Fresh fish, quite a catch
Seafood straight from the sea can be a challenge when you live in the Karoo.
Salt lingering in the air, sand between your toes. A breeze right off the waves and into your nostrils, ruffling your hair. The ambient mood of sea, foam, and the mysterious, distant horizon beyond the silent tankers and pilot boats, add to a sense of wonder and vitality.
I never feel more alive than when I’m at the sea, and that rush of brio – that impish little word that usually applies to the vivacity of the maestro caught in the moment of their art, but also rings of life itself – always has me salivating for the bounty of the sea, plucked from the waves, cooked simply and quickly, and onto the plate. Pass me a bib please.
When you live in the Karoo, you cultivate a good local butcher to ensure you have access to the best meats in town. And when you do get to visit the coast, you need to find the fishmonger with the best, freshest fish. The one that the locals go to, again and again. Nine times out of ten that will be the fish shop next to the sea.
Living in the Karoo doesn’t mean you never eat fish, though accessing fresh seafood takes a bit of planning. There’s the drive to the nearest coastal town. The stayover in a hotel. Don’t forget to pack the cooler bag. But never mind ice: you get that at the fish shop too.
We’re lucky in that our Karoo town is only a two and a half hour drive from the sea. The nearest port is Gqeberha (Port Elizabeth) where there is a superb shop called Fisherman Fresh, right in the docks. You have to know where it is or you’d never find it. And for the best catch, you need to get there early. This Friday morning, I was there at 9.10am (they open at 9). There was already a queue out the door and cars pulling up every minute.
The showcase fridge in the shop is a dream for a fish lover. This time there was fresh gurnard, yellowtail, kob, maasbanker, carpenter, kingklip, swordfish, tuna, and more. You have to choose quickly, think fast, make your choices depending on your budget. Those pilchards were so tempting, shiny in their pearly skins, but I passed. I often buy gurnard fillets there; they’re perfect for good old fish and chips and a refreshing change from hake (which is not to knock hake at all, it’s a much better fish than it is given credit for, but it is much better fresh than the ubiquitous “I&J”). Last time I was there I bought a magnificent Norwegian salmon fillet, and of course that wasn’t fresh from this particular sea, but they do deal in other prized specimens and the quality was exceptional.
Choices, choices. I chose tuna steaks first, as I had hoped for them on my two previous visits and this time there they were, waiting for me. I chose two f0r that night and two more to freeze, which is an inevitability when you live as far from the ocean as I do but love fish and need to write about it on occasion. I also selected a whole kob (cleaned and scaled but I wanted it whole to bake in the clay pot I recently bought), a pair of swordfish cutlets, and a side of yellowtail. They’re always happy to fill a large supermarket bag with crushed ice to pack into the cooler back for the drive home, so there was no chance of them not remaining fresh for the next three hours.
Then, of course, you have to decide which fish to cook tonight, and which (sadly, that means all of the rest) to freeze. So, a freezer, in a Karoo town, perhaps has a little more importance than one in the city or coastal town where you can go straight from the shop to your kitchen or braai. Nor is a sustainable fish app such as Abalobi any good if you’re quite this far away. That’s a superb social venture, sourcing fresh fish, in particular from small-scale fisher communities which are easily sidelined, but we can hardly expect them to rush it to Hanover or Graaff-Reinet for us. Imagine the cost of that fish and chips supper.
In the end, the tuna won the day, and for the rest of my shop I was looking out for bright, perky things to match the freshness of the fish. And colour. Freshness is about colour too, and I wanted green, red, and crunch to go with it. Basil and coriander, red salad onions, bird’s-eye chillies, pak choy. Then there needed to be exotic flavours to match the colour and crunch: I grabbed some limes, both for the juice and the zest, sweet Indonesian soy sauce, and almost yelled in delight when I spotted the sherry vinegar. I’ve been looking for it at my local supermarkets for months. I’d wanted lemongrass too, but was thwarted; and, yet again, there was not a shallot in sight, for those of you who have read my recent column calling for them to become more mainstream.
But, as always with cooking, food shopping and devising recipes, we can only ever go with what is available, and have to adapt or, well, go without. Or cook something else.
Which brings me back to the tuna. So, what had started as a plan to cook a whole fish in that clay pot (and the kob is still destined for that), this meal was turning out to be all about the tuna, with as much freshness and zing as I could muster.
Find the tuna recipe here. DM/TGIFood
Tony Jackman is Galliova Food Champion 2021. His book, foodSTUFF, is available in the DM Shop. Buy it here.
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