Estate Living photo.
Diverse and indigenous cuisine brought by the many ethnic people to St. Maarten from all over the world piques our interest. To this end, we are on a quest to find where it comes from, if it is used for celebrations, if it is exotic to some but everyday food to others. Anything to do with keeping the body and soul nourished with that which is produced from good old terra firma, is what makes the world go around.
The route from George to Knysna is along one of the prettiest coastlines one finds anywhere in the world. Finally, we were on the “Garden Route” – so named because the 300-kilometre-long coastal route from Mossel Bay to Storms River passes through the Garden Route National Park. This scenic drive offers varied vegetation with many wetland areas, lakes, and for the stretch, we were driving the most beautiful stretch of beach. The wilderness goes on for miles starting at Victoria Bay and ending near Knysna its self.
Picture this: A long, not very straight road of tarmac, undulating over sand dunes that have been stabilized by the low flora and occasionally a grove of tall trees, a few housing developments and to the right, a long, white-sand beach with the Indian Ocean rolling in, white crested wave after wave, while the left side of the road extends to the foothills of the tall range of mountains known as the “Tsitsikamma” mountains. Tsitsikamma means “place of much water” in the Khoekhoe language.
Between the foothills and the national road are countless lakes, vleis, forest-covered islands and muddy, reed-covered “flats”. This is a birder’s paradise. There are a number of laid-back resorts on the lakes where we used to stay for “water-skiing” weekends in our late teens. Today, though, we wanted to get directly to Knysna so we did not stop at Sedgefield or at any other tourist stop along the way. We had booked an airbnb overlooking the canals and waterfront shops.
There is a wonderful earthy, wood smell tempered with salt air in Knysna, not surprising as it is a thickly forested region and these trees are what draw many a visitor. “The indigenous forests in Knysna constitute the largest complex of closed-canopy forest in southern Africa, whilst the remarkable richness of the Fynbos vegetation contributes over 8,000 plant species to the Cape floral kingdom.” The forests are also home to the Knysna elephant, although it is believed there are only three or four elephants left. There is an elephant park which looks after orphaned elephants from the Kruger Park.
There is a huge tidal lagoon that comes in through the tall, rocky cliffs known as The Heads. These Heads are treacherous – believe me. If yachts do not stick to the exact right path, it could spell disaster. Huge waves break across the small entrance at times. The lagoon, now a protected marine reserve, is home to the extraordinary sea horse and over 200 species of fish.
The tidal lagoon empties out through the heads, leaving large mud-flats where fishermen, families and children pump out clams to use as bait. Fishing from the rocks/high cliffs is a big pastime for those who enjoy fishing. But here it is advisable to take the services of a “ghillie”.
My father and uncle were great in this past-time, as they and their ghillie would clamber the cliffs for hours till they found the right spot! Casting into the waters from way up high, they would settle back with beers and sandwiches to enjoy the event. Thankfully, they often returned with a couple nice sized fish like elf, galjoen and mussel cracker. Some fishermen sadly never returned – this is a very inhospitable coast.
Knysna oysters are well known. The Knysna Oyster Company actively farms about 6 hectares of the Knysna Lagoon. There is a family who has the concession to harvest wild oysters along the coast. I learnt to enjoy oyster while very young. Standing knee-deep in swirling water at low tide, my father would shuck an oyster pluck fresh from the rocks – giving the oyster a quick rinse off and slurping the salty morsel straight down was food for the gods. I must have been about 10 years old when I was introduced to them. Nowadays, oysters for me should have no addition except a good swirl in the salty, briny sea – there is nothing more decadent! There is a yearly Oyster Festival held in Knysna – but not while we were there, unfortunately.
Meeting our friends in their waterside home, we were taken on a “pontoon” sundowner ride through the canals of the area called Thesen Island. The Thesens were a Norwegian family who settled in Knysna in 1870. They were sailing from Cape Town to New Zealand but got caught in a storm. Returning to Cape Town, they were asked if they would deliver supplies along the coast. They realized the potential of Knysna and settled there – no more thoughts of going to New Zealand.
The Thesens developed the shipping industry and the forestry, wood-processing, boatbuilding and oyster farming industries. In 1904, they purchased the large scrub island in the middle of the lagoon. As we punted around this, now luxurious gated community, we saw how the old metal beams from the forestry industry as well as other huge bits and bobs from the factories have been incorporated into the condos that line the canals.
Returning to our airbnb to get ready for dinner out with a full moon rising, we were delighted to find an owl perched on the veranda beam overhead. You can guess what we ordered for dinner – yes, oysters, of course!
Knysna dates back to 1760 when the first farmer arrived – and by 1770, the first farm was established along the east bank of the Knysna river. Sadly, in 1802, colonist farmers endured a large-scale massacre. This event took place during the Third Frontier War. A group of renegades plundered farms all along the coastal regions. Farmers returned to the Cape in fear of their lives, but they were ambushed and four men were killed; the women and children were taken as hostages only to be released some months later.
In 1804, Knysna was again sort out, this time by George Rex who became known as the founder of Knysna. George Rex was thought to be the illegitimate son of King George III. King George was known as “Mad King George” and the “King who lost the American Revolution”. Young George Rex settled with his family on the shores of Knysna’s lagoon. The area is heavily forested by indigenous forests – blackwood, stinkwood and yellowwood are a few of the trees that were cut down for the timber trade.
Today, if you go into any of the local shops, you will find them filled with wooden items, carved vases, platters, bowls, serving spoons and forks, lamp stands, tables, chairs and list goes on. Wandering in these stores, one is assailed by the smell of wood and wood polish – heavenly! Timber is a difficult item to move by ox-wagons – the main mode of transport back then. A harbour was proposed in 1817. The first navy vessel entered The Heads but struck a rock, and was promptly beached. Later that year, the next navy vessel arrived and found that the safest passage through The Heads was to stick to the Western side of the passageway – a course still used by all craft to this day!
These recipes are adapted from the “Knysna – Plett Herald.” The Pepperdew is a South African pepper we sometimes find on our St. Maarten supermarket shelves. You can substitute another sweet chili if needs be.
Grilled Sweet Piquant Pepper Oysters
4 cups spinach, chopped and rinsed
Salt and white pepper to taste
1 TBL butter
¼ cup spring onions, finely chopped
¼ cup Whole Hot or Mild Peppadew sweet piquant peppers, drained and finely chopped
2 TBL Parmesan cheese, grated
16 freshly shucked oysters on the half shell
Preheat grill in oven.
Wilt spinach in a hot saucepan – 2 minutes.
Press down onto the spinach with a spoon to squeeze out the water and drain.
Stir in butter.
Season lightly with salt and white pepper.
Combine spring onion and sweet piquant peppers in a bowl.
Remove oyster flesh from the half shell.
Place a spoonful of the buttery spinach into half shell.
Place oyster meat back on top of the spinach.
Top with a small tsp of the Peppadew/onion mixture.
Sprinkle Parmesan cheese over the top.
Place oysters onto a bed of coarse salt in a large roasting pan.
Cook under the hot grill for 5 minutes.
Serve at once.
Cream of Potato/Leek Soup with Oysters and Peppadew Sauce
4 leeks, washed, trimmed and finely sliced
1 onion, chopped
2 TBL butter
4 large potatoes, cubed
4 cups fish stock
1 cup milk
1 cup cream
12 oysters, freshly shucked, juices collected
Salt and white pepper to taste
Peppadew Sauce or sub with sweet pepper chili sauce
Sauté leeks and onion in butter until soft.
Add potatoes and fish stock.
Simmer 30 minutes.
Add milk, cream and oyster juices.
Blend the soup with an immersion blender.
Season to taste with salt and white pepper.
Return soup to saucepan.
Heat till piping hot.
Ladle soup into 4 warmed soup bowls.
Top bowls of soup with chopped fresh oysters.
Serve at once with a splash of the piquant sauce.