31. Jan, 2017

Our pelagic fish: the wanderers of the southern seas

“The cure for all of life’s problems is salt water: sweat, tears and the sea.” – Isak Dinesen.

 

South Africa is one of very few countries to have cold, temperate and warm seas lapping its coastline. From Alexander Bay to Cape Agulhas, due to the influence of the Antarctic Benguella current, the sea is cold and temperatures above 15°C rare. From Cape Agulhas to the Kei River, the sub-tropical Agulhas current results in cool seas, and in summer the water temperature can exceed 20°C. From the Wild Coast to Kosi Bay the cobalt blue water of the tropical Mozambique current regularly reaches more than 25°C.

The stark difference in temperature between the sea water off our West and East coasts affects both land and sea. The Western half of South Africa is arid, with hot summers and bitterly cold winters. The Eastern half enjoys relatively high rainfall, and the coastal belt has a decidedly subtropical look and feel about it. Below the high water mark, the difference is equally visible. The cold sea off the West Coast contains a relatively small number of marine species, but all of them in massive numbers. To the East our sea life is incredibly diverse, but none of the species present are especially abundant.

The dichotomy described above applies to most endemic species, i.e. creatures that spend most of their lives in relatively shallow water near the coast in specific areas. Pelagic or oceanic fish, on the other hand, travel vast distances in large shoals and – depending on the time of year – can appear out of the blue and vanish just as quickly. Snoek and pilchards start their annual migrations off Namibia and end up on the East Coast. Dorado and marlin are generally associated with the coasts of Zululand and Mozambique, yet every year many are caught off Cape Agulhas. Tuna are also impervious to differences in water temperature: they will congregate wherever there are schools of pilchards or anchovies.

Some of our tastiest and commercially most valuable sea fishes have pelagic habits. In the following pages I will attempt to provide you some insight into these “Travelling Wilburys” and how to maximise the pleasure they provide to discerning diners.

The Dorado (Coryphaena hippurus) is one of the most beautiful fish in our waters, and a much-sought after game fish. It lives its whole life offshore and near the surface, and occurs in most temperate, subtropical and tropical waters worldwide. It is known as the dolphin fish in North America and mahi-mahi in Hawaii and Polynesia.

Dorado have elongated, compressed bodies and a single long-based dorsal fin extending from the head almost to the tail. Mature males (referred to as “bulls” by anglers) have prominent foreheads protruding well above the body proper, while females have a rounded head. They are distinguished by dazzling colours: golden on the sides, and bright blues and greens on the sides and back. The pectoral fins are iridescent blue. Out of the water, the fish often change colour, going through several hues before finally fading to a muted yellow-grey after death.

Dorado are among the fastest-growing of fish, and can reach an incredible 7 kg in just one year. They can live up to five years, although they seldom exceed four. Catches average 7 – 13 kg, and specimens over 18 kg are exceptional. They are carnivorous, feeding on flying fish, squid, mantis shrimp and any other surface-dwelling prey fish and crustaceans. Their slender bodies and powerful tails make them fast swimmers; they can reach speeds of around 50 knots (93 km/h).

Because they continually move around and are such prolific breeders, dorado are relatively abundant in areas where they occur. Males and females become sexually mature after less than six months, and females may spawn two to three times per year, and produce between 80,000 and 1,000,000 eggs per event. Dorado often lurk near debris such as floating wood, shipping containers, empty barrels, marker buoys or sea weed patches, and ambush prey from there.

Dorado are highly sought for sport fishing and commercial purposes. Sport fishermen seek them due to their beauty, size, food quality, and healthy population. They are prolific jumpers, and when hooked give a very good account of themselves. The pleasure continues after the have been subdued – the dorado is one of the tastiest fish around, with a mild clean flavour. Its flesh is firm yet juicy, and can be cooked in so many ways that it is affectionately called “the chicken of the sea” by South African aficionados. Personally I prefer it done with as little fuss as possible; grilling and pan-searing do it for me.

In the USA and Mexico, dorado is caught and eaten in large numbers. Nearly half the world’s commercially caught supply is consumed in these two countries. It is also popular in Polynesia and the Pacific Rim. Until recently most dorado were caught as by-catch by pole and long line fishermen pursuing tuna, but a specialised dorado fishery has now developed. In South Africa it used to be the preserve of offshore game fishermen, but more and more dorado can be found in fish and seafood retailers.

 

Grilled Dorado with Walnut and Parsley Pesto

Dorado cooked over an open fire is a treat all by itself. Add the complex flavours of a good pesto and you have a veritable feast!

 

Preparation time: 20minutes

Cooking time: 25 minutes

Serves 6

Tastes best accompanied by a chilled Sauvignon Blanc or unwooded Chardonnay

 

6 Dorado fillets of ca. 250g each, skin on

1 Onion, thinly sliced

1 Cup walnuts, lightly toasted

1 Cup Italian parsley leaves

½ Cup green olives, pitted and chopped

½ Cup extra virgin olive oil, plus more for cooking and brushing

6 Lemon wedges

Coarse sea salt and freshly-ground black pepper

 

  • Start your fire first. For fish I prefer using charcoal, as it is relatively odourless.
  • In a medium saucepan, heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil over moderate heat.
  • Add the sliced onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden brown, about 8 minutes.
  • Puree the parsley leaves in a food processor, along with ¼ cup of the olive oil.
  • When smooth, scrape the puree into a medium bowl.
  • Add the walnuts and onion to the food processor bowl and process to a paste.
  • With the machine on, slowly add the remaining 1/4 cup of olive oil.
  • Stir the paste into the parsley puree and season with salt and pepper.
  • Brush the dorado fillets with some olive oil and season with salt and pepper.
  • Braai the fillets about 300mm above moderate coals, skin side first. To make sure the heat is just right, hold the palm of one of your hands directly above the grid and count to 10. If the heat becomes unbearable before you reach 10, your fire is still too hot.
  • Grill the fish until the skin is crisp, about 2 minutes.
  • Turn the fillets and grill until just cooked through, about 3 minutes longer.
  • Transfer the fillets to plates.
  • Spread the walnut-parsley pesto over the fish.
  • Top with the olives and serve with lemon wedges on the side.

 

The Elf (Pomatomus saltatrix) is found around the world in most temperate and subtropical waters, except for the Northern Pacific. It is known as tailor in Australia, elf in North America, anchoa in Latin America and shad in the Kwazulu-Natal province of South Africa. Its build is that of an open-side flanker: rangy and well- proportioned, with a broad, forked tail. The spiny first dorsal fin and the pectoral fins are folded back in grooves when a high-speed dash is required. Elf are blue-green in colour, with a stunning golden sheen. Their teeth can be misleading; although small they can inflict painful wounds! The teeth are uniform in size, knife-edged, and extremely sharp.

Compared to other predators the shad is a relatively small fish. In South African waters, mature elf typically range in size between 20 cm -40 cm and weigh between 1 – 3 kg. Larger specimens live alone or in small groups, and one’s best chance of encountering them is on the South or West coast during late summer. I have personally witnessed a shark fisherman catching a 9 kg elf on a whole pilchard in the Langebaan lagoon. They are found in a variety of coastal habitats: above the continental shelf, in the surf zone near surf beaches, or in bays protected by rocky headlands. They are also known to enter estuaries and periodically leave the coasts and migrate in schools through open waters.

Two of the best-known mass elf migrations occur in the USA and South Africa. Along the US East Coast, they leave Florida in early spring and range as far as Massachusetts. In years of particular abundance, stragglers may be found as far north as Nova Scotia in Canada. From October, they leave the northern waters on their return journey to the Gulf of Mexico. In South Africa, their northward trek coincides with the annual Sardine Run which starts of the Eastern Cape in autumn and ends north of Durban in spring.

Adult elf are strong and aggressive, and live in loose groups. They are fast swimmers, and prey on schools of smaller pelagic fish. They are voracious feeders, and are known to continue attacking prey in feeding frenzies even after they appear to have eaten their fill. Like bass and tigerfish they are cannibalistic and will devour their own young if all else fails. In turn, elf are preyed upon by larger predators at all stages of their lifecycle. As juveniles, they fall victim to a wide variety of oceanic predators, including leervis (aka Garrick), dusky kob, yellowtail, tuna, sharks and dolphins. As adults, elf are taken by tuna, sharks, billfish, seals, and dolphins. Their popularity with larger game fish has resulted in them being caught and used as live bait for tuna, billfish and sharks.

Once abundant along our southern and eastern seaboards, elf were nearly fished to extinction in the 1970s and 80s. Stocks were on the verge of collapse and a noticeable decline was reversed by introducing and enforcing stringent catch limits as well as a mandatory closed season.
Elf are a remarkably fast growing species and the positive steps in conservation have resulted in a healthy and stable fishery across South Africa. It is also evident that the average sizes have increased in recent years. It is rewarding to notice the increasing reports of a notable “Blue Shad” being caught on a more regular basis.

The elf is a hard fighter for its size, and possibly our most popular rock and surf fishing quarry. What they lack in sheer pulling power, they make up for in acrobatic flair. Many Shad are lost in the breakers or ever at angler’s feet when the hooks are thrown in one of the many jumps – its species name is not saltatrix (jumper) for nothing!

Despite their popularity among anglers, elf is not particularly popular as a table fish and has little commercial importance in South Africa. The main reason is that they don’t keep long. They contain a time-sensitive compound that kicks in after three days, and turns their flesh mushy and their flavour gamey. (The same compound results in them not freezing successfully either). Unlike white, non-oily fish that can be kept on ice for several days without much harm, elf need to be absolutely fresh to be enjoyed. People who haven’t tasted fresh elf are put off by the bluish colour of its flesh and its “oiliness”.

I for one couldn’t care less about the whines of the detractors. Handled and cooked skilfully, elf are rich and succulent when just simply grilled or pan-seared and topped with a squeeze of lemon to cut their richness. But they also stand up to assertive flavours, so they taste great when hot-smoked or combined with chillies, ginger, herbs and/or garlic, which makes them extremely versatile for the cook. Smaller fish, those in the 1 – 2 kg range (with fillets weighing around 200 – 250g each), have the sweetest flesh.

 

Citrus-grilled Elf

If you can get your hands on some fresh elf, dare to be different – the tartness of citrus fruit is the perfect foil for the rich flesh of the elf.

 

Preparation time: 35 minutes

Cooking time: 8 minutes

Serves 4

Tastes best accompanied by a chilled Chardonnay

 

4 Elf fillets of around 250g each; skin on

1 Cup orange juice

¼ Cup fresh lime juice

¼ Cup fresh lemon juice

¼ Cup olive oil

2 Tbsp. dry white wine

1 Tbsp. fish/seafood rub

Coarse sea salt and freshly-ground black pepper

 

  • Place the fish fillets in a large bowl. Pour in the orange juice, lime juice, lemon juice, olive oil and white wine.
  • Season with salt, pepper and seafood spice.
  • Stir gently to blend and coat fish. Leave the squeezed lemon and lime halves in the bowl too.
  • Marinate for at least 30 minutes.
  • Preheat a steak pan for high heat.
  • When the pan is hot, wipe its ridges with a bit of oil.
  • Place fish fillets on the grill, skin side down.
  • Cook for 4 minutes on each side, or until fish flakes with a fork.
  • Transfer to a serving platter, and remove the dark blue part of the fish before serving.

 

Hake. Two species of this valuable fish occur in our waters; the deep water hake (Merluccius paradoxus) and the shallow water hake (Merluccius capensis). Hake belong to the same order (Gadiformes) as cod, haddock and whiting. One of life’s great tragedies is that most people will only ever taste hake that has been frozen. When frozen and then thawed, hake retains its attractive appearance and flaky texture, but loses much of its delicate flavour. Purists like the Spanish will not touch frozen merluza, but are prepared top dollar for fish that have been kept on ice at a temperature of 4 - 6°C for no more than a few days. If you have never tasted fresh hake from a reputable fishmonger, put it on your bucket list: it is one of the tastiest and most delicate fish around.   

The hake is a medium to large fish averaging between 500g – 4kg in weight, but long-lived specimens reach as much as 25kg. Male and female hake are very similar in appearance. They occur in large schools in cool to cold parts of the Atlantic and Pacific and are true denizens of the deep, preferring waters from 200 – 350m deep. The schools stay in deep sea water during the day and ascend to shallower depths during the night. Hake are undiscerning predators, and hoover up any fish, crustaceans or molluscs they find near or on the bottom of the sea.

In South Africa, the hake’s “heartland” is the West Coast, where the deep water hake is still relatively abundant. Most fishing for them is done between Port Nolloth and Cape Agulhas by trawlers equipped to clean and freeze the catch at sea. Along the Southern Cape coast the shallow water hake predominates, and is caught mainly by line fishermen and long liners. One of my fondest fishing memories is of catching hake off Knysna, which involved twice sailing through the famous Knysna Heads in a small ski boat in fairly rough seas. White knuckle stuff, but well worth it!

Not all hake species are viewed as commercially important, but South Africa is fortunate in that the two species that occur in our waters (the deep water and shallow water hakes) grow rapidly and are nowadays the most sought-after of the harvested species. The bulk of the demand for hake has traditionally been from Europe, with Spain being by far the biggest consumer of hake on the Continent. Spaniards eat an average of 6 kg per capita per year. This amounts to roughly 50% of all hake eaten in Europe! Spain has incurred the wrath of many other countries with their ruthless (and often illegal) exploitation of hake wherever they can get it in order to satisfy the insatiable demand at home.

The main harvesting method for deep water hake is trawling, while shallow water hake is mostly caught by inshore trawl and long lining. As with other pelagic fish, overfishing is taking its toll on hake as well. Argentine hake catches have declined drastically, and although Argentine hake is not expected to disappear, but the population may already be so small that fishing for it is no longer commercially viable. Chilean stocks are in decline too, though not as dramatically. European hake catches are way below historical levels because the near-extinction of cod has resulted in an assault on the hake. Although South Africa’s hake population is holding its own thanks to strict controls and quotas, foreign trawlers are doing major damage to our stocks. According to the WWF, the only hake species not currently over-fished is the shallow water hake of Namibia.

Hake is quite a mild fish, with a white flaky texture and a flavour that is more subtle than that of cod. The flesh when raw is naturally very soft, but when cooked it becomes firm, with large white flakes. In France, hake is called saumon blanc (“white salmon”) because of its delicate texture. Because of its soft flesh and mild flavour, hake can be prepared in a myriad ways. To me, there is no better fish for pub-style fish and chips or a creamy fish pie. It is also a knockout hot-smoked.

 

Catalan Hake

I first saw this dish in one of Rick Stein’s delightful cookery series – Rick Stein Mediterranean Escapes, if I remember correctly. I have since adapted it considerably, but one thing has remained the same: the wonderful taste and texture of the fish!

 

Preparation time: 30 minutes

Cooking time: 20 minutes

Serves 4

Tastes best accompanied by a well-chilled Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay

 

4 Skinless hake fillets; each about 250g

2 Dozen baby clams (preferably live and in their shells; alternatively thawed frozen ones).

5 Medium-sized garlic cloves, roughly chopped.

6 Sprigs of broad leaf (Italian) parsley, chopped.

1 Cup frozen baby peas, thawed.

150g Cake flour

1 Cup of fish stock

½ Cup of dry white wine

¼ Cup olive oil for frying

Coarse sea salt and freshly-ground black pepper

 

  • Rub the fish with the salt and pepper and leave in a cool place for 30 minutes.
  • Heat the oil in a deep, heavy-bottomed saucepan. It must just be hot enough to sizzle when the fish is introduced.
  • Dust the fish lightly with the flour and cook for 1 minute on each side.
  • Transfer the fish to a warm plate.
  • Place the garlic and half the parsley in the pan. Cook, stirring all the while, for a minute or two.
  • When the garlic becomes fragrant, add 2 Tsp. of flour and stir for another minute.
  • Turn up the heat to moderate.
  • Add the wine and stock, and stir until the sauce starts thickening a little.
  • Return the fish to the pan. Reduce the heat and simmer for 2 minutes.
  • Turn the fish over with a spatula.
  • Add the clams and peas and cover the pan.
  • Allow the dish to simmer for 5 minutes, shaking it occasionally.
  • After 5 minutes, check the state of play. The fish should flake easily, and the clams (if using live ones in shells) should have opened. If not, cook for another minute or two.
  • Stir in the remaining parsley.
  • Taste the sauce and season to taste.
  • Serve in deepish plates or bowls, and use some crusty bread to sop up the sauce.

 

The King Mackerel (Scomberomorus commerson) is a member of the Spanish Mackerel (Scombridae) family found in most of the Indian Ocean, with a population also present around Fiji in the South West Pacific. Thanks to the construction of the Suez Canal they have colonised the eastern Mediterranean, and have become a welcome additional resource for fishermen there to exploit. Because of a passing resemblance to the Great Barracuda (Sphyraena barracuda) game fishermen on South Africa’s East Coast often and mistakenly refer to king mackerel as “barracuda” or “couta”.

King mackerel are handsome fish with long, streamlined bodies and a pointed snout housing a large mouth full of razor-sharp teeth. They are vivid blue to dark grey in colour along their backs and flanks, and fade to a silvery blue-grey on the belly. King mackerel have scores of narrow, vertical lines down their sides. They are the largest Scombridae species, and although the majority of fish caught range between 4 – 10 kg, they can grow to a length of 2 m and reach weights of up to 70 kg. Research in Australia concluded that the largest specimens are invariably females.

King mackerel are known to spawn off the coast of Mozambique in summer. Juvenile and young fish seek safety in numbers, and schools of them frequent the Zululand and Mozambican coasts during winter, and move south as far as the Eastern Cape during summer.  “Survival of the fittest” thins out the schools so that by the time a few attain “crocodile” (trophy size) proportions they hunt in pairs or alone. Mature fish live offshore, but will often patrol the edges of coral reefs or harbour walls in search of prey. These swift fish are voracious, opportunistic predators. As with other members of the genus, food consists mainly of small fish, but when squid or mantis shrimp are plentiful kings will target them with gusto. Some experienced Zululand ski boat anglers of my acquaintance swear by fresh, naturally presented squid when hunting “crocodiles”.

During the annual sardine run up South Africa’s East Coast very large specimens are known to enter the surf zone, where they can make (but often break) some angler’s day. The biggest specimen caught by a recreational angler in South Africa weighed a whopping 49 kg and was caught off the rocks at Hibberdene in KZN during the 1975 sardine run.

Regardless of size, this is a highly valued fish throughout its range. Recreational anglers catch them from boats by trolling lures, vertical jigging or drifting bait while rock and surf anglers generally cast spoons or deploy live elf or mullet using a kite. King mackerel are strong and fast, and make long, determined runs after being hooked. They are regarded as “clean” fighters, and fight near the surface. One of the most exciting experiences one can have fully clothed is coming across a school of them while trolling lures and/or live bait. Boredom turns into frenzy in seconds when four or more reels start screaming at the same time!

There is no specialised commercial king mackerel fishery in South Africa, but in South and South-East Asia they are targeted by trawlers and seine net fishermen. They are common sights on fish markets in India, Sri Lanka and the Indonesia, where dried king mackerel is used in the same way as bacalhao and flakes of the dried fish is added to many dishes as a substitute for fish sauce.   

The texture, taste and flavour of fresh king mackerel are out of the top drawer. Sadly, they do not freeze well using conventional appliances. Unless one is able to rapidly “superfreeze” it to -40°C, it will lose most of its exquisite flavour within a few days, because the oily compound responsible only freezes below -30°C. My advice is therefore a) if you are an angler, practice catch and release, and kill only enough for supper or b) if you’re not, only eat king mackerel in restaurants on the coast that source fresh fish from local fishermen.

Fresh king mackerel is a wonderfully versatile fish; it tastes superb grilled, pan-fried, baked, smoked, curried or as ceviche.

 

King Mackerel Grilled Inhaca Style

The best fish meal my wife and I have had in Southern Africa was grilled king mackerel cutlets from a fish I had caught three hours earlier. The friendly staff at Pestana Inhaca Island Lodge had the finished product – along with chips and a salad – on our plates before we could finish our second Caiparinha!

 

Preparation time: 10 minutes

Cooking time: 10 minutes

Serves 4

Tastes best accompanied by a chilled Chardonnay or dry Riesling

 

4 King mackerel cutlets of 250 – 300 g each

Zest of 1 lemon

1 Tsp. fresh thyme, chopped

1 Tsp. fresh oregano, chopped

1 Tsp. grated lemon rind

1 Tsp. lemon juice

1 Tbsp. unsalted butter

1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

¼ Tsp. salt

¼ Tsp. freshly-ground black pepper

 

  • Pre-heat your oven’s grill.
  • Combine the lemon zest and juice, oil, thyme, oregano, salt, and black pepper.
  • Coat a baking sheet with non-stick spray.
  • Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium-high heat.
  • Place the fish in the pan, skin side up.
  • Fry the cutlets for 5 minutes without turning.
  • Transfer them to the baking sheet – still skin side up - and drizzle with the basting mixture.
  • Cook for 5 minutes under the piping hot grill.
  • Serve with chips or roast potatoes and a green salad.

 

Sardine" and "pilchard" are colloquial names used – often interchangeably - to refer to various small, oily fish within the herring family (Clupeidae) The terms "sardine" and "pilchard" are not exact, and I personally stick with the rule of thumb that sardines are young pilchards; fish shorter than 15 cm are sardines, and larger fish are pilchards. The term sardine was first used in English during the early 15th century and may come from the Mediterranean island of Sardinia, around which sardines were once abundant. The species that occur in South African waters is Sardinops ocellatus or South African pilchard.

Ocellatus are handsome little fish: sleek, with a bright blue back and silver flanks with black dots that appear like portholes. Their fins are transparent with a golden sheen. They are among the larger species in their family, and under favourable conditions they can grow to a length of 30 cm. The bulk of the specimens caught are more likely to be around 20 cm, though. Pilchards feed almost exclusively on zooplankton (animal plankton), and will congregate wherever this is abundant. They spend the daylight hours in deep water offshore, and follow their prey upwards at night, when the zooplankton seems to be attracted by star- and moonlight.

The annual Sardine Run is one of the most spectacular events in the natural world. The pilchards react to the urge to spawn by leaving their home waters off the West coast, congregating in massive schools in their millions and rounding Cape Agulhas en route to spawning grounds off the Tugela River estuary in KZN. They usually stay well offshore until they reach the Transkei Wild Coast in late autumn. By June the excitement among fishermen on the KZN reaches fever pitch when the first schools are spotted, darkening the blue sea for miles.

Hordes of local people follow the schools; one could be forgiven for likening them to the crowd following players at a major golf tournament! These are people who don’t have the luxury of a ski boat, and they are all hoping and praying that the prevailing wind and current will drive the schools into the surf zone. Here that a human feeding frenzy awaits them, with people using nets, buckets and even the shirts off their backs to harvest as many fish as they can. While a lot of the fish caught will be eaten, a large part of the catch is destined for freezing and use as bait. There is no doubt that this humble little fish is the number one bait for marine sport fishing in South Africa.

Pilchards have been the mainstay of South Africa’s pelagic fishing industry for nearly a century. Most are caught using purse nets. Their habit of congregating in huge schools make them particularly vulnerable to over-exploitation by fishing fleets equipped with sophisticated detection equipment. Fishing occurs mainly at night, when the schools approach the surface to feed on plankton. The catch is put to a variety of uses: consumption as fresh fish, canning, packaging as bait, pet food, drying, salting, smoking and for reduction into fish meal or oil. The oil has many uses, including the manufacture of paint, varnish or linoleum.

Pilchards and sardines are rich in vitamins and minerals. They are also a natural source of Omega-3 fatty acids, which reduce the occurrence of cardiovascular disease. Recent studies suggest that regular consumption of omega-3 fatty acids also reduces the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Because they are short-lived and low in the marine food chain, Sardinops species are very low in contaminants such as mercury relative to longer-lived large fish commonly eaten by humans like tuna or hake.

It saddens me that – given the health benefits mentioned above, as well as their great taste – we South Africans largely continue to relegate pilchards to rations for the poor and pets and feeds for farm animals. To add insult to injury, we pay massive premiums for popular fish that are on the verge of extinction, and contain hefty doses of toxins to boot!

Sardine species are valued much more by Mediterranean people, most notably Iberians. In Portugal and Spain, they are enjoyed grilled, pickled or smoked, or preserved in cans. The Portuguese have a particular affinity for them, and the culinary centrepiece of the annual festival of St Anthony is sardines cooked over open charcoal fires.

 

Grilled Pilchards, San Antonio style

This dish elevates the humble pilchard to a delicacy. Try it once and you’ll be “hooked”!

 

Preparation time: 30 minutes

Cooking time: 45 minutes

Serves 4

Tastes best accompanied by a chilled Vinho Verde or Cape Riesling

 

12 Large whole pilchards, scaled and gutted

3 Large potatoes, peeled and quartered

2 Tomatoes, roughly chopped

1 Red onion, halved then thinly sliced

1 Lemon, quartered

1 Red and 1 yellow sweet pimento pepper

1 Tbsp. smoked paprika

4 Tbsp. olive oil, plus a bit extra to brush

2 Tsp. sea salt flakes

1 Tsp. lemon juice

4 Coriander sprigs, roughly chopped

 

  • Pre-heat your oven to 180C.
  • Cook the potatoes in a pot of salted water for 10 minutes until almost tender, then drain.
  • Toss the potatoes with the paprika and 2 Tbsp. oil.
  • Season and spread on a large lined baking tray, then roast for 20 minutes or until golden.
  • Meanwhile, heat a chargrill pan on medium-high heat.
  • Brush the peppers with a little extra olive oil and grill or barbecue for 4-5 minutes, turning, until the skins blister.
  • Set aside in a bowl and cover in plastic wrap.
  • When cool enough to handle, peel and cut into strips.
  • Place the pepper strips in a bowl with the cooked potatoes, then toss with the tomatoes, onion, coriander, lemon juice and remaining 2 Tbsp. oil. Season with salt and pepper.
  • Increase the heat under the chargrill pan to high.
  • Brush the sardines and the grill with a little more oil to help prevent sticking.
  • Sprinkle the sardines all over with the sea salt, then cook them for 2 - 3 minutes on each side. The skins should be scorched and bubbling.
  • Divide the sardines among 4 plates, then top with the salad and serve with the lemon wedges.

 

Snoek (Thyrsites atun) is an elongated predatory fish found in cool seas all around the Southern Hemisphere. In Australasia it is called barracouta (although it is not related to either the great barracuda or king mackerel) and in South America sierra. It can reach a length of 200 cm - though most do not exceed 75 cm – and a weight of 9 kg. It is of considerable commercial importance, and a popular sport fish as well.

The snoek is normally found near continental shelves or around islands and feeds mainly on small fish like anchovies and pilchards. They form schools near the bottom or mid-water, and prefer sea water temperature between 13 - 18 °C. In Southern African waters snoek occur off the coast of Namibia and the coasts of the Northern and Western Cape provinces of South Africa. It was originally called the zeesnoek (Sea Snoek) by Dutch colonists who arrived in the Cape in 1652, because it reminded them of the freshwater pike (snoek) found in the Netherlands.

Snoek have a relatively predictable migratory pattern. In late summer they appear off Namibia, making their way steadily South. When concentrations of baitfish or mantis shrimp are encountered the schools of snoek will pause and feed greedily. By autumn they appear on the Cape West Coast, and normally pause in and around St Helena Bay to feast on the plentiful schools of anchovies, mackerel and maasbanker found there. When the winter rains start, snoek make their appearance in False Bay, where artisanal fisherman pursue them with their stout hand lines. By September the schools embark on the last leg of their migration and spend time in Walker Bay and along the Agulhas Coast. Mossel Bay is normally the end of the line for them.

Snoek is usually bought fresh at the quayside, where skilled cleaners deftly butterfly one’s purchase with razor-sharp knives. In and around the Cape Peninsula, this may be at Hout Bay, Kalk Bay and as far as Gordon’s Bay. Up the West Coast and eastwards towards Mossel Bay, much of the catch is salted and air dried for local consumption. Those lovers of snoek unable to make it to a fishing harbour rely on middlemen known as langaans, who buy the fish in bulk from the fishermen and then sell them on a retail basis in the suburbs and along the major motorways. Snoek is oily, extremely bony (although the bones are large and easily removed from the cooked fish) and has very fine scales which are almost undetectable, making it unnecessary to scale the fish while cleaning.

It is mostly sold fresh, but fishmongers and supermarkets also offer smoked, salted and frozen snoek. It is a fairly versatile fish, and responds well to frying, braaiing, grilling, baking and simmering. It is safe to say that South Africans prefer their snoek on the braai or in the smoker, but in the Western Cape it is often simmered (“smoorsnoek”) and deep-fried in batter. Another favourite technique is to cook it wrapped up in aluminium foil with butter and herbs. and serving it with boiled sweet potatoes and "tamatiesmoor" - a fried up hash of chopped tomatoes, onions, garlic and herbs. Another favourite is a kedgeree made with smoked snoek.

The Cape Malay community have a particularly strong affection for snoek. It is the foundation for many traditional Bo-Kaapse dishes. These include smoorsnoek (simmered), snoekbredie (stewed), snoek bobotie (baked with a sweet curry) and snoek pâtés. In the subsistence fishing communities of the West Coast, snoek is cleaned and then packed in layers; heavily salted with coarse salt. After a few days the cured fish are then hung up to air dry. The finished product is used much the same way as Portuguese bacalhao – it is soaked in changes of fresh water until rehydrated and soft. It is then added to soups, stews and casseroles and eaten with a variety of staples – potatoes, sweet potatoes or rice.

Snoek has had mixed press over the years. In the Cape it is an iconic foodstuff, and is eaten with gusto by locals – whether fresh, smoked or braaied. It is also salted and dried, Bacalhau-style. For obvious reasons, the dried fish has to be rehydrated and the salt rendered before Soutsnoek can be cooked. During World War II, when Britain experienced food shortages due to the U-Boat blockade, South Africa exported huge quantities of it to the UK. Because cooks there were not familiar with the rehydration process, they didn’t soak the fish for long enough. This led to the finished product being both tough and very salty. To this day, older Britons shudder at the mere mention of the word Snoek.

 

Snoek Bobotie

This is one of the best ways to enjoy snoek, plus one of the most authentic ones. It combines the Cape’s favourite fish with Cape Malay flavours. Simply substitute the mince in your traditional bobotie for some smoked snoek.

 

Preparation time: 15 minutes

Cooking time: 30 minutes

Serves 4

Tastes best accompanied by a chilled Gewürztraminer or Viognier

 

600g Smoked snoek, skin and bones removed and flaked

400g Tinned tomatoes, chopped

3 Large eggs

1 Large onion, peeled and finely chopped

2 Garlic cloves, crushed

A 2 cm-long piece of ginger root, peeled and finely chopped

2 Slices white bread

2 Cups milk

2 Tbsp. dried sultanas

1 Tsp. ground cumin

1 Tsp. ground coriander

1 Tsp. mild curry powder

4 Bay leaves

2 Tbsp. sunflower oil

Salt and freshly-ground black pepper

 

  • Preheat your oven to 180°C.
  • Place the bread in a bowl, pour over ½ a cup milk and leave to soak.
  • Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat and fry the onion until soft.
  • Add the ginger, garlic and spices, and cook for 2 minutes.
  • Add the tomatoes and simmer until the mixture has reduced and thickened.
  • Squeeze the excess milk from the bread and break it up into chunks.
  • Add the bread, sultanas and snoek to the pot and stir to combine.
  • Transfer the mixture to an ovenproof dish and top with bay leaves.
  • Beat the eggs with the remaining milk, and season.
  • Pour this mixture over the fish.
  • Place in the oven and bake for 20 minutes, or until the egg has set.
  • Serve on rice, with plenty of chutney on the side.

 

Yellowfin tuna (Thunnus albacares) is found in most tropical and subtropical waters worldwide. It is one of the larger tuna species, reaching weights over 180 kg, but is significantly smaller than the bluefin tuna, which can reach over 450 kg and slightly smaller than the bigeye tuna. The second dorsal and anal fins, as well as the finlets between those fins and the tail, are bright yellow, giving this fish its common name. The second dorsal and anal fins can be very long in mature specimens, reaching almost as far back as the tail and giving the appearance of scimitars.

Yellowfin tuna inhabit the mixed surface layer of the ocean above the thermocline. While they mostly range in the top 100 m of the water column, they are capable of diving to considerable depths. Although mainly found in deep offshore waters, they occasionally venture well inshore of the continental shelf when water temperature and clarity are suitable and food is abundant. Yellowfins often travel in schools with similar-sized companions. They sometimes school with other tuna species and mixed schools of small yellowfin, and skipjack tuna, in particular, are commonplace. They also swim along with various species of dolphins as well as with larger marine creatures such as whales, Orcas and whale sharks.

Yellowfin tuna prey on other fish, pelagic crustaceans and squid. Like all tunas, their body shape is particularly adapted for speed, enabling them to pursue and capture fast-moving baitfish such as flying fish and mackerel. Schooling species such as anchovies, sardines and Maasbanker (horse mackerel) are frequently taken. Large yellowfins prey on smaller members of the tuna family such as bonitos and skipjack tuna. In turn, yellowfin are preyed upon when young by other pelagic hunters, including larger tuna, sea birds, and predatory fishes such as wahoo, shark and billfish.

They are able to escape most predators, because unlike most other fish, they are warm-blooded, and their warm muscles make them extremely strong swimmers, with yellowfin tuna reaching speeds of up to 80 km per hour. They also have the stamina to navigate enormous distances, sometimes crossing entire oceans.

The Cape Peninsula is today the epicentre of a thriving tuna fishery, and both commercial and sport fisherman make exceptional catches. Yellowfins make up the bulk of the fish caught, but the smaller and less palatable longfin tuna is also common. The once abundant bluefin is sadly in terminal decline worldwide, and no longer worth pursuing. South African yellowfin tunas seem to prefer the cooler waters of the Cape in summer, but also follow the Sardine Run north in winter.   

The yellowfin tuna is a popular sport fish in many parts of their range and are prized for their speed and strength when fought on rod and reel. Many anglers believe that large yellowfin are, pound for pound, the fastest and strongest of all big game tunas. Sport fishermen also prize it for its culinary qualities. Today, yellowfin tuna are a major sport fish pursued by sport fishermen in many parts of the world. Thousands of anglers fish for yellowfin tuna along the eastern seaboard of the United States, in California, Hawaii, Mexico, the Caribbean, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

Purse-seine nets account for more of the commercial catch than any other method. The purse-seine fishery primarily operates in the Pacific Ocean, in the historic tuna grounds of the San Diego tuna fleet in the eastern Pacific, and in the islands of the western Pacific, where many U.S. tuna canneries relocated in the 1980s, but significant purse-seine catches are also made in the Indian Ocean and in the tropical parts of the Atlantic Ocean.

Purse seining for yellowfin tuna became highly controversial in the late 1970s when it became apparent that the eastern Pacific fishery was killing many dolphins and porpoises that hunt alongside the schools of fish. In response to the public outcry, the industry introduced “dolphin-friendly” methods. One was to focus on "free schools" not accompanied by dolphins, and the other the use of long lining. While the latter method has resulted in far fewer dolphins being killed, it has merely shifted the environmental impact, as it takes an especially heavy toll on billfish, sea turtles, pelagic sharks, and sea birds.

Most of the commercial catch is canned, but the growing popularity of sushi and sashimi has resulted in huge demand for high-quality fish. This market is primarily supplied by industrial tuna long line vessels. Tuna long liners target larger sashimi-grade fish of 25 kg and more that swim deeper in the water column. Large yellowfin is becoming a popular replacement for the severely depleted supplies of bluefin tuna. Buyers recognize two grades, "sashimi grade" and "other", although variations in the quality of "other" grades are common. Only unfrozen fish kept on ice for less than 48 hours and specimens “superfrozen” at sea are accorded “sashimi grade” status.

 

Barbecued Tuna Kebabs

The key to this dish is to sear the fish on the outside but leaving it pink and juicy on the inside. If you’re using bamboo kebab sticks, soak them in water for about half an hour to prevent them from burning on the braai, or invest in a set of metal ones that you can re-use forever.

 

Preparation time: 45 minutes

Cooking time: 10 minutes

Serves 4

Tastes best accompanied by a chilled Colombard or Chenin Blanc

 

4 Tuna steaks, about 150 - 200g each, cut into 5cm³ cubes

1 Pineapple, peeled, cut into 3cm³ cubes

1 Yellow bell pepper, cut into 3cm² pieces

2 Cloves garlic, minced

2 Tbsp. fresh Italian parsley, chopped

½ Tsp. oregano, chopped

½ Cup orange juice

¼ Cup soya sauce

2 Tbsp. olive oil

1 Tbsp. lemon juice

2 Tsp. fish or seafood spice

1 Tsp. sea salt flakes (I use Cerebos Fleur de Sel flakes)

½ Tsp. ground ginger

½ Tsp. freshly-ground black pepper

 

  • Start a charcoal fire in your braai first.
  • Make the marinade by mixing together all the ingredients except the tuna, pineapple and bell pepper in a large bowl.
  • Transfer the cubes of tuna to the mixing bowl and gently rub the marinade into the flesh.
  • Let it rest for at least 30 minutes.
  • Meanwhile heat a dash of cooking oil to a fireproof pan and fry the pineapple with the ginger until the pineapple starts caramelising.
  • Remove from the heat, allow to cool and then start putting the kebabs together.
  • Serve with lemon wedges and parsleyed potatoes.
  • Skewer a cube of tuna, a slice of pineapple and a piece of bell pepper onto a kebab stick and repeat. Do not overcrowd the kebab.
  • Braai the kebabs about 300mm above moderate coals, skin side first. To make sure the heat is just right, hold the palm of one of your hands directly above the grid and count to 10. If the heat becomes unbearable before you reach 10, your fire is still too hot.
  • Cook the fish until caramelised, about 5 minutes per side.

 

The Yellowtail (Seriola lalandi), is a large predatory fish found in large schools in many parts of the Southern Ocean. Because of their long and swift migrations, little is known about the yellowtail's biology, including their habitat preferences, migration patterns, and reproductive behaviour. What is known is that adults are attracted to rocky outcrops and associated drop-offs in coastal waters, and in deep water near pinnacles and offshore islands. 

They are closely related to the greater amberjack (Seriola dumerili) of the North Atlantic and Pacific. These brutes can weigh up to 70 kg, and are feared and respected by sport fishermen. The yellowtail is known as “yellowtail kingfish” in Australasia and albacora in Chile. “Our” yellowtails spend much of their lives in the cold Atlantic waters off Cape Point. During the annual Sardine Run, however, they migrate up the East Coast to feast on the huge schools of pilchards. Cape yellowtails generally weigh somewhere between 2 – 20kg, but can grow to a length of 2m and a weight of 45kg.

Smaller yellowtail – the 3 – 10kg class - form large schools of similar-sized fish that roam offshore, at depths of up to 110m. Larger fish are encountered in small groups, pairs and often alone. They are fast torpedo-shaped predatory fish that feed on smaller fish and squid. They prefer turbulent water and tidal rips, and become lethargic in warm, still water. They appear during the warmer months of summer and autumn, and are at their most active in water between 16 - 20°C. When yellowtail start forcing bait fish or squid into “bait balls” their presence is given away by terns and gannets that join in the excitement.

The sight of “working” birds drives most boat fishermen wild with excitement, because yellowtails are highly prized light tackle sport fish. They are tough fighters, fast and rugged and are renowned for powerful deep diving runs to deep reefs once hooked. Skippers usually search for schools of yellowtail by slow trolling of lures or baitfish through likely areas until fish start striking. Once a school is located, drift baits, spinning and vertical jigging can be used to good effect. Whereas sport fishermen generally prefer using the latter two techniques, professional fishermen stick to bait and often use stout hand lines so as to maximise the number of fish boated in the available time.

Yellowtail is an important commercial line-fish species in the Western Cape. There is no minimum legal size at which yellowtail may be caught, but since most females only reach sexual maturity at 1.2m (between 2 - 3 years of age) and most males at 900cm, it is vitally important that anglers and fisheries ensure that smaller yellowtail are not removed from the ocean as they still need time to mature and reproduce. Fortunately they are prolific breeders, and the rapid and seemingly erratic way in which schools move around makes catching them in nets a fool’s errand. At the time of writing (January 2017) the population seems to be in decent shape and coping well with fishing pressure.

The flesh of a yellowtail is firm, has a pleasant flavour and is somewhat dry. Over-cooking it is therefore fatal. To me the answer lies in being pragmatic in your approach: use younger fish (below 10kg) for sashimi, sushi, grilling and braaiing and smoke or pickle bigger specimens. Fish under the grill or on the braai should be liberally basted and removed from the heat the moment the flesh turns opaque throughout. Because of its firm texture, yellowtail is one of my favourite species for hot smoking and by far the best for pickling in Malay curry. Whereas other fish will eventually disintegrate from the acidity of the curry sauce, yellowtail cutlets will remain intact and firm for more than 3 months if kept cool.

 

Char-Grilled Yellowtail Fillets with Tahini Sauce

The Middle Eastern flavours in this dish complement the rich flavour of the yellowtail well. The currants add a surprising sweet note to the salad, which can be made a couple of hours ahead of time.

 

Preparation time:

Cooking time:

Serves 4

Tastes best accompanied by a chilled Viognier or Chenin Blanc

 

For the fish:

4 Yellowtail fillets of about 225g each, skin on

2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

Sea salt flakes and freshly-ground black pepper to taste

For the Tahini sauce:

2 Tbsp. tahini paste

2 Tbsp. lemon juice

½ Tsp. crushed garlic

For the parsley salad:

1 Cup Italian flat-leaf parsley, roughly chopped

3 Shallots, finely sliced

⅓ Cup pine nuts, lightly toasted

¼ cup Currants, soaked in hot water for 10 minutes then drained and dried

2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

1 Tbsp. lemon juice

Sea salt flakes and freshly-ground black pepper to taste

 

  • First make the Tahini Sauce. Combine all the ingredients with 2 tablespoons of cold water and mix well.
  • The tahini will become very thick when the water is first added, continue stirring and it will thin out; add more water if necessary, a little at a time, until it becomes the consistency of pouring cream.
  • Next make the parsley salad: combine all ingredients and mix well.
  • Next, heat a griddle pan over medium-high heat.
  • Cut several diagonal slashes into the skin of the fish, brush well with olive oil and sprinkle it with salt and pepper.
  • Cook, skin side down first, for 2 - 3 minutes, then turn and cook for a further 2. The flesh should be opaque and flake easily when tested with a fork.
  • Divide the salad between the plates, place the fish on top and drizzle with the tahini sauce.

 

“Bluefin tuna is sort of like the cheetah of the ocean. It's the fastest fish. It's a warm-blooded fish. But it's got a $100,000 price tag on its head.” - Paul Watson.