This article first appeared in House & Leisure Online and is entitled “West Coast Wander: Finding Gold in Elands Bay”. It is accompanied by a recipe – “Potato Thermidor”. Here I’ve adapted my original post slightly in order to make it blog-relevant.
The enduring charm that Elands Bay has is aided in part by the fact that apart from surfing, Sauvignon Blanc and afternoon siestas, nothing much happens here.
After crossing over the Berg River and passing through the sleepy suburb of Dwaskersbos, one finds a skinny road heading North; its tarred surface faded by the years and only a haphazard line of electrical poles standing sentinel alongside it. For the first time since Bloubergstrand, the R27 falls away and is replaced by this weathered highway that hugs the coastline. Unusually empty, this reticent route inspires drivers to, for the first time since the West Coast Road, slow down the pace and breathe in the sea air.
Compared to other towns of the West Coast, Elands Bay is by far the smallest, featuring only one hotel, two shops and two restaurants. A lengthy stretch of bleached sand separates ocean from land, with the caravan park, the hotel and a handful of guesthouses the only accommodation on offer to outsiders. While the latter are mainly occupied by surfers making their monthly pilgrimage to the only left-breaking waves along the West Coast, visitors in search of sun, sea and solitude can also be found on the lawn in front of the hotel, or eating mussels at the backpackers across the road.
Considered to be the coastal gateway to the Cederberg Mountain Range, Elands Bay can immediately be identified both by Verlorenvlei – a massive body of wetland home to over 240 species of bird – and by the jutting bluff known as Baboon Point. Named for it’s appearance rather than by those that dwell on its heights, Baboon Point is also home to the Elands Bay Cave – a National Heritage Site that boasts some beautiful San rock art. Hidden behind a dilapidated radar station from the Second World War, the cave and the art found within it are easily accessible for those wanting to look back in time. Simply head up the stone stairs or take your off-road vehicle on a rather grueling trip up the 4X4 track to find it. Also known as the Spirit Cave for it’s shamanic history, the hollow faces out over the ocean, echoing the roar of the Atlantic. Hundreds of tiny handprints have been painted up the rockface and are sure to send a shiver down the spine of even the most doubtful of visitors. When excavations of the cave began in the late 1970s, it was determined that the paintings – a collection of long-limbed humanoid figures, large mammals and the handprints – dated back about 4000 years, and placed the people that originally occupied Elands Bay as hunter-gatherers that ate a combination of seals and shellfish.
Speaking of shellfish, the other attraction of the area is crayfish. Known as the West Coast’s Red Gold, the rock lobster is endemic to our shores and has been a prized delicacy for the past few decades. It was during the early twentieth century that crayfish began be to fished commercially, canned and sent off to France, North America and the East. Prior to that it was considered a nuisance and given to local farmers as fertilizer. Heartbreaking as this thought may be, what is more troubling is how over the last thirty years, the West Coast Rock Lobster has been fished to almost extinction. High demand, oversized quotas, unscrupulous government deals and illegal fishing have caused this slow-growing crustacean to be plundered from the coastline with dire consequences. As of this year, the West Coast’s red gold found itself on SASSI’s red list – the eventual result of almost four decades of unbridled overfishing.
Standing a little way out of town, the crayfish factory still processes what little it can catch, but most of the warehouses stand derelict or partly demolished, relentlessly assaulted by the sea.
I’ve seen the photographic evidence of the crayfish bacchanalia my family and their friends used to enjoy in the Seventies and Eighties – the mass of fluorescent orange legs and tails, dining tables covered in newspaper and bottles of Graça and smiles on every face – a true illustration of carefree abundance. During my own lifetime, my only interaction with crayfish has been the occasional overpriced bite of the pathetically undersized specimens on display in seafood eateries.
Fortunately for Elands Bay, crayfish is not the only kind of gold it has to offer. Bordering the Sandveld, most of Elands Bay’s unique terroir makes it one of the most prolific potato farming regions in South Africa. Myriad varieties of potatoes are grown here, along with endemic rooibos tea and an array of root vegetables. Shorter growing potatoes like Sifra, Mondial, Electra and Panamera grow well in the sandy soil, have a greater yield and are able to resist the ruthless West Coast wind.
The wind itself is one reason to hunker down at a table in the eponymous Elands Bay Hotel, order up a plate of fried calamari and spend a blustery afternoon watching the intrepid kitesurfers out on the blue. Still retro enough to be intriguing, the hotel attracts a few colourful types that can usually be found in the bar. As the restaurant no longer serves alcohol, the best thing to do is to patronize the liquor store next door and buy up a few bottles of Sir Lambert Sauvignon Blanc to enjoy with your meal. Other attractions include the Peri Peri chicken livers served at Die Wit Mosselpot backpackers – their reassuringly rustic restaurant a favourite with surfers and landlubbers alike. There is also a co-op store of sorts, a giant crayfish made from old fishing nets and until recently, an abandoned corner café that dated back to the 1950s and had “Elanda Winkel” hand-painted on its wooden façade. Sadly, the small amount of development that has slithered its way into the town demolished Elanda Winkel, erasing the past in order to make way for four luxury holiday rentals. Neither myself nor the backpackers next door are particularly pleased about this modification.
Fortunately, one monument still remains; a large fiberglass zebra left over from the days of the Trek fuel station has stood tethered in a private garden and is now as much of an Elands Bay landmark as Baboon Point. Here, having one’s photo taken with the zebra is as much a rite of passage as learning to surf.
West Coast Wander Recipe
Inspired in part by the infamous lobster dish and a prototypal Potato Dauphinoise, my Potato Thermidor combines elements of both in a decadently creamy bake that needn’t be saved for special occasions.
Classically kitsch, Crayfish Thermidor is the yet unequalled example of slightly questionable Seventies cooking. I’m of the opinion that there is only one way to consume crayfish – with lots of garlicky melted butter – and that eating it in any other way is nothing short of sacrilege. As of 2017, the West Coast’s red gold has been relegated to SASSI’s red list and thus the costly crustacean is officially off the menu. But since good flavour never goes out of fashion, the same ingredients used in Crayfish Thermidor have been repurposed into a layered bake not dissimilar to the French staple Potato Dauphinoise.
Grown prolifically in the sandy soil of Elands Bay, the humble potato is one renewable resource that holds myriad possibilities when it comes to recipes. The flavours of mustard, cream, Parmesan or Gruyere and onion from the original Thermidor pair perfectly with the waxy softness of potato whilst scalloping the spuds on a mandolin means that the dish stays delicate.
Prep time: 25 mins/ Cook time: 1.5 hours / Serves: 4 to 6
You will need:
- 4 to 6 large waxy potatoes, washed and peeled
- 2 large Spanish or brown onions, peeled
- 6 to 8 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely sliced
- A few sprigs of fresh rosemary or thyme, washed
- 50ml yellow mustard seeds
- 300g grated Parmesan cheese
- Coarse ground sea salt and black pepper
- Butter, for greasing
Using a mandolin or a very sharp knife, slice the potatoes and onions very thinly. Place the potato slices into a bowl of cold water to remove extra starch. Remove the leaves from the rosemary or thyme, discarding the woody stalks. Roughly chop and set aside.
Grease a large ovenproof dish with butter and add in enough slices of potato and onion to cover the base. Pour over about a tablespoon of the cream, followed by a scattering each of garlic slices, mustard seeds, rosemary or thyme, salt and pepper and finally Parmesan. Cover with a second layer of potato and onion slices and repeat with the cream, garlic, herbs, seasoning and cheese. Layer and repeat until the dish is full. To finish it off, pour over a last bit of cream, scatter with herbs, mustard seeds and salt and pepper. Sprinkle over a generous amount of Parmesan and bake in a preheated 180°C oven for 1 hour before turning up the heat to 220°C for the final 30 minutes. The dish is ready when the top layer is golden brown, crisp and bubbling.
Serve the Potato Thermidor alongside a rare steak, a lemony roast chicken, tender lamb or grilled fish.