The Soetwater Environmental Centre has even more to offer than most people are aware of.
On its premises is the Kelpshack which, under the management of Phil Mansergh, is providing visitors with an environmentally-enlightening educational culinary experience – and it promises to be uniquely memorable.
The shack was opened last November as an additional tool to educate people who visit the centre. Visitors enter the shack by way of a coastal walk along Soetwater beach during which they learn about the ocean and coastal biome from local tour guides and husband-and-wife team, Michael and Dagmar Forcioli. The talk covers a range of topics, including kelp.
According to the Forciolis, kelp can be considered the tree of the sea. It breaks the power of the waves and, therefore, protects the shoreline. It is for that reason that the kelp, acting as the first line of defence against the powerful might of the ocean, often washes up on beaches. This talk is a fitting preamble to the culinary lesson at the shack where Phil demonstrates the preparation and cooking methods of fresh and dried kelp.
He also explains that, with his kelp-fishing permit in hand, he harvests kelp sustainably. “The kelp is gathered from various beds from Scarborough to Kommetjie. I go to the plant by paddling out on my surfboard and select the younger fronds, removing the kelp carefully, roughly 20cm from the bulb, with a small sharp knife which is attached to a foraging bag around my waist. Sometimes, depending on what I am using the kelp for, I remove the bladder and stipe, but I mostly use the fronds,” Phil says.
The kelp, he says, grows in abundance off the local shores and with the sea plant growing up to 13mm a day, he’s not at any risk of damaging the eco-system by harvesting the few parts that he does.
The Kelpshack’s part in the educational experience is focused on the “intertidal zone and what exists in terms of both flora and fauna; the vital importance of kelp forests in our oceans; and as a chef, to promote the use of kelp as a viable alternative food source”.
Phil’s knowledge of food comes from his background as a trained chef who started at the Mount Nelson Hotel before doing two years in the South African National Defence Force, after which he did a three-year diploma at Silwood School of Cookery.
His interest in kelp, he says, was first piqued in 2015 when cooking at the Cape restaurant Farmhouse, “when I was asked to do a kelp lasagne by local foraging enthusiast Roushanna Grey for a large group of people”. And it was a success.
It was around that time that UCT Prof Rob Anderson (now retired) sent Phil some culinary information about a local seaweed company that, with his help, compiled a recipe book in 2001. Craig Foster, the man behind Netflix’s documentary sensation My Octopus Teacher, is another inspiration to Phil since seeing an exhibition of his in 2015.
Additionally, the local people, including the Forciolis, who hold knowledge of kelp-usage from the past are confident that kelp was once a common food source.
Phil says: “The more I speak to people, the more I realise the forgotten knowledge that needs to resurface.”
While his work to uncover these lost secrets may garner some mixed reactions, Phil says some people recognise the promise kelp holds as a sustainable food source.
“I was helped to start the Kelpshack by Kommetjie resident and well-known cheese maker Pepe Charlotte who recognised the potential and has been very supportive. Jan Labuschagne assists me with the coastal walks as well as the Forciolis, Jim Hallinan and Mathew Dowling. Vegan chef Stephanie Proctor from Kommetjie; and Lynn Mazaya and Irene Muzunza from Masiphumelele are my valued assistants,” he says.
His seasonal land-based greens are sourced from Neighbourhood Farm, Kos Gangsters in Ocean View and local businesses.
This educational experience is only available by appointment.