An old bugbear of mine has been how near the slipway at Arniston on the Cape’s east coast is to what was the nearest restaurant – you’re talking a 30-second walk across the road – yet instead of buying their fish from the local fishermen who go out in boats almost every day, the Arniston Hotel restaurant chooses to get its fish from Struisbaai, the next town up the coast.
I don’t doubt that they would quote all manner of logistics and agreements to explain their choice, but the point is that no amount of reasoning can justify a decision not to take advantage of possibly the most charming thing about such a small fishing village. Whatever the reasoning is, it needed to be rethought.
Can you imagine this happening in France, where so much store is laid in the joy of having produce so fresh that you need only carry it across the road and into the frying pan? Such a madly missed opportunity that I have long found it both baffling and infuriating. Not to mention doggedly stubborn and plain silly.
Sometimes we have to shove aside any amount of reason and expectation and presumption that things must be done the way we have always believed they should be. Here is a local fishing community, a few dozen houses occupied by families who have been climbing into little boats for generations and disappearing over the horizon, to return at the end of the day with the freshest catch possible. Red roman, yellowtail, kabeljou (cob), Cape salmon (geelbek), musselcracker. All of these fish ply these waters, and they are superb eating fish. And in order to get their catch onto dinner plates in Arniston, they had to open their own restaurant in order to do so.
And with great delight on two recent visits I found that that is just what has happened. An enterprising Kassiesbaai local, Rovina Marthinus, took over the village’s old schoolhouse, a former church steeped in character and tradition, and turned it into a restaurant about as rustic as you can imagine, but where what goes onto those dinner plates breathed its last just across the road to be drawn up that slipway and taken to Rovina’s kitchen.
There will be those among the guests and potential guests – and they include international tourists accustomed to fine restaurants in Paris and Prague, London and Munich – who will be aghast at the simplicity of the place. But I’d hazzard that there will be many more who will know that the key here is that fresh fish, cooked simply and honestly, doesn’t need anything more than a table, a chair, a bottle of wine, some genuine local character and none of that pretentious lap-caressing, snooty silver service. Everything has its place, and that refined manifestation of supposed class does not belong here. Anyway, you have only to look at some of the architecture of the houses built in Arniston by the nouveau riche to know that taste does not necessarily come with accumulated wealth.
So, in this beautiful old building, you find plain white plastic garden chairs, tables with candles, Seventies-style fishnet suspended from the high ceiling, with bits and bobs attached to it, and blackbard menus on which are chalked the very few choices you have.
You can hear the frying going on at all times from the tiny kitchen beyond some makeshift partitioning. These people clearly had almost no budget, but do you know what? They delivered anyway, and I cannot tell you how much I admire their pluck.
For starters, you have mussels, prawns, “stirfry” and calamari, priced from R55 to R60. The stirfry, our excellent waitress Natalie explained, was a mixture of “all sorts of seafoods” served with rice. We chose the calamari and the prawns, and they were generous starter portions, perfectly pan-fried and served with toasted rounds of baguette and little bowls of butter, honey and apricot jam. This is more of a West Coast tradition but evidently is a part of the local culture as well, and when in Rome, as they say. A finger bowl of lemon-scented hot water was brought without having to be asked for.
The mains, on their own blackboard at the other side of the room, centred on the day’s linefish at R98, which were yellowtail and cob. They only serve fish that’s coded either green or orange on the Sassi list, they told us, and we each chose one of these fish courses, and they were served identically with very good potato chips and lemon wedges. The fish was succulent, soft, far from dry, a credit to anyone who knows how to cook a piece of fish without destroying it by overcooking.
Also on the mains selection were prawns (R120), calamari (R90 – a bigger portion, evidently), mussels (R80) – they owned up to the mussels being frozen, so we did not order them), curry prawns (R100) and paella (R180). Having explained that the paella includes both of the day’s linefish and other fishy goodies, they then told us that it was not on the menu, even though it was still on the blackboard. A disappointment, but it was a very quiet night – there was only one other table for two other table occupied.
Are there desserts? We didn’t enquire, nor were any offered, and nor were any listed on a blackboard.
The meal for two set us back little more than R300 which is very low for a two-corse seafood meal for two.
We left to bracing sea air on a chilly east coast winter’s night, replete and happy to have been able to be dined well by the people who truly know these coastal waters and have breathed this air all their lives.
Kassies Kove, Kassiesbaai, Arniston, Western Cape
083 937 8293/ 072 828 0640
First published in The Sunday Independent