A Day in the Life of Forager-Chef Kobus van der Merwe

Between what Kobus van der Merwe can find on the shoreline and what he forages in the deceptively rich Strandveld dunes, van der Merwe stocks his kitchen pantry with a unique variety of indigenous plants that in his hands are not just edible, but delicious.

Forager-chef Kobus van der Merwe’s daily commute features farm gates, scrubby dunes and stopping to remove tortoises in his path. The journey frequently doubles as an opportunity to stock up on ingredients for his celebrated restaurant, Oep ve Koep.

Six years ago, Kobus van der Merwe quit his job as an online editor for a restaurant review website in Cape Town, to start afresh and do something more hands-on with food. He moved out of the city to the arid West Coast town of Paternoster to live in a beautiful yet spartan cottage deep in the veld.

Home is where the hearth is. Van der Merwe’s cottage sits in an expanse of West Coast Strandveld, ancient scrub-covered dunes with a literal “pantry” of edible plants. His 15-20 minute commute to the coastal village of Paternoster allows him an opportunity to forage. If an Englishman’s home is his castle, a South African’s braai (“barbecue”) is his kitchen. In the background lies the rocky pinnacle of Kasteelberg, an ancient archaeological site of the San people.

Simple and utilitarian, van der Merwe’s cottage, a reclaimed farm building, maximizes window space to take advantage of the views.

What happened next was even more unusual. Rather than opening a fish and chip shop or a classic seafood restaurant – businesses that would have a decent chance of survival – he started his restaurant Oep ve Koep (Afrikaans for “Open for Business”). Unpretentious yet challenging, Oep ve Koep is a place radically different from anything that even foodie South Africans are generally accustomed, rapidly becoming a benchmark for modern, adventurous, locavore food that also reflects centuries of culinary heritage.

The West Coast is a harsh, bleak part of the South African coastline, stretching from Cape Town right up to the Namibian border. The land becomes drier further north, and quite soon it becomes semi-desert. Trees are few and far between, farming is tough, the wind is a constant companion, swimming in the icy Atlantic Ocean is an activity reserved for the brave and the weather is consistently harsh.

Of all the coastal towns on the West Coast, Paternoster is the postcard-worthy jewel. Featuring whitewashed old fishing cottages and a growing number of well-known eateries, during the summer months it attracts both foreign and local visitors willing to make the two-hour drive from Cape Town.

Van der Merwe’s family used to farm in the Northern Cape, an even drier region of South Africa further into the interior of the country. For most of his youth – until his parents moved there permanently – Paternoster was the family’s holiday destination. Now the van der Merwes run a shop (also called Oep ve Koep) in a building that used to be a shark-liver oil factory. Situated on the same property, spilling out from his tiny kitchen into a small garden where its tables are set, Kobus’s restaurant has become the town’s most notable culinary draw.

On his daily commute to work, van der Merwe drives through Strandveld – a word literally meaning “beach scrub” in Afrikaans and a type of vegetation specific to the West Coast of South Africa. (Its full name is Cape Flats Dune Strandveld and it is officially defined as endangered.) The Strandveld around Paternoster covers land that was once ancient coastline – inhabited by hunter-gathererforager peoples, the San and the Khoi-Khoi.

Drive into town with van der Merwe on his commute and you’ll find him regularly stopping during the journey; without a word of warning, he pulls up, puts his leather hat on his head and disappears into a clump of innocuous-looking shrubs. These plants are not only edible, but very tasty, too.

Natural light, exposed pipes, everything laid bare — van der Merwe’s bathroom is a reflection of the surrounding environment, just with hot running water.

For decades, South Africa – perhaps as a legacy of apartheid and the international isolation that resulted from it – has been outwardlooking, exploring new tastes from across the world. This included the national palate, which was borrowed from Europe, even though there’s a wealth of distinctive indigenous ingredients from which to create truly local dishes. Van der Merwe is at the vanguard of a new South African pride in valuing its culinary heritage.

“I’m extremely inspired by the landscape of the West Coast and its wild food offerings,” he explains. “The more I’ve experimented, studied and researched, the more fascinated and obsessed I’ve become. I think South Africa’s love of exoticism is finally changing. Even just on a small scale – such as using local olive oil, instead of imported. I think the foraging trend will blow over, but to me, being ‘on trend’ has never been the point.”

Van der Merwe adds, “We don’t have the abundance of wild food to sustain everyone suddenly picking dune spinach willynilly anyway. It’s rather about rediscovering forgotten indigenous flavors and appreciating, nurturing and cultivating a culture of understanding and pride in what’s truly homegrown. Hopefully that includes the possibility of propagating indigenous species sustainably in a kind of small-scale permaculture or eco-agriculture . . . but even if it’s just planting your own wild garlic and kapokbos [indigenous wild rosemary] in pots at home, that’s already great.”

Before it became cool to forage, van der Merwe was digging around in the dunes for long-forgotten succulents and other plants. Much of his inspiration came from the legendary Afrikaans poet, cook and naturalist C. Louis Leipoldt, author of “Kos vir die Kenner” (or “Food for the Connoisseur”). “I grew up with my parents and grandparents using Leipoldt’s cookbooks,” remarks van der Merwe. “I’ve always admired his extensive knowledge of indigenous veldkos (or “bush food”) and his passion for cooking innovative, truly local dishes with it. He was a true renaissance man: physician, botanist, chef, poet.”

Like the building it occupies — an old shark-liver oil factory — Oep ve Koep holds a place in time between the past, the present and the future. Old found objects like a stove or rusted pots are repurposed to hold indigenous succulents. On the blackboard, van der Merwe gently educates visitors about a forgotten culinary heritage they have driven past many times.

Behind van der Merwe’s small house – it’s dwarfed by the expansive landscape around it – lie ancient archaeological sites of the San people. These are concentrated around Kasteelberg, a rocky pinnacle, but the cave paintings and shell middens of the area’s original foragers are found all along this coastline. Initially, when he was trying to understand where he could find edible plants, van der Merwe asked for the help of expert botanists. But as he grew to understand the Strandveld better, he realized that everything he needed was right there in front of him, emerging when the time was right. This means that, like the San used to do, van der Merwe forages according to the seasons – and so his menu at Oep ve Koep changes accordingly.

A strandveld plant is displayed in the restaurant’s attic. Part laboratory, part dining space: in the attic of Oep ve Koep, van der Merwe experiments with making vermouth and liqueurs infused with indigenous botanicals.

Van der Merwe adds, “In winter there’s more of a creamy umami, seaweed focus and in summer it’s more fresh and zingy. I find the transitions hard. I’m very connected to the weather personally. If the sun is out, my mood changes. It’s hard to make that shift like that. Yesterday the wind was blowing, it was really cold, misty and wintery and today it’s perfect, sunny and blue. Bang.”

As much as possible, the focus of van der Merwe’s food is local. That means many of the ingredients – Strandveld plants like soutslaai (or “salt salad”), dune lettuce, dune spinach and dune celery, as well as seaweeds such as sea lettuce and kelp – are foraged. Then there’s the fast-disappearing and slow-growing heerenboontjie (known as the “gentlemens’ bean”) a small South African heritage bean similar to a Lima bean that few farmers grow nowadays. Van der Merwe has also begun distilling indigenous herbs such as buchu and wild garlic into vermouth.

All the menus at Oep ve Koep are constructed in relation to van der Merwe’s commitment to sustainability. His foraging efforts, for example, are conducted with great care for the vulnerable Strandveld vegetation. Mediterranean mussels, a widespread alien species in South Africa, are picked off the rocks in front of Paternoster to feature on the menu and the fish – such as angelfish and locally caught kob – are all sustainable. At Oep ve Koep, you won’t find the crayfish so ubiquitous like in other Cape restaurants, as the industry is under immense fishing pressure. And you’ll also probably receive a subtle introduction to bokkoms, the plentiful sun-dried sardines of the West Coast. Loved by locals and in the past treated with suspicion by outsiders, they deliver umami in force.

After lunch service, if it’s a double-shift day van der Merwe takes another short coastal drive to Mosselbank to swim and clear his head before returning to the kitchen for the dinner service. And if he isn’t serving dinner that day he heads back to the farm, foraging along the way to come up with new dishes for Oep ve Koep, which he tries out at home on an outdoor braai [barbecue]. “I thought I’d come to Paternoster for a year to help my folks set up the eatery side of the shop,” confesses van der Merwe. “Now it’s six years later. Unexpectedly, I guess I found my groove!”

Photography Courtesy of Warren Heath/Bureaux.

Styling Courtesy of Sven Alverding.

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