lo­cal fire­wa­ter. Bokkoms are far from fine-din­ing fare and yet, on a Satur­day af­ter­noon at the Pater­nos­ter Winkel — the lo­cal shop also known as Oep ve Koep, a name of such po­etic Afrikaans al­lu­sion as to defy trans­la­tion — I dis­cover a re­fined side to this tra­di­tional poor man’s food.

At the six or so rus­tic ta­bles set un­der trees be­hind the shop, young chef Kobus van der Merwe serves some de­light­fully lo­cal dishes. There is bobotie — a Malay-in­spired bake as old as the Cape it­self — with the lo­cal touch of an­gelfish rather than the cus­tom­ary lamb or beef. And, hap­pily, there is bokkom on toast. The fil­lets are served be­tween toasted slices of coarse white bread with a cit­rusy driz­zle and a smat­ter­ing of lo­cal herbs, some of which have been grown in the re­tired skiff at the back of the gar­den.

There is a clutch of suc­cu­lent leaves on the plate: ‘‘Dune spinach,’’ Kobus says.

He goes on to ex­plain that bokkoms are tra­di­tion­ally made from harders, a species of mul­let, but that ‘‘the fish­ing meth­ods for harders in the sen­si­tive Berg River es­tu­ary mean there are doubts about sus­tain­abil­ity.

‘ ‘ So I have found my­self a source of bokkoms made from maas­banker [or scad].’’

As in­con­ceiv­able as the idea that bokkoms might ever run out is the thought of this coast with­out them. To South Africans, the West Coast is more than a geo­graphic des­ig­na­tion, it is an en­tire cul­ture. Mere men­tion of the word bokkoms can evoke the spirit of that cul­ture in a flash.

face­book.com/oepvekoep.

AN­DRE PRE­TO­RIUS

Bokkoms are small fish that are pick­led and strung up to dry

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