29. Aug, 2015

Our freshwater fish: the Good, the Bad & the Ugly

I was fortunate enough to grow up on a pine plantation on the Mpumalanga Escarpment, and to do so before video games and social media. I spent my free time pursuing the numerous freshwater fish present in the area. The Sabie river held trout, most farm dams contained largemouth black bass and the Ohrigstad dam was famous for its feisty smallmouth bass. Yellowfish, both small- and largescale, teemed in the lower reaches of the Sabie and other rivers - the photo shows my father Thys with a 2.5 kg whopper caught on fly tackle - while kurper, carp and catfish were present in most impoundments. Last, but not least, there was what today would be called X-treme Nite Fishing: landing and trying to subdue a metre or more of pissed-off eel! Like Norman MacLean, as a boy I was haunted by rivers.

As an aspiring cook, I wasn’t satisfied with merely catching fish – I wanted to learn how to cook them too. There were three sources of information available to me: Mrs de Villiers’ “Kook en geniet”, Leipoldt’s “Polfyntjies vir die proe” and Flip Joubert’s “Stywe lyne”. Between consulting them, and lots of trial and error, I managed to serve up a few decent meals over the years. Ever since those care free days in Sabie, I have been offended by the rash, uninformed “dissing” of our freshwater fish by the blissfully ignorant. All of the major freshwater angling species present in South Africa can make good eating with a modicum of knowledge and effort, and I hope this piece will inspire some of you to give it a go. I will not refer to tigerfish, which has a minute “footprint” here, and mudfish because, well, the name says it all!

Black Bass

It would be logical, but wrong, to assume that the ancestors of Southern Africa’s Largemouth Bass (Micropterus salmoides) population came from the United States. Our first largemouths were actually bred in Arnhem, Holland, in the summer of 1927. From there 49 fingerlings in six cans were shipped to South Africa via England in the care of the late Mr P J Neville, Honorary Secretary of the Rand Piscatorial Association which had ordered the fish. Using a primitive arrangement of a foot pump, a football bladder and rubber tubing to aerate the fish every five hours, Mr Neville took such good care of his charges that only four were lost on the voyage. On 20 February 1928, Mr Neville handed the 45 survivors over to Mr F G Chaplin at the famous Jonkershoek Hatcheries in Stellenbosch and, in October the following year, black bass bred for the first time in Southern Africa. The largemouth population was boosted by the introduction of the “Florida” subspecies in the 1980s. These brutes grow to more than 10 kg in the Southern USA, and fish in excess of 6 kg have been caught locally. Bass angling has become a very popular sport, as the largemouth is a voracious predator that takes artificial lures readily and fights hard on light tackle.

Smallmouth Bass (Micropterus dolomieu) arrived in our country almost 10 years later when 29 survivors, out of a shipment of 55 ordered jointly by the Cape and Natal, were handed over to Jonkershoek on 22 October 1937. Soon afterwards Natal claimed its share of the shipment and all were lost during transportation. At the end of 1937, the fate of the smallmouth bass in South Africa rested with 12 surviving fingerlings at Jonkershoek. That they reached maturity and bred, thus giving rise to the present populations throughout the country, where they lost no time decimating indigenous river fish. Spotted bass (Micropterus punctulatus) arrived two years later and although they were successfully bred in both the Cape and Natal, they have never played a major role in South Africa. The smallmouth is the dominant fish in the lower reaches of the Olifants and Breede rivers in the Western Cape, where the indigenous yellowfish and Galaxias have been overwhelmed by the Yankee invaders. Pound for pound the smallmouth is the more dogged fighter, but it is somewhat smaller than the two largemouth strains. A 3.5 kg fish is considered a trophy.

Bass are not just famous for their aggression and fighting ability – they are also great on the table. As piscivous predators, their white, flaky flesh has a clean taste and pleasant flavor. My favorite way of serving them is deep fried in a beer batter.

Preparation time: 20 minutes

Cooking time: 20 minutes

Serves 4

Tastes best accompanied by a chilled Sauvignon Blanc or Colombard

900 g Bass fillets, about 1.5 cm thick

1 ¼ 350ml Flour, plus more for dredging

½ Tsp baking powder

1 Egg, beaten

340ml Lager beer

½ Tsp garlic powder

½ Tsp salt

½ Tsp black pepper

750ml Sunflower oil

  • Rinse the bass fillets in cool water, pat them dry, and set aside.
  • In a large bowl, whisk together the remaining ingredients.
  • Dredge the fillets in flour, then dip them in batter. Allow excess batter to drip back into the bowl. Note: If the batter becomes too thick, add a little milk or water. If it gets too thin, add more flour.
  • Carefully place battered bass fillets into the oil that has been heated to 170˚C.
  • Fry in two batches until golden brown. This should take about 10 minutes per batch.
  • Drain on paper towels and serve with lemon wedges, tartare sauce and a starch of your choice.

Carp

Let me begin with a confession: I am not a fan of Cyprinus carpio. They are ugly, don’t fight tenaciously and have probably done more harm to the quality of South Africa’s water resources than all our dysfunctional riprarian municipalities put together. These natives of Europe and Asia have been introduced to various locations around the world, though with mixed results. Due to their habit of grubbing through bottom sediments for food and consequential alteration of their environment, they destroy, uproot and disturb submerged vegetation causing serious damage to indigenous fish populations. In water-poor Australia, they are the cause of permanent turbidity and loss of submerged vegetation in the Murray-Darling river system, with severe consequences for the river ecosystem and surrounding farming communities. They have also proliferated in the Mississipi system in the USA, and are threatening to find their way into the Great Lakes system.

Notwithstanding this, untold millions will no doubt disagree with me. Izaak Walton was certainly a fan: he remarked in The Compleat Angler, "The Carp is the queen of rivers; a stately, a good, and a very subtil fish; that was not at first bred, nor hath been long in England, but is now naturalised". Common carp are extremely popular with anglers in many parts of Europe, and their popularity is slowly increasing among anglers in North America. The secret is their size and adaptability: carp can attain a size of over 45 kg, and are very tolerant of most conditions, though they prefer large bodies of slow or standing water and soft, vegetative sediments. They can live and spawn in both fresh or brackish water with a pH from 7.0 - 9.0, and a temperature range of 10°C - 30˚C. It is therefore possible to catch big carp even in places where few other species can survive, let alone thrive.

Attitudes to carp as a recreation or sport fish vary around the world. In Europe, even when not fished for food, they are eagerly sought by anglers, being considered highly prized "coarse fish" that are difficult to hook. In the United States, the carp is classified as a damaging exotic species, but with sporting qualities. Many states' departments of natural resources are beginning to view the carp as an angling fish instead of a maligned pest. In Canada, carp are gaining popularity as a worthy sport fish, especially in the provinces of British Columbia and Ontario. Fly fishers sometimes refer to carp as “freshwater bonefish”, due to the difficulty anglers have in getting them to take a well presented fly. In New Zealand carp are regarded as noxious fish, and while recreational fishing is permitted in some areas, they must be killed when caught. In Central Europe there is a strong connection between Christmas and carp fishing. Traditionally in Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, on Christmas Eve the man of the house would go and fish for the carp or buy it at the fish market. Fish would be usually brought home alive and kept overnight in the bath (this is not as weird as it seems – spending a day in fresh water purges the fish of any “muddy” odour). On the Christmas night the Carp is killed and freshly served fried or steamed. Leftovers of the fish would be used to cook a traditional fish soup.

Here is a traditional Polish Christmas Carp recipe, for the intrepid “papgooiers” among you to try:

Preparation time: 20 minutes.

Cooking time: 1 hour 30 minutes

Serves 4 to 6

Tastes best accompanied by a chilled dry Rosé

The fish:

A 1.5 – 2 kg Carp, gutted and scaled, head and tail removed and reserved for stock

3 Tbsp unsalted butter

3 Tbsp flour, plus extra for dredging the fish

500 ml Fish Stock; the recipe follows below

250 ml Dry red wine

4 Tbsp raisins

2 Tbsp almonds, flaked

2 Tbsp honey

1 Tsp ground ginger

The juice of ½ lemon, plus lemon wedges for garnish

3 Tbsp canola oil

Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

4 Sprigs fresh flat-leaf parsley, for garnish

 The stock:

The carp head and tail

5 - 6 Allspice berries

4 Bay leaves

2 Celery stalks, roughly chopped

1 Carrot, roughly chopped

1 Onion, roughly chopped

  • Place the head and tail of the carp into a large stock pot, followed by the allspice, bay leaves, celery, carrots and onions.
  • Cover completely with water and bring to a boil over medium-high heat.
  • Reduce the stock to a simmer and cook, skimming scum off the top occasionally, for 1 hour.
  • Strain the stock and discard the solids.
  • Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat.
  • Whisk in the flour to incorporate and cook until smooth, 2 to 3 minutes.
  • Whisk in the Fish Stock and red wine until incorporated, and then stir in the almonds, raisins and honey.
  • Cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the sauce has thickened and the flavors have married, about 15 minutes.
  • Season with salt and pepper and stir in the ginger and lemon juice. Keep warm.
  • Meanwhile, slice the carp into steaks.
  • Sprinkle with salt and pepper and dredge in flour to coat.
  • Heat the oil in a nonstick saucepan over medium-high heat until almost smoking.
  • Cook the steaks until golden brown, 5 to 6 minutes (depending on the thickness of the steak).
  • Flip the fish and continue to cook until the opposite side is golden brown, 4 to 5 minutes longer.
  • Transfer the fish to plates and spoon a little of the sauce over the top. Garnish with lemon wedges and sprigs of fresh flat-leaf parsley and serve immediately.

Catfish

The African Sharptooth Catfish (Clarias Gariepinus) is a species of the family Clariidae, the air-breathing catfishes. It is a large, eel-like fish, usually of dark gray or black coloration on the back, fading to a white belly. They are indigenous to Africa and the Middle East, from the Orange river system northwards. However, this large and hardy predator is so adaptable that it is able to survive in virtually any river or dam in Southern Africa, outside its natural distribution area and can be found in most fresh water dams, rivers and swamps, as well as man-made habitats, such as reservoirs or even urban sewage systems. In Africa, this catfish has been reported as being second in size only to the Vundu of the Zambesi system. C. gariepinus can reach a maximum length of 1.7 m and can weigh up to 60 kg.

It is a nocturnal creature fish like many catfish, and feeds on living, as well as dead, animal matter. Despite its reputation as a scavenger and carrion-eater, the sharptooth is an aggressive and effective predator. They have been known to “herd” shoals of Tilapia into backwaters and consuming them, and I have caught catfish on artificial lures on several occasions. Because of its wide mouth, it is able to swallow relatively large prey whole. It has been known to take large water birds such as ducks and moorhens. It is also able to crawl on dry ground to escape drying pools. Further, it is able to survive in shallow mud for long periods of time, between rainy seasons. African catfish sometimes produce loud croaking sounds, not unlike the voice of a crow.

Most people who have never tasted catfish recoil at the thought of eating those ugly creatures lurking in the depths of muddy inland rivers and dams. Nothing could be further from the truth. Hear what Dr Leipoldt had to say about the catfish:

“In a farmhouse on the banks of the Grootrivier (Orange River) I once ate very tasty fish. It was a thick fillet; roasted over open coals. It was boneless and tender with a pleasant flavour and a slightly acidic aftertaste. When I asked what it was, the tannie (woman of the house) said that it was the filet of a catfish that had been cut out and marinated in vinegar for a few hours.”

In her folksy way, that old tannie had figured out how to make a despised “trash fish” a very tasty meal. Catfish are lower in calories than most meat products and have lower cholesterol content than most other fish. They are a good source of protein, potassium and thiamine, yet have an unusually low sodium content. In a nutshell, catfish is an excellent table fish after a few simple preparatory steps. My advice is to:

  • Purge it. If possible, don’t kill the fish immediately. Like Christmas Carp, let it swim in clean fresh water for at least 8 hours. This diminishes any “muddy” flavour.
  • Bleed it. Whether or not is had this catharsis, when the time comes to kill it, bleed the fish by cutting up its gills. The blood actually disseminates odours to the muscle tissue. White flesh is tasty flesh.
  • Skin it. Catfish always tastes better without the rubbery skin.
  • Marinade it. I wouldn’t go as far as using vinegar, which could turn you filets into Bismarck Herrings if you’re not careful. I give them an hour in dry white wine or milk, depending on how you plan to cook them. If you’re going to fry them is in my recipe below, the tartness of the wine works better.

The people who probably understand cooking catfish best are Southerners, both Black and White. This recipe for fried catfish will win hearts and minds!

Preparation time: 15 Minutes

Cooking time: 15 Minutes

Serves 4

Tastes best accompanied by a chilled Sauvignon Blanc or Cape Riesling

12 Catfish fillet cuts, weighing about 1.8 kg

1 Cup wheat semolina

½ Cup cake flour

1 ½ Tsp Cayenne pepper

½ Tsp garlic flakes

3 Tsp salt

Sunflower oil for frying

  • Combine the semolina, flour, Cayenne, garlic and 2 teaspoons salt in a large shallow dish.
  • Sprinkle the catfish fillets evenly with remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt, and dredge them in the semolina mixture. Ensure that they are coated evenly.
  • Pour the oil into a large, deep saucepan or Dutch oven up to a depth of 5 cm and heat over medium-high heat to 160°C.
  • Fry the fillets in batches until golden brown and drain them on paper towels.
  • Serve the fish with sweet corn on the cob and coleslaw.

Eel

There are 4 main Anguilla eel species found in Southern and South Africa; all with elongated, muscular, snake- like bodies with long anal and dorsal fins that meet at the back to form the tail of the fish. These fish do have scales but they are very small and difficult to see with the naked eye. They share a number of characteristics: nocturnal predatory habits, the ability to survive outside of water for long periods of time, and – most importantly – they reproduce, then die, at sea. It has been found that their spawning grounds lie to the north of Madagascar, with those of the two mottled eel species closer to Africa, and those of the black eels further east. When their larvae are carried south by the Mozambique Current, the mottled eel larvae pass through the Mozambique Channel and end up in rivers north of the Thukela river in Kwazulu-Natal. The long- and shortfin black eels are swept south to the east of Madagascar, and only reach the African coast further south. They are in turn predominant in the south of KZN and in the Eastern Cape. Their southernmost extent is the Breede River in the Western Cape.

African Mottled Eel (Anguilla bengalensis labiata) are the heavyweights of the family. Known to attain lengths in excess of 1.5 m and weigh more than 20 kg, they occur from Zululand northwards. They are intrepid climbers, and specimens have been caught in the Caprivi Strip. They could only have got there by overcoming the Cahora Bassa and Kariba dams and the Victoria Falls!

Giant Mottled Eel (Anguilla marmorata) can grow longer (1.85 m) as A bengalensis, and nearly as heavy (18 kg). They have similar lifestyles, which include preferring deep, rocky pools and hunting fish, crabs and frogs under cover of darkness. Their “heartland” is in the river systems between Durban and Inhambane.

Longfin Black Eel (Anguilla mossambica) are endemic to South Africa, and predominate in KZN, the Eastern Cape and Western Cape. They also penetrate deep into the interior, and conduct themselves very much like small mottled eels. They can reach 1.2 m and 6 kg.

Shortfin Black Eel (Anguilla bicolor bicolor) are the runts of the litter. They are small (max 0.8 m/4 kg) and only occur near the coast. Otherwise they closely resemble A mossambica.

Eels are divisive creatures as far as their culinary value is concerned. They are not permissible as food under Jewish Kashrut, nor are they a Halaal food to Muslims. But they have their fans as well. Freshwater eels (unagi) and marine conger eels (anago) are hugely popular but expensive. Eels are also very popular in Chinese and Korean cuisine, and is seen as a source of stamina for men. The European (Anguilla anguilla) is highly prized in Northern Europe and the USA. Nordic people go gaga for smoked eel, as well as Paling in’t Groen - eel in green sauce. Spaniards, in turn, love to enjoy elvers (juvenile eels) as Tapas; raw or marinated.

A traditional London East End treat is jellied eels, although demand has significantly declined since World War II. The eel was a cheap, nutritious and abundant food source for the people of London, and were once so common in the River Thames that nets were set as far upriver as London itself, and eels became a staple for London's poor. The first "Eel Pie & Mash Houses" opened in London in the 18th century, and the oldest surviving shop - M Manze - has been open since 1902. Sadly, the eel’s popularity has caused its decline. In 2010, Greenpeace International added the European, Japanese and American eels to its Red List of fish that are commonly sold in supermarkets around the world, and are most likely sourced from unsustainable fisheries.

Fortunately, South Africa’s eel stocks are healthy – probably because the eel isn’t popular among indigenous cultures because of its resemblance to a snake. Like the European eel, our endemics are good eating and can be smoked to good effect. The following recipe has Cajun roots, and will please the most discerning palate:

Preparation time: 2 hours

Cooking time: 20 minutes

Serves 4

Tastes best accompanied by a chilled Colombard or Chenin Blanc

800 g Fresh eel, cleaned and skinned, cut into steaklets

1 Tbsp chopped onion

1 Clove of garlic, crushed

1 ½ Cup cake flour

150ml White wine

350ml White wine vinegar

2 Tsp butter

1 Tsp fish or seafood seasoning

1 Tsp Cajun seasoning

300ml Canola oil

1 Tsp black pepper, freshly ground

3 Tsp salt

Note: If the eel still needs to be skinned, this can be accomplished by fixing the head on a hook or nail, cutting the skin around the neck area and peeling the skin back inside out towards the tail, like taking off a sock. Wash it thoroughly in cold clean water. Remove the entrails, rinse again and cut into steaklets.

  • Wash the pieces of eel thoroughly under cold running water.
  • Place the eel in the vinegar and let it soak for an hour to lose some of its fat.
  • Rinse well under cold running water, then drain well on paper towel.
  • In a large bowl, mix together 1 cup of the flour, seasoning, oil, garlic, onion, and pepper.
  • Add the eel to this mixture and then marinate in the refrigerator for 1 hour.
  • Dredge the marinated eel in flour.
  • In a large saucepan over medium heat, sear the eel until golden brown.
  • Add the white wine and cook until reduced by half.
  • Add the butter and cook until it melts and browns slightly.
  • Divide the eel on serving plates and top with the butter sauce.

Kurper/Bream/Tilapia

The Cichlidae are a fascinating family of fishes, and because it contains a myriad species names can be confusing. Internationally, due to marketing practice, they are all now generically referred to as Tilapia, which is a misnomer. While all Tilapia species are Cichlids, not all Cichlids are Tilapia! Neither of the two premier Southern African species (the Blue Kurper, Oreochromis mossambicus or the Nembwe, Serranochromis robustus) are. While the rest of Africa teems with large, tasty "bream" South Africa has only two species worth pursuing by serious anglers and cooks. They are the Blue Kurper and the Red-breasted Kurper (Tilapia rendalli).

The Blue Kurper is a popular fish for aquaculture. Due to fish farming it is now found in many tropical and subtropical habitats around the globe. It has a deep body with long dorsal fins, the front part of which have spines. Native coloration is a dull dove-grey, with red spots on the fins. Adults reach approximately 40 cm in length and up to 4 kg. It is a remarkably robust fish, tolerating brackish water and surviving temperatures below 10 °C and above 38 °C. The Blue Kurper is native to coastal regions and the Lowveld, from the Zambesi delta to the Kowie river in the eastern Cape. They are omnivores, and consume anything from detrital material through invertebrates to small fry. The Mozambique Bream is a maternal mouth brooder, meaning that spawn is incubated and raised in the mouth of the mother. Parental care is therefore almost exclusive to the female, and henfish that mouth brood sacrifice a lot of body weight, energy and fitness as she can hardly ever eat!. These hardy fish have a mild, white flesh that is appealing to consumers. There is also not a hint of “muddiness” to its taste, and its deep body shape and robust bones mean that they are easy to filet. They are a popular quarry for both bait and artificial lure anglers, and fight doggedly till the bitter end.

Red-breasted Kurper are attractive fish; smaller than their blue cousins but with the same desirable qualities. They require slightly warmer water, and are therefore found predominantly in low-lying areas near the Indian Ocean or in the Tropics. Unlike the Blue Kurper, they are hardly ever encountered in running water. These fish are largely herbivorous, but will feed opportunistically on insect larvae and small fry. They grow to about 35 cm/2 kg) and are not mouth brooders, opting instead to scoop a nest in muddy or sandy shallows. As the adults get ready to spawn, the red spot on the breast of the male grows both larger and brighter to indicate its status. They defend their “nurseries” aggressively and I have caught a few on large bass lures during the spawning season because the lures must have passed too close to their nests!

I am reluctant to eat farmed “Tilapia” without a proper pedigree, because of the unethical and downright unhealthy aquaculture practices often used to produce them. First prize for me is a fresh, self-caught kurper with wild-caught Chambo from Lake Malawi a close second. I am also more than happy to fall back on farmed fish from the relatively clear water of Lake Kariba. As readers have probably discovered by now, I am a sucker for flaky white fish deep-fried in a batter. Here is something different: a recipe with Asian roots that lifts, rather than smothers, the wonderful taste of the fish:

Prepation time: 25 minutes.

Cooking time: 15 minutes.

Serves 4

Tastes best accompanied by a well-chilled Chenin Blanc or Colombard.

1 kg Kurper filets, skinless.

1 Chopped red onion.

1 Cup dry white wine.

1 Cup lemon juice.

2 Cloves garlic, crushed.

1 Tbsp parsley, chopped.

2 Tsp fish spice (of the non-MSG variety – I prefer Ina Paarman’s).

2 Tsp each of salt and freshly-ground black pepper.

1 Cup sunflower of canola oil.

  • Mix all the ingredients, except the fish.   
  • Place the fish filets in a glass bowl and cover with the marinade.
  • Marinade for 20 minutes in a cool place.
  • Drain the filets and set aside.
  • Pre-heat the grill of your oven.
  • Pour the marinade into a saucepan through a sieve to remove solids.
  • Reduce the marinade by half on a hot plate. Keep warm.
  • Meanwhile, grill the filets for about 10 minutes or until browned on top.
  • Place on plates and pour some of the reduced marinade over the fish.
  • Serve with mashed potatoes and coleslaw or chips and mushy peas.

Trout

Homesick colonists introduced rainbow trout and brown trout to South African waters towards the end of the nineteenth century, in keeping with the Victorian custom of transferring British species to the far-flung corners of the Empire. Both species are cold-water salmonids and, as a result of the higher ambient temperatures in South Africa, they can only survive in mountainous regions. Between sport fishing and the rearing and processing of fish for the table, trout sustain a multi-million Rand industry and tens of thousands of jobs. Despite this, there is concern amongst the fly fishing community at the dogmatic attitude of many conservationists who want to get rid of the trout that are allegedly killing off indigenous fish. This is a highly debatable – and biased - view. Trout have been in our local waters for 120 years now, and have a) certainly eaten far fewer indigenous fish than black bass, and b) damaged the ecosystem much less than the carp. Man-made factors like pollution, habitat destruction and water extraction have also done irreparable harm already. Let’s hope that sanity prevails... 

Brown Trout (Salmo trutta) hail from Europe and the British Isles, and are close relatives of the Atlantic Salmon (Salmo salar). They were first introduced into South Africa in 1890 from Scotland, and the first successful hatch of browns was in 1893. Brown trout are much loved by fly anglers because of their selective feeding habits and wary nature. They also attain a decent size: 70 cm/7 kg. In South Africa, self-sustaining populations are confined largely to a few rivers in Kwazulu-Natal and Western Cape. They prefer water temperature in a range between 8° C and 18° C, and are carnivorous. Younger fish concentrate on insects and other invertebrates, while larger browns are active predators of fish, frogs and other larger prey. They generally feed more actively in late afternoon or early evening but when the weather is cool and overcast, they will also feed during the day. The largest browns are predominantly nocturnal.

The Rainbow Trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss)is a member of the Char family, which includes the Brook Trout, Lake Trout and Bull Trout or “Dolly Varden”. It is a native of the Pacific Northwest of the USA, and was first introduced to South Africa in 1897.They prefer cool to cold oxygenated water, optimally between 13° C and 16° C, but scientists have found that this depends on the strain of the fish, its temperature history and its life stage - they have found rainbow trout that survived temperatures of almost 30° C. Its greater tolerance of extreme temperatures have made the rainbow the predominant trout in South Africa. It also grows bigger than the brownie: specimens of over 75 cm/8 kg have been recorded. In contrast to brown trout, which are considered to be pool dwellers, rainbows favour faster water for feeding as well as holding. Rainbows feed on aquatic insects like mayflies, caddis flies, midges, dragonflies and damselflies, and terrestrials like flying ants, beetles and grasshoppers. Minnows are taken mostly in autumn and crabs and frogs add a significant touch of local flavour.

Trout have been popular table fish for centuries, and chefs have developed a myriad ways of cooking them. Because farmed or stocked trout tend to be on the oily side my preferred techniques are either hot smoking or grilling. The following recipe is ideally suited to smaller, whole fish and the fennel flavour complements the taste of the trout perfectly.

Preparation time: ½ hour

Cooking time: 40 minutes

Serves 2

Tastes best accompanied by a “spicy” dry white wine like Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris or Colombard

 

Two pan size (about 450 - 550 g each) trout

400 g Potato

1 Bulb of Florentine fennel (ca. 200 g)

250 g Coarse sea salt

75 ml Dry vermouth

3 Tbsp water

75 g Butter

Table salt and black pepper for seasoning

  • Clean the trout and remove the gills. Sprinkle the skin with the salt and leave for 10 minutes. Rinse and dry with paper towel. Season the body cavity with salt and black pepper.
  • Take a small (max. 200 g) head of Florentine fennel and trim the leaves off for use as garnish. Slice the bulbs thinly and scatter over the bottom of an ovenproof dish.
  • Peel and thinly slice about 400 g of potato. Arrange in a layer on top of the fennel.
  • Pour over 3 tots of dry vermouth and 4 tablespoons water. Season with salt and pepper.
  • Place the trout on top of the vegetables. Place small knobs of butter, 5 cm apart, down the length of each fish, and sprinkle some chopped fennel leaves over them.
  • Cover the dish tightly with foil (shiny side inwards) and bake at 180 degrees Celcius in a pre-heated oven for 40 minutes.
  • Serve with lemon wedges, and coleslaw.

Yellowfish

If one excludes the small, isolated populations of Tigerfish (Hydrocynus vittatus) in the Lowveld and Zululand, the two largest freshwater game fish in South Africa are both Yellowfish: the Orange-Vaal Largemouth Yellowfish (Labeobarbus kimberleyensis) that attains an impressive 20+ kilograms, and the Clanwilliam Yellowfish (L. capensis) that reaches almost 11 kilograms. Eight species are of interest to fishermen and cooks.

Cape Whitefish (Barbus andrewi) are listed as Endangered but would be Critically Endangered were it not for the large population in Brandvlei Dam near Worcester. It goes without saying that catch and release is mandatory for this fish. It is endemic to the Berg and Breede River catchments of Western Cape. The once abundant population has dwindled to the brink of extinction since the introduction of smallmouth bass in the 1930s. The whitefish is a splendid, deep-bodied bronze fish, often with salmon-coloured pelvic and anal fins, especially in breeding season. It can attain at least 80 cm and a mass of 7 kg.  They prefer larger rivers and unlike Clanwilliam yellowfish and sawfin, adults never live permanently in small streams. Unfortunately, the larger rivers are now home to a variety of alien species that crowd them out. Whitefish are now only found in reasonable numbers in a few dams, with the most abundant population in the turbid Brandvlei Dam near Worcester. Adult fishes are omnivorous, feeding mainly on aquatic insects and small crabs, but they also consume algae. Where they are still present in their native range, they swim in schools of up to 50 fish of different age classes.

The Clanwilliam yellowfish (Labeobarbus capensis) is classified as Vulnerable, thus catch and release is mandatory. It is found only in the Olifants-Doring River system in the Western Cape. It was widespread in this catchment before the introduction of smallmouth bass (Micropterus dolomieu) in the 1930s, but over the last 80 years its distribution range and population size have declined drastically because of the impacts of alien fish species. The largest specimen recorded was 98.7 cm long and weighed 10.66 kg. Adults generally frequent large deep pools, preferring those with an abundance of rock ledges and aquatic and fringing vegetation. They also enter riffles and rapids, especially in spring and autumn. Juveniles are usually found in shallow riffles and the backwaters of pools. Adult fish are omnivorous, feeding mainly on aquatic insects, crabs, tadpoles and small fish, but also consume algae and fine aquatic plants. They invariably hunt in small groups of four to 10 fish, which cruise pools searching for food.

The Clanwilliam sawfin (Barbus serra) is listed as Endangered due to drastic declines in its distribution range and population size over the last 70 years because of the impacts of alien fish species. Catch and release is mandatory. Like the Clanwilliam yellowfish, it is only found in the Olifants-Doring River system where it was widespread and abundant before the introduction of smallmouth bass in the 1930s. It can attain at least 60 cm and a mass of 3 kg under ideal conditions, but most fish caught range from 100 to 500 grams. Adults generally frequent large deep pools, preferring those with an abundance of rocky ledges, aquatic and fringing vegetation. They also enter deep riffles, especially in spring and autumn. Juveniles are usually found in shallow riffles and backwaters of pools. Adult fishes are omnivorous, feeding mainly on aquatic insects and small crabs, but also consume algae. They generally eat smaller prey items than the larger and more powerful Clanwilliam yellowfish. Adult sawfin, generally forage in small groups of four to 10 fish, and sometimes school with Clanwilliam yellowfish, cruising pools in search of food.

The Largemouth yellowfish (Labeobarbus kimberleyensis) are the largest of our yellowfish, and can attain a length of 100 cm and a mass of 22 kg. They occur naturally in the Orange-Vaal River catchment. Their preferred habitat is in larger rivers and impoundments and they are absent from the headwater streams. They have also been introduced into the Great Fish River but their status there is unclear. Although there is concern about their well-being, populations seem to be reasonably healthy based on angling reports and fish surveys across their range. Largemouth favour large, deep pools, particularly those that have a lot of rock ledges, some sandy substrate and also submerged and fringing vegetation. Adult fish feed mainly on minnows, larger aquatic insects like dragonfly and damselfly nymphs, crabs and freshwater shrimp. They invariably hunt in small pods of four to 10 fish and search for food along the edges of appropriate structure. In summer, they are at their most active in early morning and late afternoon but, from May to August, they may become active at any time of the day. 

Smallmouth Yellowfish (Labeobarbus aeneus) Smallmouth yellowfish are found in large numbers almost throughout their natural range, the huge Orange-Vaal River system. They were introduced into a number of other drainage basins several decades ago: by deliberate stocking in the Gouritz River (Western Cape) and Kei River (Eastern Cape), and by inter-basin transfer of water into the Great Fish River (Eastern Cape). These are sizeable fish and can grow to 50 cm and 7 kg. Larger fish tend to frequent large deep pools for most of the year and only migrate to nearby gravel beds in order to spawn. Adult fish feed mainly on larger aquatic organisms like freshwater shrimp, dragonflies and damselflies but they readily take minnows and crabs as well. They are gregarious fish, and usually forage in small schools. The smallmouth yellowfish is listed as "Not Threatened", as it is still widespread across the Orange-Vaal River system and is in abundance in most suitable habitats. 

The Scaly Yellowfish (Labeobarbus natalensis) is a moderately-sized yellowfish, and is found throughout Kwazulu-Natal from the Mkuze River in the north to the Mtamvuna River in the south. In summer, it overlaps with trout in the headwater streams of the Drakensberg, and, in ecologically healthy rivers, it extends downstream to the coastal estuary zone. It can attain at least 70 cm and a mass of 4 kg. Adult fish are omnivorous, feeding mainly on aquatic insects, crabs, tadpoles and small fish, but also consume algae and fine aquatic plants. During the warmer months, they often forage in loose groups or small schools that move into the shallowest riffles in early morning and early evening, to prey on aquatic invertebrates. In between, the larger fish generally return to deeper glides and pools. In winter, when the fish have schooled in pools, they cruise around and provide exciting opportunities for sight fishing.

The Lowveld Largescale Yellowfish (Labeobarbus marequensis) is a beautiful, deep-bodied fish and, as its common name suggests, it has noticeably larger scales than the smallscale yellowfish which is often found in the same watersheds. The largescale prefers the warmer stretches of rivers, generally below an altitude of 600 metres, although they occur in the Highveld region too. They are still present in reasonable numbers in most rivers, except those draining Gauteng and those in the west of Mpumalanga where water pollution is a problem. Largescales can grow to 47 cm and 6 kg, and are widely distributed from the Zambezi river system up to the Phongolo system. They are found in streams or at the head of pools in rivers. Sandbanks and gullies are also a favourite haunt for these fish. They feed on insect larvae (particularly those of the dragonfly), flying ants, small crabs, frogs and small baitfish like ghieliemientjies. They are a popular quarry for fly fishermen.

Although the Smallscale Yellowfish (Labeobarbus polylepis) inhabits essentially the same catchments as the largescale yellowfish, L. marequensis, it prefers the cooler reaches or rivers above an altitude of 600 m. Most rivers in the natural range of the species have healthy populations, except for some badly polluted headwaters in Gauteng and Mpumalanga. Smallies grow up to 45 cm and 6 kg. They prefer the larger pools of rivers and gather in large schools during winter. As with the other yellowfish species, they migrate into faster water when the weather turns warmer.This species feeds on a variety of aquatic organisms like mayflies, caddis flies, stoneflies, midges, freshwater shrimp, and dragonfly and damselfly nymphs but big fish will also take minnows and crabs. Like the other yellowfishes, they are social and gather and feed in schools. 

The Bushveld Papermouth (Barbus rapax) closely resembles the true yellowfishes (Labeobarbus) and it has the same range as L. marequensis and L. polylepis. The papermouth attains 1 kilo under ideal conditions but most fish caught weigh between 100 and 300 grams. Papermouth prefer slow-moving water with an abundance of plant cover and so it is not surprising that they thrive in dams, so long as the feeder streams have suitable spawning areas. Despite their modest size, adult fish are predatory and feed aggressively in small schools on minnows, juvenile fish and aquatic invertebrates, especially in early morning and late afternoon.  

As stocks of most of these magnificent fish are under pressure, it is best to practice catch and release as far as possible. Inevitably, some specimens are damaged beyond repair while fighting them; some because they are hooked deep in the throat, others because of exhaustion and stress. There is no shame in keeping them for the pot. Yellowfish have tasty, firm flesh but contain lots of bones. The solution to this challenge is to pickle them – the vinegar in the sauce will soften the bones beyond recognition within a week or two. Here is how I do it:

 

Preparation time: 25 minutes

Cooking time: 25 minutes

 

1.8 Kg skinless Yellowfish fillets, cut into 2 cm x 2 cm cubes

6 Bay leaves

6 Large onions, sliced into rings

3 Cups brown vinegar

1 Cup water

¾ Cup sugar

1 Tbsp turmeric

3 Tbsp medium curry powder

2 Tbsp flour

1 ½ Tsp salt

1 Tbsp black peppercorns

1 Tsp ground black pepper

½ Cup sultanas

½ Cup Sunflower oil

  • Roll the fish cubes lightly in flour & fry for 2 minutes on each side over medium hot oil.
  • Season with salt & pepper & set aside.
  • Simmer the onions in the vinegar, water, bay leaves, sugar, turmeric, curry powder, salt & peppercorns until just cooked, but still al dente.
  • Turn of the heat under the sauce.
  • Mix ½ Tbsp flour with enough of the hot sauce to make a smooth paste.
  • Stir the paste into the sauce bit by bit. The paste will thicken somewhat.
  • Arrange the fish, onions and sultanas in layers in airtight container(s).
  • Pour the sauce over, making sure it covers the solids completely.
  • Fill the containers 100%, screw on the tops & allow them to cool completely.
  • Refrigerate for at least 3 days.
  • Unopened and refrigerated, the fish will keep for up to six months.

Tight lines and good appetite!