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Fish

For the last two weeks I have been travelling in South Africa, and with the exception of just a couple of meals, Iíve eaten fish. Thereís plenty of it here, and at very affordable prices, and with the beautifully warm February weather itís been an appealing option.

Most restaurants here offer line-caught fish of the day: as this is commonly the only fresh local option, in my quest for fresh local produce, itís the one Iíve plumped for. And under the bright southern sun, itís usually the most rewarding choice. Fresh fish that doesnít taste fishy, but instead delicate and light, is a treasure, a joy. It also provides a nice foil for white wine, which Iíve been drinking more of than I usually do. Itís one of lifeís ironies that in countries more suited to red wine production (typically warmer climates), white wines are what you most commonly feel drawn too. South Africa is better known as a red wine country, but its whites are increasingly worthy of attention. In experimenting with matching wine to fish, Iíve made some tentative conclusions.

First, oaky whites donít make great matches for fish, unless the fish is served in a rich sauce. Thereís a place for oak-aged Chardonnay, but I get the feeling that the tide is now turning: whereas Chardonnay has enjoyed massive popularity in recent years, people are increasingly turning to Sauvignon Blanc. Now, Iíll be honest. Sauvignon canít really match Chardonnay for complexity and interest at the top end, but good commercial Sauvignon (unoaked) usually makes a much better food match than commercial Chardonnay (with its sweet veneer of oak).


Unloading the catch at Hout Bay
With fish, Sauvignon is king. Itís food compatibility may well be the reason for its current resurgence here in South Africa. Mike Ratcliffe of Warwick Estate has seen the light: heís developing a Sauvignon, which heís named Professor Black: first vintage was 2002, with a measly 800 cases, but this will expand over the next couple of years to 17 000 cases. Anticipated retail will be under £8 in the UK. In my opinion, he's wise to keep the price down. While I enjoy Sauvignon, I canít  see a good reason for spending ore than a tenner on a wine made from this grape. And a gap in the market is opening up: whereas New Zealand has long held the Sauvignon crown, their decent examples are now creeping up past the £10 mark, leaving the £5-8 bracket largely open for competitors. But thatís a separate issue. 

Back to Fish. Thereís something about the sea thatís special, and thereís something about the fruit of the oceanís thatís also special. Such a tragedy, then, that over-fishing has threatened the existence of many fish stocks around the world. For now, though, where good fish is available, itís high on my list of restaurant choices, and Iíll be looking for a fresh, unoaked white with good acidity to pair with it.

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