Chardonnay and the Best Fish in the Sea

Lafras Huguenet

Then the storms came, gloomy dark clouds ejecting sheets of icy rain sent blowing horizontal by the raging north-westerly wind. The sea off the Cape was massive, with mountainous swells building steadily before their crests ripped apart, the breaks sending mountains of angry white water smashing into the shoreline.

Two days later, days short and dark, the weather raw and unsettled, the sun came out, and the wind departed as quickly as it had come. Still the ocean groaned, but the waves were calmer and the colour back to its blue-hued beauty, as it should.

Underneath its surface, a wonderful thing had happened. The power of the stormy sea had flushed out the gullies, loosening the sand to expose the banks of mussels, red-bait and worms, presenting a veritable marine buffet to the schools of hungry fish that had moved closer to the shore in a search for safety from the vicious surges of the deeper winter ocean.

The galjoen.

My quarry had arrived, so I packed my fishing tackle, heading for Macassar on False Bay. Standing on one of the rocky beds exposed by the low tide, I did not have to cast my bait far, did not have to be too smart or show a paranormal degree of angling skill. My rod dipped, and soon I had a mighty galjoen on my line, carefully reeling it in through the rock-lined gully, holding the 3kg fish in my hands and feeling the familiar roughness of its layer of protective scales. Its muscular tail flapped, the mouth gaped, the desperate gape of one knowing it had succumbed to fate.

I killed it lovingly, and with respect.

The galjoen (Dichistius capensis), endemic to the coastline of Namibia and South Africa, is the most distinctive tasting fish in the sea. That is, when prepared in the correct manner of braaiing it over hot coals, the fat dripping from the fish’s blue-grey flesh and the skin blistered by the heat of the fire and the meat scented and flavoured by the wood coals.

Being too large a fish to consume by myself, I let my editor of this website know that a fresh galjoen was being prepared under open skies, and he was over to my place faster than one could say “tight-lines”.

I was butterflying the fish and removing the innards when he arrived bearing great things. Two bottles of Chardonnay to accompany the flesh of the fish and to pay worthy respect to it having offered its life and soul for our culinary pleasure.

The wines were two stunners that had just been awarded Platinum gongs at the Decanter World Wine Awards, namely the Paul Clüver Seven Flags 2020 from Elgin and De Wetshof’s Bateleur, address Robertson, and of the same vintage as the Seven Flags. Both wines come with staggering reputations, being the only South African Chardonnays to hit the high Platinum Decanter note.

Galjoen on the braai.

The fish was placed in a grid and set over the red-hot coals, and the first Chardonnay was opened, this the De Wetshof Bateleur. A calmness had fallen over the Cape skies, the still air allowing the smoke from the coals to rise in a slow aromatic frond. The grilling fish sent goblets of fat hissing onto the goals. We looked at this in silence, sipping a wine showing a formidable presence in this ideal environment of two friends under open skies next to a fire cooking a magnificent fish. I tasted bitter almond and lime-peel, with just a hit of honey-suckle to harness and tame the exuberant vividness of what the De Wetshof Bateleur was presenting. Aged in new oak, the wine is built on firm, immovable foundations showing solidity and balance, poise and that wish for immortality.

My pondering ended abruptly when my editor noted the fish was ready, causing my mind to engage the gear of practicality. I removed the fish, plated two portions and we sat at the kitchen table with wine and galjoen, splashed with the juice from fresh lemon slices.

The fish’s flavour is one of wild ocean, of coves filled with seagrass unsettled by the current, and of mussels and clams and sea-snails bashed against rough-edged rocks. It is deep and intimate, a feral damp, and the meat has a sensual marine flavour, and is extraordinarily delicious. With the fish, the Bateleur showed a sleekier, brisk personality, fine and poised. The bottle ended too soon.

Second portions of galjoen were served, for we are men of good appetite, the editor and I. Here I plated portions from the fish’s belly, there where the fish’s layers of fat lie waiting to find fire and the warmth that releases the oily goodness into that slice of stomach flesh.

The Paul Clüver Seven Flags Chardonnay was open now, and I sipped it after wiping off the fish fat from my lips so as not to leave an oil slick on the wine’s surface. This is a cool-climate wine, typical of Elgin, a region Paul Clüver pioneered. And it is a wine showing the distinct differentiation between Elgin and Robertson terroir, clear signs that Cape Chardonnay is terroir-driven, bearing the unique fingerprint of geographical origin.

In the Seven Flags there was more fruit, more perfume, all very welcome to off-set the dense flavours of fulfilment provided by the galjoen stomach. This Chardonnay brought quince and cut apple, some brilliant green fig and winter melon to accompany the fine eating the fish was providing. By now we were drinking heartily, seeking freshness and cool, lingering wine laced with spurts of citrus and the extended linearity of exquisitely made Chardonnay to make this gastronomical decadence last longer.

Which it did, well into the night, as the two empty bottles stood next to fish-bones eaten bare and white, the two of us puffing on MonteCristo cigars in the special language of two men very lucky to experience one fish and a duo of wonderful wines, made for us and having created a memory that will not pass any time soon.

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