This article first appeared in House & Leisure Online and is entitled “West Coast Wander: Remembering the St Helena Bay Butchery”. Here I’ve adapted my original post slightly in order to make it blog-relevant.
Leave behind the picturesque uniformity of Paternoster and drive past the moneyed mansions of Britannia Bay and Shelley Point with their displaced palm trees, electric fencing and gentlemen who golf and you will come across a small half moon of development that hugs the coastline in a far more understated manner.
Looking out across the Atlantic Ocean to the Berg River mouth on the opposite shore, St Helena Bay was heralded as the first point of access for Portuguese pioneer Vasco da Gama and now serves as one of the busiest fishing towns along the Cape West Coast.
Predominantly industrial, St Helena Bay is not a pretty town – none of the celebrated eateries, boutique hotels or holiday resorts that draw tourists to the West Coast reside here. While the view over one of the eighteen small bays that make up the area is, as with anywhere along the Cape West Coast, breathtakingly beautiful, in the town itself, stretches of warehouse used for the sorting and canning of fish lie derelict or demolished. But don’t let these mislead you – along with Velddrift, St Helena Bay is one of the largest fishing zones along the coast. Abundant in snoek and other pelagic fish, St Helena Bay celebrates its ongoing link with the ocean with an annual Sea Festival held in the summertime. Two major fish processing corporations have their plants here and the local community is one with its feet firmly in the surf. They know the ocean as one knows one’s own reflection. This is a relationship that has lasted down through the decades, from generation to generation. The sea gives life, it gives nourishment, and it provides work.
But just like in seasons past, they know that the ocean is a mercurial provider. What happens when the snoek swim away, when sardines are scarce and even the successful netting of small silvery haarders is sporadic? The locals turn to the land for sustenance in the form of sheep. Originally home to the indigenous Khoikhoi people who practiced nomadic pastoral agriculture and kept herds of nguni cattle, goats and sheep, meat became the staple diet of people who needed to survive through the slow fishing season. Being in such close proximity to the breadbasket of the Swartland, the land surrounding St Helena Bay is prolific in the farming of wheat and sheep. In the last few decades, produce from the latter could be found in the form of lamb chops, sausage, roasts and kaiings – the fat from a sheep’s tail cubed and fried until rendered and crispy – at the St Helena Bay butchery.
Housed in a building that was erected in 1891, the butchery served its customers for a number of years until it closed it in the early Nineties. Although I’ve been unable to unearth much tangible information about the butchery’s history, I do have the stories told to me by my parents who would frequent the butchery on the Friday drive up from Cape Town before heading to my father’s house in Port Owen for the weekend. This was the same place where, long before my time, my brothers were chased down the road by a flock of furious geese – they had tried to play with the goslings. This was also the place where many a spitbraai was hosted on the verandah of the St Helena Bay Hotel, the sacrificial pig butchered and hanging in the nearby bluegum tree while those meant to be cooking it had one too many beers in the hotel’s bar. At least the hotel ended it’s life with some semblance of dignity instead of being left to fall into ruin – it was demolished to make way for a housing development.
The butchery itself was a long low structure, into which customers gained access through a swinging fly-screened door. Overseen by the butcher in his bloodstained overalls, the interior consisted of three counters that displayed the produce in a way that would probably be right at home in the current resurgence of authentic meat suppliers – frilly parsley, scalloped tomatoes and citronella candles would only arrive with the influx of franchises in a few year’s time. Notably, the St Helena Bay butchery was also one of the few places that practiced integration in a time when “whites only” signs divided towns and legitimized discrimination. Serving everyone from holidaymakers to farmers and the fishing community, the butchery was the only place for anybody to get thick-cut bacon, strings of boerewors piled haphazardly next to fresh lamb chops and kraakers – a form of fatty sausage that could be cooked over hot coals on the blade of a clean shovel. This was the time before buzzwords like organic and grass-fed were prevalent and when the concept of feedlots and genetic modification sounded like notions from an Orwell novel. Today all that is left of the butchery is a ruin – mournful in it’s dereliction. The pitched corrugated iron roof is sagging, the rafters having been hacked out for firewood, the glass of the windows has been smashed, the counters torn out and the doors stolen. Inside is a profligate mess of self-destructive human vice – bar the rather skilful rendering of an unknown artist of two fishing trawlers scratched into the peeling plasterwork. But apart from this, the cheerful chirruping of the starlings that nest in what’s left of the eaves are the only antithesis to the moan of the wind through the empty rooms. Small wildflowers peep through the original stone masonry at the building’s base but otherwise it is entirely dormant, standing alone and crumbling in an open field next to the road.
What one fails to understand is why these places like the St Helena Butchery and those like it have disappeared. These weren’t places that catered to the moneyed set – they were an integral part of the community. Sadly now vacant and vandalized, the building itself stands testament to how the godless neon convenience of modern supermarket franchises have laid waste to independent retailers like this one. Here’s hoping for a resurgence of the “Mom & Pop” stores of the last century – the ones that are all about slow food and family.
Braised Lamb Chops with Garlic, Lemon and Rosemary
Prep time: 15 mins / Cook time: 1 hour / Serves: 4
You will need:
- 16 to 20 organic lamb chops
- 150ml extra virgin olive oil
- coarse ground sea salt and black pepper
- 6 to 8 sprigs of fresh rosemary, washed
- 2 to 4 large lemons
- 2 bulbs of fresh garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
- 250ml water
- 250ml double cream plain yoghurt
- fresh crusty bread, to serve
Juice the lemons, retaining the empty peels. In a mixing bowl, combine half of the lemon juice with 125ml of the olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Remove the leaves from 4 of the rosemary sprigs, finely chop and add to the olive oil mixture. Finally, add in the garlic and stir to combine. Allow the marinade to sit and the flavours to develop.
Drizzle the remaining 25ml of olive oil into the bottom of a large cast iron pot or casserole. Arrange the lamb chops to lie flat in the base – you may need to do this over two batches – season with salt and pepper and replace the lid. Over high heat, brown the meat on both sides until golden and the fat begins to render. Then reduce the heat and add in the lemon peels, leftover intact rosemary sprigs and water (remembering to halve the amounts if cooking in two batches). Replace the lid of the casserole and steam the chops for about 20 minutes. To finish them off, remove the lid, increase the heat and reduce the liquid in the bottom of the casserole until it is dark and syrupy.
Finally, spoon the marinade you made earlier over the cooked lamb chops then combine a tablespoon or two of the same marinade with the yoghurt to make a speedy dip. Serve the chops with the yoghurt dip and a loaf of crusty bread to mop up the sauce left in the base of the casserole.