Two Oceans; plenty of Seafood
South Africa is a country of incredible bio-diversity. This is also true of our marine life, thanks to the two oceans that lap our shores and collide off Cape Agulhas. The West Coast ecosystem is shaped by the icy Benguella Current that flows up it from the Southern Ocean, while life on the East and South Coasts is influenced by the warm sub-tropical Agulhas Current. As a rule, the cold water in the West contains relatively few species that occur in large numbers, while the warmer water further East is home to countless species, none of them particularly abundant. As the Benguella Current is very rich in plankton and other nutrients it is home to several species of filter feeders, as well as others that prey on them. In our temperate and warm waters, the predominant species are predators that actively hunt for food. Small wonder that most of the world’s famous seafoods are represented here in some shape or form!
Alikreukel or Giant periwinkle (Turbo sarmaticus) are slow-growing herbivorous sea snails belonging to the class Gastropoda. Gastropods have a large foot on top of which are the body organs which include the gut, reproductive organs, the blood system, heart and kidney. Alikreukels are found in intertidal pools up to depths of about 8m. They are able to close their shells with a lid to prevent water loss. Although common, it is not easy to find large individuals except in marine reserves. I am fortunate enough to know a few spots in the Cape Agulhas area where real whoppers are still reasonably easy to find over Spring Tide.
Like its more glamorous cousin the perlemoen, the alikreukel can be tough and chewy when handled and cooked incorrectly, but a true delicacy in the right hands. The trick is in how to remove it from its turban-shaped shell – drop the alikreukel in heavily salted boiling water and cook it on high heat for 15 minutes. The “foot” can then be extricated by simply shaking the shell vigorously.Remove the guts and head, rinse under clean fresh water and the alikreukel is ready to be prepared in a number of ways. My friends in the Western Province will probably be appalled, but my favourite way of serving this tasty mollusc is not as mince in a creamy nutmeg sauce. I believe one extracts more enjoyment from alikreukel when serving it the way you would garlic snails. This is my favourite way of serving it:
Preparation time: 45 minutes
Cooking time: 10 minutes
Serves 4 adults as a light main course, or 6 as a starter
Tastes best accompanied by a Sauvignon Blanc or unwooded Chardonnay
12 Legal-size alikreukels, cooked and cleaned
250 g Butter
2 Finely chopped shallots (or pickling onions),
4 Large cloves of garlic, chopped
1 Bunch of flat leaf parsley, chopped
1 Smaller bunch of chervil, chopped
1 Tsp. salt
1 Tsp. ground black pepper
A pinch of allspice
- Chill the alikreukel to near freezing. This makes them firmer and easier to slice.
- Slice the alikreukel horizontally in thin (5 mm thick) steaklets.
- Next, mix the savoury butter ingredients and heat slowly over medium heat in a large saucepan.
- When the butter begins to bubble, add the alikreukel.
- Cook them gently for 10 minutes without letting the butter boil.
- Serve in snail dishes or small, deep side plates with cubes of crusty bread to scoop up the buttery sauce.
Black mussel. (Orange River to Eastern Cape). Four species of rock mussels are found along the South African coast - the black mussel (Choromytilus meridionalis) from Namibia to Tsitsikamma, the Mediterranean mussel (Mytilus galloprovincialis) and ribbed mussel (Aulacomya ater) along the south-west and south coast and the brown mussel or Imbaza (Perna perna) on the south and east coasts. Because their appearance, habitat, diet and taste are similar, I will discuss them jointly. White mussels (also known as sand mussels) and clams are sufficiently distinct in respect of these features to warrant separate description.
Rock mussels are among our tastiest seafoods, but need to be handled with the greatest of care. Because they filter particles from the surrounding sea water, they collect and retain pollutants like effluent and the deadly “red tide” algae in their flesh. Rather be safe than sorry: call the Red Tide Alert desk in Cape Town (021) 4394380 or (021) 4023368 before harvesting and eating mussels. If it is safe to collect mussels in your vicinity, only pick mussels near the low-water mark (i.e. that have been continually submerged). Wash them in cold water to remove exterior sand. Discard any mussels that are not completely closed or with broken shells. Scrub them with a strong brush to remove barnacles and pull out the beard. Finally, leave them immersed in fresh water for half an hour. Fresh water irritates them, and causes them to eject any sand trapped inside the shells.
To open the mussels, simmer them in some chicken stock for a few minutes, and as soon as the shells open remove the meat. Again discard any mussels that do not open. They are now ready for eating as is or in a recipe such as my personal favourite, mussel soup.
Noordbaai Mussel Soup
Preparation time: 20 minutes
Cooking time: 45 minutes
Tastes best accompanied by a well-chilled Pinot Gris
300g Black mussels, removed from their shells
300g Gurnard fillets (or any other firm white fish), cubed
125g Rindless streaky bacon, roughly chopped
2 Medium onions, chopped
2 Medium potatoes, peeled and diced
1 Red bell pepper, chopped
25ml Fresh parsley, chopped
2 Bay leaves
25ml Fresh tarragon, chopped
1l Fish stock
1 Tbsp. butter
250ml Crème Frâiche
250ml Full cream milk
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Fry bacon gently in the butter until it starts to crisp up.
- Add the onions and potatoes.
- Cook for about 5 minutes, but do not brown.
- Add the fish stock and simmer for 20 minutes.
- Add the fish fillets, parsley, bay leaves, tarragon and the red pepper.
- Simmer for 10 minutes.
- Finally, add the mussels, the milk and the cream.
- Bring to the boil while stirring continually and serve immediately.
Clams. These bivalves are some of the most recognisable and widely enjoyed shellfish in the world; equally popular among Boston Brahmins and Mozambican peasants. Clams and mussels belong to two different species, and look quite different from one another. Clams are short and squat in shape, and often have a soft neck that protrudes from their shells. They live buried in the sand or sea bed; many can dig and move freely (and speedily). As a general (but not absolute) rule, sand mussels prefer the active water of beaches while clams are happiest in the calmer conditions of estuaries and bays. Although not as prized as the white mussel in South Africa, clams are surprisingly abundant in some parts and well worth pursuing for the pot. Two species in particular deserve seafood lovers’ attention: the ridged tellin clam (Gastrana matadoa) of the south and east coast, and the dwarf rusty clam (Lasaea adansoni) which is so popular in Mozambique.
For those of us not lucky enough to live near the coast, farmed clams and mussels are affordable and free of the environmental and ethical concerns plaguing fish or shrimp farming. In fact, clam and mussel cultivation may actually improve the ecosystem by actively filtering water and consuming algae and plankton that reduce water oxygen levels. I prefer using frozen clams to tinned ones, as they retain the original clam liquor and hence add more to the flavour of the finished dish.
Although it is not of South African origin, I cannot think of a finer way to serve clams than in the form of a Boston Clam Chowder. This dish will satisfy even those who do not generally like seafood. Think of it as Vichyssoise with clams instead of leeks. My recipe is a derivative of the one used in the Union Oyster House in Boston, the oldest restaurant in North America. Done properly, it should taste creamy up front, with a lingering aftertaste of essence-of-seawater – much like a firm oyster. The chowder is extremely hearty and very filling, and consequently starter portions are served in a cup or mug. A plateful should only be tackled as a main course!
Boston Clam Chowda
Preparation time: 20 - 30 minutes
Cooking time: 1 ½ hours
Serves 6 adults as a starter, or 4 as a main course
Tastes best accompanied by a perfumed dry white wine with like Viognier, Pinot Grigio or a dry Gewürztraminer
2 Dozen clams in their shells or 200g clam meat
½ Cup of dry white wine
1l of Seafood stock. If cleaned clam meat is used instead of whole clams, add another 150 ml of stock
2 Medium potatoes, peeled and diced
100g Lean bacon, finely chopped
10 Shallots (alternatively 2 medium onions), finely chopped
100g Butter (preferably unsalted)
½ Tbsp. of olive oil
½ Cup of cake flour
1 Teaspoon of seafood spice
½ Teaspoon of nutmeg
1 Tablespoon of chopped Italian parsley
1l of Half-and-half (50% fresh cream; 50% full cream milk)
Salt, freshly ground black pepper and Tabasco for seasoning
1 Tablespoon of chopped French chives
4 plain Tuc biscuits (alternatively Cream Crackers) per person
- If using fresh whole clams, put them in a large pot or saucepan, and cover the bottom of the pot with the wine and a little bit of fresh water.
- Place on high heat until the clam shells start opening (normally 5 – 10 minutes).
- Remove the clams with a slotted spoon and allow to cool down. Retain the liquid in the pot, and pour through a sieve to remove grit or sand.
- Open the clams with a paring knife – do this over the bowl containing the liquid, so that all clam juice is retained.
- Remove the flesh and set both the clam meat and liquid aside.
- In a large pot (3l or more), cook the potato in the stock over medium heat until the dice start disintegrating. If you don’t have clam “juice” as described above, keep 150ml of the stock separate. Set aside the pot.
- Fry the bacon in the butter and olive oil – stop before it starts crisping.
- Add the shallots or onions and cook until translucent.
- Season with the seafood spice, nutmeg and parsley.
- Sprinkle over the flour and stir it in.
- Stir in the clam liquid or extra stock.
- As soon as a smooth paste forms, remove from the heat.
- Bring the potato and stock to a simmer, and add the clam meat.
- Gradually add the bacon and shallot mixture, and then the half-and-half.
- Allow to simmer for about 20 minutes.
- Check seasoning. The chowder should ideally not require additional salt, but benefits from some black pepper and a few drops of Tabasco.
- Dish up and garnish with the chopped chives.
- Serve with a garden salad on the side.
- Traditionally, the crackers are crumbled on top of the chowder bit by bit. Do not mix it in – it is supposed to provide a textural contrast to the smooth, creamy chowder.
Crabs. South Africa is not particularly well-endowed with edible crabs. The threespot swimming crab (Ovalipes trimaculatus) is collected and eaten by subsistence fishermen and –women, but is not abundant enough to warrant commercial exploitation. This leaves local crab-lovers with two choices: imported frozen blue swimming crabs and the indigenous mud or mangrove crab (Scylla serrata). While the latter are among the tastiest of seafoods, there is nothing charming about a live specimen. Aptly named after one of the two deadly sea monsters mentioned by Homer in the Odyssey, an adult mud crab is truly a bit of a monster. Its formidable claws can remove human fingers in flash, and it is highly aggressive. Like Homer’s monster, it is territorial and will defend its domain against intruders. Specimens of up to 5 kg have been reported, and these giants lumber around mangrove swamps and estuaries like latter-day Tiger tanks. The mud crab is the largest marine or estuarine crab found in our waters, and is a member of the swimming cab crab family.
Mud crabs are found in open, large estuaries with a muddy substrate. They occur from Knysna northwards along the east coast and in many tropical parts of the world. In KwaZulu-Natal and Mozambique, they are found in most estuaries. Mud crabs live in burrows which extend below the low water mark and always contain some water. Despite the formidable size of its nippers, the mud crab feeds mostly on small prey such as tiny snails. However, it is also an opportunistic feeder and will eat dead fish or other animal matter.
Crab meat is not always given the credit due to it. It is cheaper than (and just as tasty) as crayfish or lobster, and is full of protein and omega-3 fatty acids, which help build muscle, protect against heart disease and support the immune system. The stomach-filling protein in crab sates your appetite and is used to build and repair body tissue. The only reason I don’t eat it way more often is that obtaining good quality crab meat is a royal pain in the butt. The "dressed" ready-prepared sort is often chilled into taste-destroying oblivion, shelled claw meat costs a king's ransom, tinned crab is but a shadow of the fresh article, and the prospect of wrestling with an intact armour-plated crustacean can seem daunting. If, however, you do manage to obtain fresh (or carefully frozen) crab you can do a lot worse than trying out this recipe, which I first used in our apartment in Santiago in 1995:
Las Nieves Crab Pie
Preparation time: 1 hour
Cooking time: 40 minutes.
Serves 4 adults
Tastes best accompanied by a well-chilled Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay or Vinho Verde
8 Decent-sized (200 g +) blue swimming crabs or 1 Large (500 g +) mangrove crab – preferably fresh, but frozen will do as well. If they are still alive, put them in a freezer for an hour or so to immobilise them.
A 25 cm diameter pie plate, lined with blind-baked quiche pastry
1 Cup Béchamel (“white”) sauce
1 Small onion (or a large shallot), chopped
½ Cup grated white cheese (I use Mozzarella, but any other mild, creamy cheese will do)
½ Cup of milk
½ Cup of fresh cream
2 Large eggs
½ Tsp. of grated lemon zest
A pinch of ground nutmeg
A pinch of ground mace
1 Tsp. Dijon mustard
1 Tsp. salt
Freshly-ground black pepper to taste
1 Tbsp. finely-flaked almonds
- When using frozen crabs, slowly defrost them.
- Chop the large front claws from the crabs, and twist off all the other legs.
- Cut each crab in half (swimming crab) or quarters (mangrove crab). For the big boys, a meat cleaver works best.
- Rinse off all chips of shell under running water, and allow the pieces to drip dry.
- Simmer the crab portions for 15 minutes in salt water (I like to add seafood stock to enhance the flavour).
- Drain the portions and allow to cool.
- Crack each portion and scrape out as much of the white flesh as possible. Be careful with who you get to assist you – there might well be “shrinkage”!
- Pre-heat your oven to 160ºC.
- Beat the eggs with the milk and cream.
- Fold all the other ingredients, except for the almonds, into the white sauce.
- Gently pour into the pie crust. Allow to settle, then sprinkle with the flaked almonds.
- Bake for 40 minutes.
- Allow to rest for 10 minutes before slicing.
Crayfish or rock lobsters (or spiny lobsters as they are called in some parts of the world) are among the most highly prized – and priced – crustaceans around. Salt water crayfish resembleoutsized prawns, as they lack the prominent pincers of lobsters, langoustines and crawfish. There are four well-known species: the Mediterranean “Spiny Lobster”, the Cape “Rock Lobster”, the smallish South African “East Coast lobster” and the huge Indo-Pacific “Blue Crayfish” often found on fish markets in Mozambique. The two species endemic to the coastal waters of South Africa are Jasus lalandi, which occurs mainly in the cool waters of the Atlantic Ocean, while Palinurus homarus is found in the warmer waters of KwaZulu-Natal and along the Wild Coast. Jasus lalandi are larger and more abundant than their east coast cousins and, as a result, they support an important commercial fishery. West Coast rock lobster may grow to a total length of 46 cm, with a carapace length of 18 cm.
The firm, sweet flesh of the Kreef (crayfish) is one of South Africa’s true culinary treasures, yet until fairly recently it was not held in particularly high esteem by the burgers of the Cape. As Dr CF (Louis) Leipoldt remarked in one of his “Polfyntjies vir die Proe” essays, “… the taste of crayfish was not popular in days gone by – certainly not among the White population. “Boere people” never really liked it, and in my grandmother’s recipe book (which contained numerous seafood recipes) not a word is said about crayfish.” I have been told reliably that when Boland farmers camped by the seaside over the Festive Season, they ate fish and Klipkous (perlemoen) while their servants caught and ate crayfish.
Since those days, crayfish has come to be regarded as the delicacy it is, and modern freezing and transportation techniques have made it far more widely available. Even mediocre restaurants now offer at least Avocado Ritz with crayfish as a matter of course, while the premier ones offer a variety of dishes featuring this erstwhile “ugly duckling” of our seafood. In summer, South Africans go gaga for crayfish simply barbecued, basted with lemon and garlic butter, but in winter the traditional “Crayfish Thermidor” comes into its own. Here is how I make it:
Preparation time: 30 minutes
Cooking time: 30 minutes
Tastes best with a crisp Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc
4 Whole medium crayfish,
2 Lemons, halved.
1 Onion, quartered.
2 Tbsp. spring onions
1 Bouquet garni, consisting of thyme, bay leaves, sage and parsley tied together with a string.
2 Tbsp. butter
2 Tbsp. flour
¼ Cup dry white wine
2 Cups milk
1 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
1 Tbsp. fresh tarragon, chopped
5 Tbsp. grated Parmesan cheese
2 Tsp. parsley, finely chopped
- Preheat the oven to 180˚C.
- Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. Add the lemons, onion and bouquet garni.
- Add the lobster to the boiling water and cook for 8 to 12 minutes.
- Remove the lobster from the water and place in a bowl of ice water. This will stop the cooking process.
- In a sauce pan, melt the butter. Stir in the flour and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, creating a white roux.
- Add the spring onions and cook for 30 seconds.
- Add the wine and milk while stirring all the while.
- Once the sauce reaches boiling point, reduce the heat to a slow simmer.
- Cook for about 3 to 4 minutes, or until the sauce coats the back of a spoon. This sauce will be thicker than a normal Béchamel because it will be used as a filling.
- Season the sauce with salt and pepper.
- Remove the sauce from the stove and stir in the mustard and tarragon.
- Remove the lobster from the water and split them in half.
- Remove the tail meat from the shells and scrape the green and brown “miang” from the carapaces.
- Dice the tail meat and fold it into the roux.
- Stir in half the cheese and re-season if necessary.
- Spoon the crayfish mixture into the lobster tail shells.
- Sprinkle the remaining cheese on top of the lobster.
- Place the filled lobster on a baking sheet and place in the oven.
- Bake for about 8 to 10 minutes, or until the top is golden brown.
- Lay the lobster halves on top on a plate and garnish with parsley.
- Serve with your favourite tangy salad and new potatoes.
Cuttlefish. One of my favourite summer pastimes as a student at the Military Academy in Saldanha was to catch cuttlefish (Sepia vermiculata), using a bokkom to lure it towards the shore and then scooping it up with a large landing net. There are few nicer breakfasts than fresh-caught cuttlefish steaks!
Cuttlefish, despite the name, are in fact not fish but molluscs. Together with octopus, squid and nautiluses they belong to the class Cephalopoda (“to have the head and foot joined”). Cuttlefish have a large head with prominent eyes and two fins running along the side of the mantle (main body). Some species can reach maximum sizes of 50 cm, but they are usually between 15 and 25 cm and weigh between 1 and 3 kg.
Cuttlefish have 8 non-retractable arms and 2 tentacles that are longer than the arms and can be retracted into the mantel cavity. Cuttlefish have an inner shell known as a cuttlebone. This is a porous, internal shell that helps to regulate their buoyancy. They are pale on the underside with constant colour-changing bands on the upper side. This band is what they use to camouflage themselves when hiding on the bottom. They are mainly found in lagoons, estuaries, river mouths and around reefs in shallow waters. They are fast-swimming predators that feed by shooting out their tentacles to catch food (small fish). They escape from predators using jet propulsion and can squirt out ink from their ink glad to confuse the predator.
When it comes to cooking cuttlefish, I am firmly in the “Less is More” camp. Here is how I cook Calamari Steaks:
Southern Fried Cuttlefish
Preparation time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 6 minutes
Tastes best accompanied by a chilled, crisp Sauvignon Blanc
3 Calamari steaks of around 125
2 Egg whites, whisked
1 Cup of cake flour
1 Cup of seasoned bread crumbs
1 Tbsp. butter
2 Tsp. olive oil
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper to taste
2 Lemons – 1 for cooking, the other cut into wedges for garnish
2 Tbsp. parsley, chopped
- Pound the Calamari steaks on both sides with a light mallet.
- Dry them with paper towel.
- Sprinkle them lightly with the flour.
- Dip them in the egg white mixture, then in the crumbs. Make sure they are completely covered.
- Heat the oil and butter over medium heat.
- When the butter begins to bubble, fry the steaks for 3 minutes on one side.
- Squeeze some fresh lemon juice over them, and season to taste.
- Turn the steaks over and cook for 3 more minutes until crispy and golden brown.
- Repeat the lemon and seasoning process.
- Sprinkle the cooked steaks with some parsley and serve them with fresh lemon wedges.
Langoustines have thicker, harder shells than prawns and can easily be identified by their very long pincers. Referred to as “Dublin Bay Prawns” by the Irish, they have extremely tasty flesh, and their spiny shells impart a distinctive aroma when cooked. Italians are besotted with them, and consume tonnes of Scampi every year. Further east, they are a key ingredient in that Thai classic, Tom Yum soup. The first time Jakki and I had it, it made such an impression on us that we went back to the same restaurant for supper and had it once more!
The langoustine generally eaten in South Africa hails from Zululand and Mozambique, and is scientifically known as Nephrops Moçambicus. Its body shape resembles that of a lobster, albeit more slender. It is pale orange in colour, and grows to a length of about 18–20 cm long, including the tail and claws. The abdomen is long and segmented, ending in a broad tail fan. Adults prefer to inhabit muddy seabed sediments, and live in semi-permanent burrows. They spend most of their time either lying in their burrows or by the entrance, only leaving their shelters to forage or mate. Nephrops moçambicus is both a scavenger and predator, and makes short foraging excursions, mainly during periods of low light. They feed on marine worms and fish larvae, which they capture with their claws, and food is conveyed to the mouth using the front walking legs.
At the time of writing, most of South Africa is battling to cope with a major heat wave. One of the countermeasures one could and should employ is eating (and drinking) the right things. It might therefore come as a surprise that I recommend a soup, and one containing hot chillies to boot! Just pause and think: it is not coincidental that people who live in tropical climates consume such vast amounts of hot chillies. Chillies actually cool you down by promoting perspiration. Even more interestingly, the burning sensation caused by eating chillies stimulates the release of endorphins – natural painkillers that produce a sense of well-being in humans. This Thai soup (normally referred to as Tom Yum) is a winner on a hot summer’s day. The endorphins might also lead to pleasant after-effects come siesta time…
Langoustine Tom Yum Soup
Preparation time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 15 minutes
Serves 2 adults as a main course
Tastes best accompanied by a full-bodied white wine, like a well-chilled Chenin Blanc, Viognier or Pinot Gris
3 – 4 Cups chicken stock
12 -15 (about 400 g) Queen-sized prawns, raw and peeled
½ Cup of thinly sliced Shiitake or Porcini mushrooms
1 Lemon grass stalk – mince the tough lower half, and chop the rest finely
3 Lemon or lime leaves
2 Chopped hot chillies (Thai, Serrano or Cayenne are excellent)
1 Bell pepper, finely chopped
3 Cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
2 Tablespoons of fish sauce
1 Teaspoon of lime juice
250 g Coconut milk
2 Tablespoons of chopped coriander leaves
Salt and white pepper for seasoning
- Bring the stock to the boil in a large pot.
- Add the lemon grass and boil gently for 10 minutes.
- Stirring slowly add the mushrooms, garlic, chillies and citrus leaves and simmer for a further 10 minutes.
- Add the prawns and bell pepper and simmer until the prawns are pink and on the point – around 5 – 6 minutes.
- Turn down the heat and add the coconut milk, fish sauce and lime juice.
- Stir and season to taste. If it is too sour for your liking, add a little honey or brown sugar.
- Pour into soup bowls and garnish with the chopped coriander.
Limpet. The limpet or perdevoetjie is a member of the Acmaeidae family. They can be found on nearly all rocky coasts, where they are usually found on rocks in the intertidal zone. Limpets have flat shells, and they cling to the rocks by using a muscular foot, which allows them to remain attached to the rocks even in the roughest of sea conditions. They eat by using their radula, which is an organ similar to a tongue with rows of teeth. Limpets feed on algae and other vegetative organisms. They vary in size from 8 cm – 20 cm in diameter. There are numerous species of limpets and they all share the same basic characteristics. Limpets’ colour varies from white to brown, but there are species which have a sandy color. They are slow-growing, and can live for up to 10 years.
I learnt to appreciate limpets because of my love for perlemoen (abalone). One of the bestways to enjoy abalone is to simply flash-fry thin strips in a mixture of butter and oil. Because it is such a critically endangered species, the only legal way of eating it in South Africa is as mince from a tin or in a restaurant that serves farmed perlemoen. There is, however, a readily available and tasty substitute. Many years ago, when I was living in Saldanha on South Africa’s West Coast, a neighbour introduced me to the "rondavel" limpet (Patella argenvillei) – a large, conical gastropod that is still abundant in the inter-tidal zone of our temperate seas. Just like the abalone, it is tasty but tough when handled incorrectly. The trick is to kill them surreptitiously by immersing them in fresh water for a couple of hours. The foot muscle then relaxes, and if fried quickly over high heat will stay tender.
Treated skilfully, this Cinderella shellfish has lots of flavour. Contemporary Japanese chefs regard the limpet as one of the best examples of full-tasting umami, one of the five basic flavours. One apt description of its flavour is “a combination of clam, conch, and mushroom.” The following recipe bears out this glowing accolade:
Limpet Chowder Diane
Preparation time: 30 minutes
Cooking time: 25 minutes
Tastes best accompanied by a chilled Pinot Gris or Chenin Blanc
500g Fresh limpets, minced or chopped very
¼ Cup butter
2 Tbsp. Canola oil
3 Medium leeks, thinly sliced
1 Onion, chopped
½ Green pepper, chopped
1 Celery stalk, chopped
175ml Fish stock
2 Cups diced potatoes
Salt and pepper to taste
2 Tbsp. butter
4 Tbsp. flour
Salt to taste
A pinch of nutmeg
A pinch of Cayenne pepper
- Heat the oil and butter in a large saucepan.
- When mixture is hot, add all the vegetables and sauté them until they are start browning.
- Add the chopped limpet and the fish stock, and then bring to the boil.
- Add the diced potatoes and let the chowder simmer while you prepare the cream sauce.
- In a separate saucepan, melt ¼ cup butter.
- Add the flour and blend it in thoroughly.
- Add salt to taste, a pinch of nutmeg, and cayenne pepper.
- Let the roux simmer for 2 minutes.
- Mix the cream and milk together, add to the flour mixture and heat gently, stirring continually.
- When smooth, add the Sherry and stir it in.
- Add the cream sauce to the still-simmering chowder.
- Bring to a quick boil, stirring well.
- Serve with chunks of fresh baguette.
Octopus. It might come as a surprise to some readers that the nimble octopus actually belongs to the phylum Mollusca which also includes mussels, clams and snails. They belong to the class Cephalopoda (head-footed) along with squid, cuttlefish and nautilii. Cephalopods are key species in the food chain because they are an important food source for many marine carnivores and also prey on a wide variety of fish and crustaceans. They are an important resource for human consumption as well. Octopuses have a reputation of being excellent learners. They are escape artists of note in captivity, and can figure out how to get out of their own holding tanks and break into others containing prey like shrimps. Interestingly, despite being largely solitary, they can also learn by observation in the same way that more social animals like primates do.
Octopuses have eight arms that are equipped with suckers which they use to catch prey. Their eyes are usually on one side of the head and as complex as a human eye. Their body is protected by a mantle that covers the gills in the back of the head. Water is pushed over the gills and out through a funnel or siphon (tube) near their arms. This siphon can move around to angle the octopus in the direction it wants to move and then by using jet propulsion they can escape or attack at great speed. They are also able to eject a cloud of dark fluid (ink) when threatened and this is used to confuse predators allowing the octopus to escape. They have powerful beaks which are similar in shape to those of parrots. The beak is used to shred prey into tiny parts that can be easily digested. Octopuses are masters of disguise and have sophisticated ways of camouflaging themselves to blend into backgrounds like colourful and rocky reefs, kelp forests, sea grass beds and sandy bottoms.
In South Africa the most commonly seen octopus is the common octopus (Octopus vulgaris) also called Seekat and Ingwane. They can grow to 120cm in diameter, and a weight of 10 kg. They are found on reefs up to depths of 200m below the water surface. Common octopuses live life in fast-forward mode; they reach sexual maturity at about 3 - 4 months of age and only live for 9 to 15 months. Rock and surf anglers prize octopus as bait for reef fish like musselcrackers, red steenbras and dageraad, while lovers of Mediterranean and Iberian cuisine feast on them as well. One of the best ways to enjoy the texture and taste of octopus is Grilled Baby Octopus. It has great flavour, is a pleasantly chewy but not tough—when properly prepared—and it crisps up beautifully under the grill’s intense heat. Small wonder that it’s a favourite summertime dish all around the Mediterranean.
Polpo alla griglia
Preparation time: 50 minutes
Cooking time: 10 – 15 minutes
Serves 4 - 6 people
Tastes best accompanied by a chilled Sauvignon Blanc or Vinho Verde
6 Small octopi
1 lemon, sliced
A few sprigs of fresh parsley, chopped
3 Cloves of garlic
500ml Fish stock
For the marinade:
The freshly-squeezed juice of 3 lemons
2 Tbsp. olive oil
A pinch of oregano
A pinch of chopped chilli pepper
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper
- Simmer the baby octopi with the lemon, parsley and garlic in the stock for about 15 minutes.
- Let the octopi cool in their liquid.
- Drain and cut the octopi up into 3 or 4 pieces, leaving the tentacles intact.
- Place the octopus pieces into a bowl with the marinade ingredients.
- Mix well and let it rest for 30 minutes.
- Get your grill as hot as you can.
- Sear the octopus pieces until golden brown, about 3 or 4 minutes on each side. Brush the pieces with the marinade from time to time.
- Take the octopus off the grill, and put them back in the bowl with the marinade. Mix once to coat all the pieces.
- Plate the octopus, pouring the remaining marinade over everything.
- Serve immediately with lemon wedges and coconut rice or oven-roasted potatoes.
Oysters. Sensual, elegant, and simultaneously representative of simplicity and moneyed ostentation, oysters inspire us in a way other foods can only dream of. There’s something different about oysters. Indeed, some claim that we owe our very intellects to oysters. Large midden piles found near some of the earliest human settlements in South Africa have led scientists to theorize that easy access to the abundant fatty acids found in oysters actually supported brain development among early Homo sapiens, making large, metabolically expensive brains possible.
The best-known and –loved oysters in South African waters are the Kwazulu-Natal rock oyster of the sub-tropical waters of the east coast, and the Cape rock oyster which occurs all the way from Cape Point to Mozambique. Thanks to aquaculture, they have been joined by the European Oyster (Ostrea edulis). A native of the east coast of the Atlantic, from Norway to Morocco, it is now farmed in places like Lüderitz and Saldanha, where the water is too cold to sustain the two indigenous species. Their flavour is described as "dry and metallic", and they are considered excellent for eating raw on the half shell. In Knysna, the “capital” of South African oyster farming, the two native species predominate.
While oysters can be served with a wide range of sauces and toppings, purists recommend tasting them with nothing more than a bit of lemon or other citrus, which complements rather than hides their flavour. When purchasing oysters, select tightly closed individuals that have been stored in a relatively dry environment, such as a mesh bag. Because oysters acquire so much flavour from their surroundings, storing them in water or a chemical solution after they have been harvested changes the way they taste, even causing two oysters from completely different areas to take on an identical flavour after time spent in the same liquid storage. When kept cold, oysters will stay good for up to three weeks in dry storage; however, store-bought oysters may have already spent considerable time in transit and distribution, so it’s best to use them as soon as possible.
Oysters don’t leave people cold. You either adore them or are repelled by them. I am happy to report that I belong to the former school of thought, although I avoid cultivated oysters that are oversized and mushy. To me a firm, often smaller, wild oyster from a cold sea epitomises everything I like about their kind. This how a fellow oyster lover, the late Ernest Hemingway, describes it: “As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea, and their faint metallic taste, … and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to feel happy, and make plans.” Over the years I have experimented with oysters – live as well as cooked – and this is my favourite cooked oyster recipe:
Preparation time: 20 minutes
Cooking time: 25 minutes
Tastes best accompanied by a chilled Brut sparkling wine or an unwooded Chardonnay
24 Medium-sized oysters, on the half shell.
2 Cups baby spinach, chopped
2 Shallots, finely chopped
1 Tbsp. chervil (or parsley), chopped
2 Garlic cloves, minced
75ml Bread crumbs from white bread with crusts removed
75ml Parmesan, grated
4 Tbsp. unsalted butter
75ml Pernod, or any other aniseed-flavoured pastis
2 Tbsp. olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste
Lemon wedges, for garnish
175ml White wine vinegar
2 Shallots, minced
2 Tbsp. cracked black peppercorns
1 Tbsp. chervil (or parsley), chopped
The juice of ½ lemon
- Whisk all the sauce ingredients together and place in the fridge to chill.
- Melt the butter to medium hot in a frying pan.
- Sauté the garlic for 2 minutes to infuse the butter.
- Place the bread crumbs in a mixing bowl and add half the garlic butter, then set aside.
- Cook the shallots and spinach in the remaining butter until the spinach wilts.
- Deglaze the pan with the Pernod.
- Season the contents to taste with some salt and pepper, and add a dash of Tabasco.
- Reduce the heat and allow the mixture to cook slowly for a few minutes.
- Pre-heat your oven to 180˚C.
- Finish off the bread crumbs by mixing in the olive oil, Parmesan and chervil.
- Season with salt and pepper.
- Spoon 1 heaping teaspoon of the spinach mixture onto each oyster, followed by a spoonful of the bread crumb mixture.
- Sprinkle a baking pan amply with the coarse salt and arrange the oysters in the salt to steady them.
- Bake in the preheated oven for until the crumbs are golden – this should take between 10 and 15 minutes.
- Sprinkle the mignonette sauce evenly over the oysters.
- Serve the hot oysters with the lemon wedges and more Tabasco.
Perlemoen or Abalone (Haliotis midae) is a member of a group of small to very large edible marine snails. The Haliotis family has a worldwide distribution, with the majority of species are found in cold waters, such as off the coasts of New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, Western North America, and Japan. The meat (foot muscle) of abalone is used for food, and the shells of abalone are used as decorative items and as a source of mother-of-pearl for jewelry, buttons, buckles, and inlay. The flesh of abalones is widely considered to be a desirable food, and is consumed raw or cooked in a variety of cultures.
Perlemoen cling solidly with their broad, muscular feet to rocky surfaces at sub-litoral depths. Perlemoen reach sexual maturity at a relatively small size. They are slow growers though, and it takes them between 8-10 years to get there. The adults are herbivorous and feed on red and brown sea weed and algae. By weight, approximately one-third of the animal is edible meat, one-third is offal, and one-third is shell. Overfishing and poaching have reduced wild populations to such an extent that farmed abalone now supplies most of the abalone meat consumed. Abalones have also been identified as one of the many classes of organism threatened with extinction due to acidification of the oceans by carbon dioxide, as reduced pH erodes their shells.
In South Africa, rampant poaching has decimated our once-plentiful stocks. Organised syndicates overfish the remaining populations, and even plunder undersized juveniles. When too many perlemoen are harvested in one area, those that are left are too far apart to reproduce. To add insult to injury, climate change has also played its part in this unfolding tragedy. Rock lobsters have moved into areas where perlemoen once predominated. The rock lobsters eat the sea urchins among which juvenile perlemoen shelter, leaving them nowhere to hide. They are then easy pickings for predators like cat sharks. In an effort to reduce the pressure on our remaining stocks, recreational diving and the selling of wild perlemoen has been banned until further notice. Currently, the only legal ways of eating this delectable mollusk are to order farmed perlemoen in a restaurant, or to buy canned, minced perlemoen meat from specialty stores. When I occasionally get hold of the latter – usually at the Dassiefontein farm store near Caledon – I usually make perlemoen frikadelle (meatballs) with them. This how I do it:
Preparation time: 3 hours
Cooking time: 20 minutes
Tastes best accompanied by a chilled, unwooded Chardonnay
600 g Minced perlemoen, drained
2 Small eggs
1 Small shallot, finely chopped
1 Scallion, finely chopped
2 Cups of seasoned toasted bread crumbs
1 Tbsp. Italian parsley, finely chopped
1 Tsp. fresh tarragon, finely chopped
½ Tsp. ground nutmeg
1 Tbsp. milk
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper
500ml Canola oil for frying
8 Lemon wedges
- Mix the perlemoen, shallot, scallion, parsley, tarragon, nutmeg, salt, pepper and one of the eggs in a large bowl.
- Place the bowl in the refrigerator for 15 minutes to firm up the contents.
- Remove the bowl from the fridge, and shape the perlemoen mixture into balls the size of plover’s eggs (around 5 cm in diameter) and roll them in half the bread crumbs. NB: Handle very gently, as the mixture will be soft and moist.
- You should end up with between 16 and 20 frikkadels. Place them on a tray, and refrigerate for a further 2 hours.
- Whisk the second egg and the milk together, and dip the frikkadels in this mixture, and then in the remaining bread crumbs.
- Return them to the fridge while you heat the cooking oil to medium-high.
- Deep fry the frikkadels in two batches until the crumbs are golden brown.
- Drain on paper towel and serve with the lemon wedges, and perhaps slices of fresh baguette and butter.
Prawns are larger, firmer and stronger tasting than shrimps. They are the best known and most popular of the crustaceans among the general public. I will never forget observing a few large African-American matrons making a pile of “shrimp” (in the American vernacular) disappear at the iconic Philip’s Crab House on the Potomac. Prawns are the heroes of one of the world’s great seafood dishes: Paella. Closer to home, they are gobbled up grilled or barbecued with peri-peri sauce – 40 years later, even staunch anti-colonialists still call them “LM Prawns”.
Literally hundreds of species of edible prawns inhabit the world’s oceans. They are abundant, bottom dwelling crustaceans found in sandy or muddy areas or on reefs; often in large groups. They are a commercially important species all over the world. Despite their commercial importance, little information is available regarding their stock levels. In many areas, there are indications of prawns being overfished as fishing pressure is thought to be very high and illegal fishing is a wide-spread occurrence. Catching them entails trawling nets along the sea floor at depths ranging from 5m to 500m. Prawn trawling can have a significant impact on the environment as it often damages or destroys key habitats (coral reefs in particular) for many threatened or endangered species. In addition, prawn trawling produces high levels of bycatch, most of which is discarded.
Prawn farming has become a massive industry worldwide, but particularly in Asia. Farming takes place in semi-closed ponds, cages and fenced-off areas. The impact on the environment can be severe, depending on the location of the farm, and disease is a major issue. Hatchery-reared larvae are less resilient to diseases and the transporting of seed larvae and bloodstock increases the speed and severity of outbreaks. In smaller farms the prawns obtain their own food but in large-scale farms prawns are often fed commercially-formulated feed.
The prawns South African shoppers are most likely to encounter are the Giant Tiger Prawn (Penaeus monodon) most of which are farmed, Pink prawns (Haliporoides triarthrus) generally wild caught in Mozambique and Madagascar, and the Red of LM Prawn (Aristaeomorpha foliacea) almost invariably wild caught off Mozambique. As the two women in my life both love crustaceans so much, prawns feature prominently whenever we get together for a special meal. While barbecued or grilled prawns with lemon/garlic butter will probably always be our favourite, I enjoy the occasional brochet because of the way it combines the sweetness of the prawn meat with the crispy saltiness of grilled bacon.
Prawn Kebabs Luchita
Preparation time: 2 ½ hours.
Cooking time: 12 minutes.
Serves 2 adults.
Tastes best accompanied by a well-chilled, full-flavoured Viognier or Gewürztraminer.
24 Tiger prawns.
12 Slices of streaky bacon.
Juice of 1 lemon
4 Tbsp. olive oil
4 Tbsp. coriander leaves, chopped
1 Tbsp. honey
4 Large cloves of garlic, crushed
2 Tsp. salt
Ground black pepper to taste
4-6 Sprigs of coriander leaves and 4 slices of lemon for garnishing
4 Metal kebab skewers
- Peel the prawns and remove the veins from the tails. Remember to leave the last section of the tails intact.
- Rinse them under cold running water.
- Dry with paper towel and set aside.
- Mix the lemon juice, olive oil, chopped coriander, honey, garlic, salt and pepper in a bowl.
- Cover the prawns with this marinade, and leave in the refrigerator for 2 hours.
- Cut the rashers of bacon in half crosswise and wrap a piece of bacon around each prawn.
- Thread 6 prawns onto each skewer.
- Pre-heat your oven’s grill to its highest setting.
- Arrange the kebabs on a baking tray, and baste liberally with the marinade.
- Grill for 4 minutes.
- Remove from the oven, turn and baste again.
- Grill for another 4 minutes.
- Serve piping hot, garnished with the extra coriander leaves and lemon wedges.
Scallops. Scallops are fascinating creatures. Although all bivalves have an adductor muscle (which opens and closes the shell), scallop adductors are much more developed, allowing them to actually swim their way, clapping and flapping, through the water like strange, exoskeletal birds. Scallops are also unique among bivalves in that they can see very well, having up to a hundred reflective eyes along the edge of their mantles. Last but not least, most scallop species are free of any attachment to the bottom and some are even migratory. They prefer temperate seas, and South Africa’s only indigenous species, Pecten sulcicostatus, occurs between Cape Point and the Wild Coast of the Eastern Cape.
The only parts of a scallop that are eaten are the large cylindrical adductor muscle and the roe, both male (white) and female (red). Because of their popularity, scallops are farmed on a large scale, 80% of it in China and 10% in Japan, with Russia a distant third. Unlike fish and shrimp farming, bivalve farming is considered ecologically neutral to beneficial.
A word to the wise: only buy frozen scallops if they are labelled “dry pack” or “chemical free.” Unscrupulous distributors often soak scallops in a solution designed to plump them with sodium tripolyphosphate (STPP) which causes them to absorb a lot of water before freezing. This increases their weight and, thus, the price you pay for them. Not only are these treated scallops less tasty and a poor value, they’re also impossible to sear. The instant they hit a hot surface, the extra liquid is driven out and into the pan, steaming the meat instead of creating a beautiful, caramelized surface.
To me, the best possible way to savour scallops is au naturel – if you can get hold of live ones. Jakki and I once had the privilege of feasting on succulent Chilean osteones at Canta de Luna in Concepción, and to this day I can remember their sweet flesh. Sadly, the only scallops I get to eat nowadays are frozen ones from Seven Seas in Cresta. Here is a recipe that really lifts the sweet flavour of the scallop a few extra notches:
Preparation time: 20 minutes
Cooking time: 20 minutes
Tastes best accompanied by a chilled Viognier or Colombard
700 g Large scallops
1 Cup Basmati rice
2 Mangoes, cut into 1 cm thick slices
1 English cucumber, peeled and cut into 1 cm thick roundels
1 Tbsp. grated ginger
2 Tsp. fresh lime juice
1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
A mixture of 2 tbsp. melted butter and 1 tbsp. olive oil
½ Cup coriander leaves, chopped
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper
- Cook the rice according to the package directions.
- Meanwhile combine the mangoes, cucumber, ginger, lime juice, the extra virgin olive oil, the cilantro, ½ tsp. of salt, and ¼ tsp. of pepper in a shallow bowl and set aside.
- Rinse the scallops and pat them dry with paper towel.
- Dip them in the mixture of oil and butter.
- Season with ¼ tsp. salt and ¼ tsp. pepper.
- Heat a large frying pan over medium-high heat. Don’t put oil or butter in the pan – the scallops are already lubricated.
- Add the scallops and cook until golden brown and the same colour throughout, about 2 minutes per side.
- Serve the scallops and salsa on top of the rice.
Shrimps are similar in appearance to prawns, but smaller. That is, unless you are an American. They insist on calling the larger kind shrimp, and vice versa (mind you, they drive on the wrong side of the road, and have still not mastered the Metric System). These tasty little critters – shrimps, not Americans - are unfortunately much maligned in certain circles, and regarded as “tasteless”. Readers who have tasted the insipid tinned variety in an Avocado Ritz will understand why. They are actually very, very good eating provided they are fresh and not overcooked. In the North-East of England, “potted shrimp” enjoys cult status, and I personally love making ceviche with them. Because they are so small, they are “cooked” by the lemon in minutes.
To most people the words “prawn” and “shrimp” mean something deliciously edible from the sea, probably with several legs and a hard shell. To the layman shrimps are smaller, the little pink things on the top of pizzas or maybe the small quick translucent creatures in the rock pools of Ballito. Like prawns, shrimps are crustaceans, which are mostly aquatic animals with a hard skin (exoskeleton) over a segmented body. The Decapoda, the super-order of Crustacea to which all prawns, shrimps, lobsters and crabs belong, have five pairs of legs on the main part of the body, plus five pairs of swimmerets on the abdomen or tail. It is the muscular tail that is edible. Shrimps are members of the Caridea, an order of Decapoda comprising mainly tiny species. Most carideans are not edible, or they are too small (rarely more than 40 mm long) to be caught commercially. The only edible shrimps you’ll see in South African shops are imported; either frozen or tinned shrimps from Asia.
Given that we don’t have the luxury of cooking with fresh shrimp, my favourite way of serving shrimp is to make Potted Shrimp. The dish consists of brown shrimp in nutmeg-flavoured butter, which has set in a small pot. The butter acts as a preservative, and it is traditionally eaten with toasted bread. Potted shrimp was a favourite dish of Ian Fleming, who passed on his predilection for the delicacy to his famous fictional creation James Bond 007. Fleming reputedly used to eat the dish at Scotts Restaurant on Mount Street in London, where it is still served to this day. It is incredibly easy to make:
Preparation time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 10 minutes
Cooling-off period: 35 minutes
Tastes best accompanied by a chilled, wooded Chardonnay
200 g Cooked and peeled shrimps
200 g Unsalted butter
The juice of a ¼ lemon
¼ Tsp. ground mace
¼ Tsp. white pepper
½ Tsp. anchovy paste
- Melt the butter in a pan over a gentle heat, and then allow to simmer until the first dark flecks appear – watch it carefully, or it will burn.
- Remove from the heat and strain through some butter muslin, or two sheets of kitchen roll, into a jug.
- Wipe out the pan, and pour in two-thirds of the butter.
- Add the lemon juice, mace, pepper, anchovy paste and a pinch of salt and simmer very gently for five minutes.
- Remove from the heat and allow to cool, but not set.
- Divide the shrimps between 4 ramekins, pressing them in tightly.
- When just warm, but still liquid, divide the spiced butter between the ramekins and put in the fridge to set.
- Once solid, pour over the remainder of the clarified butter and return to the fridge to set.
- Serve with a sprinkle of cayenne pepper and a lot of hot toast and some dill gherkins.
Squid, also known as Calamari, are cephalopoda of the order Teuthida, which comprises around 300 species. The majority are no more than 50 cm long, although the Giant squid can reach an incredible 13 m. Like cuttlefish, they have eight tentacles arranged in pairs and two longer tentacles used to seize prey. The main body mass is enclosed in the mantle, which has a swimming fin along each side. These fins, unlike in other marine organisms, are not the main source of locomotion in most species. At the front of the mantle cavity is the siphon, which the squid uses for locomotion via precise jet propulsion. In this form of locomotion, water is sucked into the mantle cavity and expelled out of the siphon in a fast, strong jet. The direction of the siphon can be changed, to suit the direction of travel. The skin is covered in chromatophores, which enable the squid to change color to suit its surroundings, making it practically invisible. The underside is also almost always lighter than the topside, to provide camouflage from both prey and predator.
Squid are strong swimmers and certain species can "fly" for short distances out of the water using their “jet propulsion”. Another aid to escaping and evading predators is the squid’s “ink”, which it squirts out when alarmed. This forms a sizeable black “cloud” which allows the squid to make good its escape. Like the octopus, the squid is also a highly intelligent creature which can learn by observing and mimicking. They also possess an advanced communication system, which allows schools of squid to co-ordinate their hunting and migration. The predominant species in South African waters is the common squid or chokka (Loligo vulgaris) which occurs all around our coastline. Unlike their cousins the octopi, squid frequent deeper water, and only come inshore to spawn. They are nocturnal animals, and are caught by luring them to the surface with bright lights and then hooking them by means of a dollie (a squid jig armed with an array of spikes).
Despite South Europeans’ long-standing love affair with calamari, their main use locally used to be as bait for fish like Steenbras and Kabeljou. This is no longer the case. Since the 1960s, calamari has become a permanent fixture on restaurant menus. Diners also often have a choice between the local chokka (slightly chewy but bursting with flavour) and imported Falkland Islands calamari, which are dainty and tender but to me taste rather bland. Cooking them is like good sex: either quick and hot or slowly and gently. The following recipe is from the former camp:
Crispy Calamari Rings
Preparation time: 40 minutes
Cooking time: 10 minutes
Tastes best accompanied by a chilled Sauvignon Blanc or Vinho Verde
600 g Calamari tubes, cleaned and cut into rings
¼ Cup Maizena corn flower
2 Eggs, lightly beaten
2 Cloves garlic, crushed
1 Cup toasted bread crumbs
Canola oil for frying
- Coat the calamari rings in the Maizena, then shake them to get rid of any excess flour.
- Whisk the garlic into the eggs, and season the bread crumbs with ½ tsp. of salt.
- Dip the calamari rings in the egg mixture.
- Lastly, dip them into the bread crumbs mixed with salt, coating them well, and shaking off any excess.
- Refrigerate the rings for 20 minutes.
- After about 15 minutes have elapsed, heat the oil to just below the smoking point in a pot or deep fryer. The oil must be deep enough to cover the calamari completely.
- Fry the rings in batches until they are golden and remove immediately.
- Drain them on paper towel.
- Serve immediately with lemon wedges and tartar sauce or garlic mayonnaise.
White mussels (Danax serra) occur from the Orange River in the west to the Kei River in the east. Also known as sand mussels, they are found just below the low water mark on sandy beaches. They burrow into the sand, extending two siphon tubes above the sand surface for ingestion of food and water and exhausting wastes. They bury themselves up to 20 cm under the sand, and can only be collected at low tide. The daily bag limit per person is 50, and the minimum size is 35 mm in diameter. My family and I spent many hours doing the “mussel jive” in Saldanha’s Brandewynbaai, twisting our legs to dig our heels into the sand. After sensing the hard shell with one’s feet, you only had a few seconds to dig it out – the little rascals can make lightning-fast escapes!
The mussel's external shell is composed of two hinged halves or "valves". The valves are joined together on the outside by a ligament, and are closed when necessary by strong internal muscles. Mussel shells carry out a variety of functions, including support for soft tissues, protection from predators and protection against desiccation. Like most bivalves, white mussels have a large organ called a “foot” which it uses for locomotion and burrowing. They are filter feeders, and feed on plankton and other microscopic sea creatures which are free-floating in seawater. A mussel draws water in through its intake siphon, filters it in its branchial chamber, and expels it through its exhaust siphon.
White mussels are probably more popular as a bait than as food. They are deadly baits for Stumpnose, Galjoen and Blacktail. While valued as food, mussel poisoning due to toxic planktonic organisms is a real danger in late summer and autumn. This poisoning is usually due to a bloom of Red Tide, which contain toxins. The dinoflagellates and their toxin are harmless to mussels, even when concentrated by the mussel's filter feeding, but if the mussels are consumed by humans, the concentrated toxins cause serious illness.. Make sure you check for red tide before starting to jive!
The following dish is my adaption of a starter I had at Phillip’s Crab House in Washington’s Maine Avenue Waterfront. They used baby clams from Chesapeake Bay, which are similar in size and texture to our white mussels. No salt or fish sauce is needed for this dish, just enough water to balance out the natural saltiness of the mussels - about a cup per kilo of mussels. I use a glass lid, so I can see when all the mussels are open.
Steamed White Mussels with Chilli and Lemon grass
Cooking time: 5 minutes
Tastes best accompanied by a chilled Sémillon or Viognier1 kg White mussels, cleaned, then soaked in cold water for 15 minutes and rinsed2 Stalks lemon grass, trimmed and crushed2 Fresh Thai or Serrano chillies, crushed but not chopped4 Cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
1 Shallot, peeled, quartered and crushed
1 Piece of fresh ginger (about 5 cm long), crushed4 Kaffir lime leaves4 Sprigs of lemon thyme2 Tbsp. lime juice
- Place the mussels, lemongrass, chilli, garlic, shallot, ginger, lime leaves and lemon thyme in a wok or sauté pan.
- Add a cup water and cover, using a see-through lid if you have one.
- Bring to a boil and cook until the clams are completely open, about 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in lime juice and serve immediately.