“Slat my dood met ‘n pap snoek!” is an expression Capies sometimes use when they’re blown out of the water by something astounding. Of course it sounds far more authentic when your two front teeth are missing and the sibilants come lisping out through the passion gap.
Though it somehow misses the juice in translation - “Hit me dead with a flabby snoek!” - the expression is proof of how deeply entrenched snoek is in Cape mythology. Fishermen have been trawling it in the tempestuous Cape waters ever since Van Riebeeck’s men first got their fingers bitten off by its fierce teeth in the 1600s.
At one time snoek was the staple diet of half the Peninsula. Some bright Hout Bay spark even managed to do a deal with Mauritius in the early 19th century, swopping dried snoek for sugar. And during food shortages after the war, Britain bought loads of snoek in tins. Not that this did anything for its image. The fish was so badly canned it put the Brits off snoek forever.
I suspect that bad British press is one of the reasons this tasty seafood hardly ever finds its way on to the menu of upmarket Cape Town restaurants, even though it’s the fish the average Capetonian always goes to look for when the wind finally drops and the thought of a nice fish braai in the backyard becomes irresistible.
The other reason of course is the bones. Though the compact, strongly flavoured flesh of this member of the oily mackerel family is delicious and unforgettable, you have to contend with an astounding number of long vicious-looking bones that are most effectively removed with the fingers. Which is fine at a braai, but not something you can expect clients to do when they’re eating in a five-star set-up, says Grant Cullingworth, executive chef of the Westin Grand Cape Town.
“In a restaurant it’s difficult to serve snoek as a portion fish because of those bones. You have to flake it or do it as a mousse,” says Cullingworth. He thinks it handles best smoked, and the dish he likes to make is inevitably traditional: Snoek and Sweetcorn Frikadelle.
He serves his smoked snoek frikadelle with apricot ice cream and sweet chilli and apricot konfyt. It’s his elaborately titillating take on the classic West Coast combination of jam with fish, a combo that might boggle the mind but works magic on the tastebuds.
Another snoek fan and also a great snoek angler is Stephen Templeton, ex-Mount Nelson executive chef now running a gem of a restaurant at his Four Oaks guesthouse in Montagu. “I’ve caught snoek in Gordon’s Bay and it’s hell to deal with,” says this blond British boykie. “You work your butt off. There are spikes all over them and they’re devils. You bleed all over the place.”
Yet it’s evidently worth it. “Snoek roe
is delicious, a delicacy,” he says.
“The fishermen fry it and eat it with bread.”
He learnt the secrets of cooking snoek from Ralph Cupido at Spier in the days of the traditional South African buffet at Jonkershuis restaurant.
“That man could do the most amazing things with snoek. One of his best snoek dishes was with homemade apricot preserves. He soaked the fish in milk and flavoured it with onions and bay leaves.”
Though Templeton himself does a nice take on traditional smoor snoek, using Chinese cabbage and marogo (wild African Swiss chard) instead of the traditional flaked onions and potatoes, he likes dishes that are funky and fun. “I think a great idea would be a smoked snoek mousse that you freeze it, wrap in sea weed and serve with a wild oyster on a bed of seaweed. And because it needs a bit of sweetness, I’d add a little mango compote.”
Smoked snoek is also the choice of Bruce Robertson, formerly of The Showroom and now doing his gourmet picnics for Warwick wine estate. Robertson’s suggestion for a great snoek dish is a layered terrine, combining the smoked snoek with aubergine, since it’s a nice complimentary texture, and then wrapping in nori sheets and spinach leaves.
A chef renowned for his quirky approach to food, Robertson believes it’s high time South Africa restaurants were more adventurous. “Snoek is a lekker fish, very versatile. We should use more of it, and not just in smoked snoek pâté.”
Certainly he must be the first chef in the world to have tried giving customers bokkom – those tiny harders that are salted and dried on the line in the wind like washing, until they look like catfood and taste like fish biltong, distinctly smelly. I’d have thought you’d only find them tasty if you were shipwrecked off Yzerfontein with nothing to eat for a week, but Robertson says he can turn them into a delicious bokkom veloute that goes very well with abalone carpaccio.
One area where all the chefs are in agreement on is smoked snoek. It’s definitely on a more epicurean stretch of turf than any other kind of snoek - fried, braaied, grilled, baked, curried or pickled. In fact smoked snoek is arguably one of South Africa’s most valuable culinary assets, far outstripping biltong - which comes closer to leather than food - and bobotie, that spicy-custard-and-sawdust thing which is really only edible when some imaginative chef has fiddled with the traditional ingredients.
We could be getting a lot more global mileage out of our smoked snoek. It could be known around the world as a South African delicacy, as instantly recognisable as the rubbery escargots of France, which for flavour and texture it beats hands down. But we always downplay the local. If Parma’s much-praised slices of elderly raw pig were aged in Salt River, the chances are we wouldn’t think they were terribly special.
Distance does lend enchantment. Smoked snoek has been one of the Cape Town tastes I’ve missed most living abroad. I’m not the only one, as I discovered when an ex-pat friend in New York sent me a New Yorker article by American columnist Calvin Trillin.
Written with dry humour, it tells of how Trillin’s friend Jeffrey Jowell, who grew up in Cape Town and became a distinguished London law professor, has for the past 30 years experienced intense yearnings for the snoek of his home town, particularly smoked.
On holiday visits he always goes in search of snoek. He and Trillin go on what the columnist describes as “a sort of snoek tour” of Cape Town, trying it out in places as far-ranging as the food booths on the Parade outside the City Hall and Olympia Café in Kalk Bay. At the Olympia, one of the chefs tells Trillin that the reason the restaurant never features snoek as the linefish of the day is because “White people won’t eat snoek.”
They also visit Palace Fisheries, specialists in smoked snoek. It’s in Lower Main Road, Salt River, not the usual stamping ground of law professors and upmarket New York media types. But Palace Fisheries comes highly recommended, and it seems the visitors get not only a short course in curing snoek from the proprietor, Emanuel Dos Santos, but also a delicious hunk of smoked snoek they decide is considerably more delectable than the piece of fried snoek covered in “plaster-cast batter” they’ve just had at Snoekies in Hout Bay.
Naturally, as a smoked snoek addict, I waste
no time in heading for sleazy Salt River.
The fish-and-chips shop turns out to be hardly big enough to swing a sardine frankly, but Dos Santos, a stocky young Portuguese with a bristling moustache, has become more famous in New York than in Cape Town. Since the article appeared, people keep pitching up and asking for him by name. He tells them “You must have been reading the New Yorker. No-one around here knows me as Emanuel Dos Santos. They just know me as Manny.”
He has a bewildering variety of customers. One is as skinny and dried out as the piece of repellent-looking salt snoek he buys for a pittance. Made from snoek that’s gone pap, salt snoek is a poor relation of smoked snoek. Dos Santos says “He eats it just like that, to get rid of his hangover. It’s the salt.”
Palace Fisheries has been here well over half a century. The father of the Ferreira who currently owns it used to smoke his snoek on the small wood fire at the back that they still use. One lone black worker is there working with a load of about 60 gutted, opened-out fish that Dos Santos got from the “langanaar,” the middle man who bids for the fish when they come into harbour on small snoek boats, surrounded by squealing seagulls.
Dos Santos keeps his prize fish, chunky and big, in an old wooden cold room. The whole place is seriously antiquated but the wedge of smoked salmon he cuts for me is heaven – thick and firm with that distinctive smoked snoek flavour that your tastebuds never forget. And considerably cheaper than anywhere else.
“It must always be moist,” he says. “If it’s too dry it’s tasteless. The Muslim community like it quite pap, so they can spread it on bread, but when it’s pap it doesn’t last as long.
Of course you get a lot of pap snoek - snoek with worms – but it’s nothing, it’s never killed anyone.”
Except of course in the old saying “Slat my dood met ‘n pap snoek!”
“Hey,” he says, “I haven’t heard that saying in years.”