My mother grew up on a farm near Kalbaskraal, a small settlement just south-west of Malmesbury. Her family’s favourite coastal holiday town was Velddrif – the home of bokkoms

Bokkoms are bunches of dried fish on a string that can be described as ‘fish biltong’. PHOTO: Towerwater aan de Breede

If you don’t know a bokkom, the closest description is ‘fish biltong’. It’s called a bokkom with reference to the Dutch name for a Billy goat. It is said that the dried bokkom looks like a goat horn, but I suspect it had more to do with the smell of an old Billy goat. If you are not born to bokkoms the smell can be overpowering.

Having pleasant memories of summer holidays at Velddrif, my mother had a thing for bokkoms. Even when my parents moved to Johannesburg, she ordered bokkoms from Velddrif. The bunch of dried fish on a string was duly despatched by train and a railway truck arrived at our gate with the precious delicacy – just like that, a bunch of fish on a string – no modern-day packaging. 

Incidentally, this was also the way the railway truck delivered a gift of culled springbok from a farm in the Free State, merely gutted and with a label tried to its hoof!

But back to the bokkoms. For some reason my mother’s favourite way of eating bokkoms was to briefly heat it on the stove to bring out the flavour and then enjoy it on fresh bread with butter. The problem is of course the heating. It not only brings out the flavour, but also the smell. My father, who did not grow up on the West Coast, was not a bokkom fan. Bokkoms were banned from the house and the heating had to be done on an old slow-combustion stove in the outhouse.

Widely considered a precious delicacy, a favourite way of eating bokkoms is to briefly heat it on the stove to bring out the flavour and then enjoy it on fresh bread with butter. PHOTO: My Easy Cooking

But what fish was a bokkom before it became a bokkom? Back in the 1950s we children were told they were called harders and that you can go out in a rowing boat at night with a light on board and the harders will jump out of the water towards the light and into the boat. I have no idea if this is true or whether they were just trying to escape the nets of the fishermen.

Yes, bokkoms are dried, salted harders, or South African mullet (Chelon richardsonii)

According to the Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town, Southern mullet are grey, elongated fish with pointy snouts and silver bodies that are darker on top than on the belly. They can be distinguished from related species by the presence of a yellow spot on their gill covers. Although we usually think of mullet as small fish, they can actually grow quite large – some reaching over 40cm. 

Southern mullet inhabit the coast of Southern Africa from Walvis Bay in Namibia to Kosi Bay in KwaZulu-Natal, although South Africa’s West Coast is where they are most abundant. They are also an occasional fresh or brackish water fish, often travelling far up the Berg and Olifants Rivers.

Their preferred habitats are calm, sandy-bottomed environments, such as small bays and estuaries. Huge numbers of mullet enter these sheltered environments in spring each year to spawn. These sheltered environments are also perfect places for the southern mullet to find their favourite prey – tiny photosynthetic plankton called diatoms. 

Because diatoms have very hard protective layers made of silica (which is basically glass), mullets do not rely on a stomach to digest them; instead, they have an organ called a crop, which helps grind up their food. This is very similar to the crop or gizzard found in many seed-eating bird species.

The history of bokkoms goes back as far as the 1650s, soon after Jan van Riebeeck arrived at the Cape. The Dutch East India Company gave a small group of Dutch settlers fishing rights at Saldanha Bay, on condition that 20% of their catch was sent back to Cape Town to provision the Company’s ships. Needless to say, being smart businessmen, they sent only the useless small fish to Cape Town after having first salted and dried the mullet to preserve them. Thus were bokkoms born.

Bokkoms are dried, salted harders, or South African mullet (Chelon richardsonii). PHOTO: Two Oceans Aquarium

As time went on, and fishing on the West Coast became more commonplace, bokkoms went from being an undesirable food, fit only for ship supplies, to a sought-after delicacy in other parts of the country. Fishermen began seeking out the small, delicious southern mullet for the sole purpose of making bokkoms, and it was time for the fishery to move away from Saldanha Bay to a new ‘bokkom capital’.

Fishing communities moved north to the mouth of the Berg River and other West Coast estuaries. Today, Velddrif on the Breede River mouth produces as much as 95% of the world’s bokkoms, giving it the informal nickname of the ‘Bokkom Republic’. Velddrif is, or at least was, in the ideal location for harder fisheries – close to the Cerebos Salt mine, and with a perfectly sheltered estuary for both fish and bokkoms production along a road dubbed ‘Bokkomlaan’. 

Today bokkoms are extremely popular and demand exceeds supply. Unfortunately, southern mullet are being over-exploited, and although they remain abundant in places, huge fishing pressures are leading to a decline in numbers. 

Today bokkoms are extremely popular and demand exceeds supply. PHOTO: Towerwater aan de Breede

Mullet rely on calm coastal waters and estuaries to protect their young – the same waters that are targeted by traditional trek netters and, increasingly by illegal fishing. It’s easy to see how it could lead to problems if not properly managed. Illegal harder catch may already exceed the legal fishery. This is not just bad news for the ecosystem, it’s bad news for communities like Velddrif that depend on the legal fishery for their income.

Bokkoms are South Africa’s answer to anchovies – delicious on pizzas, focaccia, in pesto and as a snack. Velddrif is still the bokkom capital – but for how long?

About the Author

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Whale Coast Conservation passionately lives by its slogan “Caring for your environment”.

Its small staff and volunteers are dedicated to

  • raising community and visitor awareness of the unique, biodiverse natural resources of the Cape Whale Coast region and
  • to projects that convert awareness into practical actions that lead towards living sustainably.

WCC ensures expert representation in public participation processes that contribute to environmental and developmental policies and legislation.  We monitor regional development; and ensure compliance with legislation and guidelines.

WCC increases general public awareness of sustainability through environmental education, citizen-science research projects, community projects and campaigns.

WCC communicates with its audience through exhibitions, signage, technology demonstrations, workshops, talks, film shows, newsletters and articles.

WCC places emphasis on educating future generations through its Youth Environment Programme (YEP).  YEP is offered to 24 schools in its target area with a total of over 10,000 learners.

WCC facilitates schools’ participation in special events such as Earth Day, Walking for Water, Arbor Day and Coastal Clean-ups.

WCC facilitates educator development programmes to improve the capacity of educators to offer informed environmental content in their lessons across all learning streams.

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