Like Somalian long-board surfing and Palestinian choral music, Dutch cuisine is neither celebrated nor followed with enthusiasm of the keen and sought-after kind. Grape-sized meat-balls made from strange and tasteless gobs of pulverised animal flesh (the ubiquitous bitterballen), limp cabbage leaves simmered to an oddly grey hue and thin, tough beef steaks overcooked and slathered in a layer of off-white gruel resembling curdled wild boar milk, these are some of the more celebrated items of food consumed in Holland. It is all so bland and all so dull that the dining choices from these European Lowlands even makes German cuisine a thrilling and appetizing prospect.
Having frequently been exposed to this Calvinistic culinary travesty that is Dutch cooking during a week in Weesp, I approach a restaurant called Dutchies with a mixture of dread, trepidation and plain hopelessness. But it is holiday season at the Cape seaside town of Hermanus where I have just procured a retirement home. And Dutchies is the only eatery on the Hermanus beach-front offering expansive views of the stunning Walker Bay ocean and its frothy, broken wave-water. The air smells of salt and mysterious marine plants, the warm breeze drifting in from the south-east adding to the feeling of well-being one experiences on the sea’s edge under a piece of God’s coastal sky. So deep is my desire to be here at the sea, I am even willing to give the food of Dutchies a go.
One sits al fresco under a milkwood tree exuding its mysterious feral summer aroma, a heady mixture of sweet and rancid, the umami of scent. The place is humming with retirees, for which the coastal town of Hermanus is as well-known as for its Stellenbosch Mafia hide-outs and those pained, distressed sounds of female Southern Right whales being rogered by their rather well-endowed male mates.
I order a bottle of Diemersdal Sauvignon Blanc 2021 to provide encouragement and strength for a perusal of the menu. Yet, a sigh of relief follows. Although the presence of those aforementioned bitterballen, as well as some other stuff called kroketten – basically a sandwich, but still a challenge for a Dutch chef – the menu is free of food inspired by the Dutch culinary ethos.
There are sandwiches and burgers, and other beachy stuff such as spring-rolls and crab wontons. Tortilla chips and guacamole, garlic shrimp and even a nod to Portugal with some beef rissoles.
Main dishes include hake and chips, calamari, two kinds of steak (fillet and sirloin) and a chicken kebab. There is also some vegetarian stuff and sushi.
My mouth still salty after a long and intense ocean swim, and the appetite spiked by the delicious Diemersdal Sauvignon Blanc, I look towards the Dutchies sushi menu. Maki rolls, salmon roses, Californian rolls and fashion sandwiches. The usual suspects. My eye falls on the sashimi, and I ask for some tuna, which I knew is in season. And, for the hell of it, a couple of salmon roses.
This proved to be a good start to the evening. The salmon roses offered just the right balance between tender raw salmon and that creamy salty-sweet Japanese mayonnaise, with the parcels of vinegared rice held by the fish providing firmness of texture. It is all very tasty.
As for the sashimi, well, this is from yellow-fin, the king of the tuna species and a torpedo-shaped jet-fast marine animal known as the cheetah of the ocean. In a state of freshness such as this, the fish is a true thing of beauty. Not even a burger-griller at the Braamfontein Spur who has never seen open water could stuff-up such a splendid primary ingredient from the sea. The raw meat was perfectly cut in clean wafer-thin slices still showing the red bloodiness for which the flesh of this game-fish is known. Dabbed with a bit of wasabi and deftly swiped through good quality soya sauce, the wet-fresh raw tuna provided for immense eating pleasure. A wave crashed through my ears whenever I swallowed a sliver.
The Diemersdal Sauvignon Blanc is just too good with this kind of seafood, so another bottle is ordered.
Main-course specials are chalked on a board, and these include fish-cakes the size albatross nests as well as a yellow-tail and calamari combo. Still having some wine to get through, I go for the combo, which once again confirms my extraordinary decision-making skills.
This yellow-tail must have been caught this morning, I think as the perfectly grilled and pearly white fish gives way to my eager fork. A squirt of lemon juice elevates the pure simple joy of fresh fish which has been skilfully cooked through, yet remains tantalisingly moist with its firm, yet fragile and tender flesh. Next to the fish lie golden-brown strips of calamari, underscoring my just-acquired assumption that somewhere in the Dutchies kitchen, one of the world’s most skilled seafood grillers is toiling away. A slight smoky char covers the squid which, once bitten, gives way to the delicate texture and distinct taste of squid. Whoever is cooking, knows his or her stuff.
Adding to this plate of pleasures is a bowl of wide hand-cut French fries that provide homely starchy sustenance to the captivating pleasures of the ocean. A salad of tomato and lettuce, as well as a container of delectably creamy tartare sauce completes the picture.
Few dining pleasures can match quality fresh food from the sea, accurately cooked with skill and respect, eaten at the ocean edge while also partaking in a bottle or two of cold Sauvignon Blanc. It must surely be one of the top Dutch-themed eateries in the world.
I pour the last glass of wine from the bottle and note the raven-haired widow from my Hermanus art-class walk past my table without so much as saying hello. She sits down at the table behind the milkwood, alone, and orders a glass of wine as she stares at the sea without noticing the breeze blowing her hair across her eyes, which I know are green and bright and still bearing pain.
- Lafras Huguenet
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