ONCE upon a time at Bistro1682 at Steenberg, when Mom and I went for lunch, I saw a carved wooden fish on the table, attached to a card. “What’s this all about?” I asked. It was about Abalobi, a then-new initiative whereby you could trace the provenance of your fish of the day, online. More than that, you could connect with the actual human being who had caught it, and learn their story.
Chef Kerry Kilpin was the first to adopt this fledgling operation at the end of 2017. While quantities have grown from the initial 7kgs of Cape bream in a cooler box to about 20kgs two or three times a week for the bistro and Tryn, the estate’s other restaurant, the concept is the same. Abalobi was co-founded by Serge Raemakers, Abongile Ngqongwa and Nicolaas Waldeck in 2015, with the aim to improve fisheries management, the lives of small-scale fishers and to create a social enterprise agency for them.
At a lunch at the bistro last month – organised by Kerry because she “just wanted a really good excuse to say a huge congratulations at the team at Abalobi and everything they have achieved in the last six years” and at which she actually sat down with us to eat – a few media joined the Abalobi team, including fishers, for a feel-good celebration.
“It hasn’t stopped for six years, with challenges from all sides,” said Serge. “Kerry’s commitment to driving the programme, and investing in the programme – it feels like we’ve come full circle to be here today, to pause, reflect, talk – and tell our stories. We firmly believe elevating the position of small scale fishers to be custodians of our oceans is the single most important thing we can do. Our oceans are facing many challenges – pollution, climate change, overfishing, uncontrolled industrialisation – but whenever we come back to the core of it, elevating the fishermen and fisherwomen, that’s how we’ve built our programme.”
Kerry holds a very soft spot in her heart for Abalobi. “Serge and I have known each other for quite some time. When he and his wife moved to Cape Town he told me he had this fantastic idea to ‘introduce the hook and the cook’. This was the concept discussed at many a dinner party and over many a bottle of wine. I said he was mad but to let me know when he got it right.
“Then he contacted me in 2017 and said ‘we are actually doing this, do you want to be a part of it?’. And I was like ‘hell ja!’.
After that first delivery, the following January Kerry got an SMS from the fisherman (David Shoshola, who was sitting opposite me) to tell her his children were getting new clothes for the school year. “And that for me was the most heartwarming thing. I was all in, no matter what,” she said. “Abalobi has become a part of who we are at Steenberg.”
This year, Abalobi was nominated for the Earthshot Prize, a global environmental award founded by HRH Prince William that is rewarded to five winners each year for their contributions towards environmentalism, in the category Revive Our Oceans. From about 2000 nominations in each category, Abalobi was selected as one of three finalists. “Even if we didn’t win the big prize we still feel we did – to be part of that and show what we are doing on a global stage,” said Serge.
Watch this programme on Showmax to learn more about Earthshot.
For our lunch, we could not have had fresher or better fish. There were pickled fish (Steenberg’s signature recipe created by members of the kitchen team) tacos as canapés, followed by hand-chopped Abalobi yellowtail tartare with avo pulp, basil and tamarind vinaigrette and oi mouchin emulsion. This fish was caught by Marthinus Newman and Wentzel “Wennie” Newman. From the QR link: “Fishing is my life. I have a passion for the sea. I don’t want to do anything else” – Marthinus. Seated next to me was Auntie Miemie who does quality control when the fish comes in. She is Marthinus’s wife. She took a picture of the starter to send to him. It’s not often, if ever, the fishers get to see what chefs do with their catch.
The main course was Cape bream, done two different ways, caught by Wilfred John Poggenpoel – who was sitting right there with us. How special is that? “I didn’t complete school because we were too short of money,” says his biography on the app. “When I was small, my father taught me to catch fish. It became my source of income. It is what I know, it is part of my upbringing and it is an integral part of our customs.”
Good news is that Abalobi is not only for chefs and professional catering; it has an online shop for us normal people too. It’s a place you can buy your fish with a clear conscience and know you are supporting the livelihood and families – and the way of life – of the small-scale fishermen and fisherwomen of the Western Cape. Yes, they deliver. Also, the dishes we had are on the menu at Bistro1682 so go along and try them.
PHOTO CREDIT: Bianca Coleman ©