Upscale, downriver

There’s more than seafood on the menu at Die Vishuis, Gill Anziska’s
historic West Coast restaurant on the banks of the Berg River. By HILARY PRENDINI TOFFOLI Photographs by SEAN CALITZ

Bokkom Laan is the name of the dirt road that runs along the banks of the Berg River, where it flows into the sea at Velddrif. Bokkoms are a kind of fish biltong unique to the West Coast. What you might call an acquired taste, but they make an unusual crunchy snack with beer.

Locals have been eating them since the days of the Dutch East India company, when fisherman first started catching harders, a species of mullet, and drying and salting them. You still see bunches of bokkoms hanging up to dry along this road. You also see giant pelicans sunning themselves on old wooden jetties in the bulrushes, because this is a major wetland area. You might even spot Gill Anziska in her blue-and-white-checked chef pants, taking a break from cooking to discuss the weather with Mappies Brand, the third-generation fisherman next door.

Die Vishuis, the restaurant Gill opened seven years ago, was once a real vishuis. Fishermen used to salt harders here in big cement tanks. What remains of those days are the sea shells in the original sand walls, a portion of which Gill has uncovered, and the corrugated iron roof and cement floor. Though she’s added draped fishing nets and strings of oyster shells, she’s kept this quirky little national monument appealingly genuine, complete with open beams and a long stoep where you can eat while pondering a trip upriver to see the flamingos and herons with John Wayne – a refugee from Camps Bay – who owns the boats.

Born in Wales and brought up in Bath in England, where she qualified as a chef, Gill includes a great deal of Mediterranean fare in her repertoire. “I was nine when I knew I wanted to be a cook,” she says. “My uncle was married to an Italian woman, who showed me how to make pasta. I used to roll it out for her. Now, of course, I always use Italian pasta. Why waste the expensive ingredients that go to make the sauce on an inferior pasta?”

She worked in restaurants in London and catered for private parties before coming to South Africa and turning Highstead Manor in Sea Point into a fine-dining restaurant and guest house. Later she did private cheffing for some of the Cape’s high fliers, including property man Neil Bernstein, whose local deal with Donald Trump made headlines, and Simon Mann, friend of Mark Thatcher’s and Old Etonian soldier of fortune, now doing time for an attempted coup in Equatorial Guinea.

While working as a locum chef, cooking for hunters at the game lodge Doornfontein, Gill heard about the old bokkom vishuis at Velddrif. “I’d never had to do all my prepping and cooking and plating work in such a small space, but I soon discovered that the beauty of working in a galley kitchen is you don’t have to stretch very far. I have two staff to help with the prepping, and we cook everything from scratch. So it can be a bit of a juggle when we have a summer lunch for 28, which is the most we can take. I’ve done it for so long, I’ve got it down to a fine art.”

A restaurant called Die Vishuis must, of course, have fish on the menu, but that’s not all Gill serves. The blackboard menu contains everything from chicken Parmigiano on a bed of linguine to espetada: Portuguesestyle skewers of sirloin or rump marinated in honey, soy sauce, mustard and lemon juice and then grilled.

“Most of the restaurants around here tend to do mainly seafood and steak,” Gill says, “but sometimes people who have holiday houses in the area want something different, and I think that’s how we’ve survived so long. It’s all word of mouth. We get tourists as well as local boat owners who come here for lunch, sailing up past Port Owen and tying up at the jetty. Also, because we’re small and cosy, we have a lot of family parties. One Scottish wedding party came up the river and as they got off the boat, the bagpipes were playing. It was magical.”

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