A Taste of Britain-on Sea

Statistics from the ONS show the biggest drop in holidays abroad (down 15%) since records began in the 1970s. The British Resorts Association figures show that the 30 million a year heading for the British seaside for four nights or more is the same number as in 1965 and one third will have taken their main holiday in the UK this year according to an Opinium Research poll.

The reasons behind this are varied, the recession being the most commonly cited, with concerns about financial instability abroad, the Icelandic ash cloud and air strikes also playing their part.  Past experience has shown that the weather in the UK will have a significant bearing on holiday decisions the following year, but it does seem that there is a very pleasing growth in interest in discovering our own country.

Personally speaking, good food is essential to a good holiday. Finding places in the UK where you can eat good British food is no easy task.  Taking that a step further, to get a real sense of place, is even harder.   Foreign visitors (down this year) might also be pleasantly surprised to discover good British food and my own experience has been that this is easier by the sea than anywhere else in the UK.

Specifically I am talking about fish, so the probable reason for this is the difficulty in transporting it.  Larger fishing ports are geared up for transporting because 75% of the UK commercial catch is actually exported, with Spain being the biggest buyer, but in smaller harbours and estuaries it is possible to eat fish fresh from the sea.

For an island we have been surprisingly indifferent towards fish, a fact that enabled Edward Heath to give away our rights to British fishing waters as part of the price of joining the EU in 1973.  The history behind our indifference is widely regarded to be a consequence of the number of meat free days that were enforced in the past, although as this was also the case in other Catholic countries without the same consequences I’m not convinced by this reasoning.

Despite our general indifference towards eating fish, Fish and Chips are firmly embedded in our culture and now moving beyond the Fish and Chip shop to reach improved heights of culinary achievement in pubs and restaurants.  The only trouble is that the fish that is served in batter along with chips is usually a trawler caught deep sea variety – Cod being the top seller with Haddock the preference in Scotland, and these white fish are the ones most in danger of being over-fished.   Shellfish on the other hand are still relatively plentiful and can also be farmed with minimal environmental impact as they require no feed inputs or chemical treatment.

For the same reasons that The Campaign for Real Farming recommends small-scale mixed farming as the sustainable way forward for agriculture, this also has to be the route to a sustainable future for fishing.   During the warmer summer month’s fish will come in close to the shore, some of which may even be caught from there, but usually from small day boats.  Smaller catches are more likely to be sold close to where they are landed providing us with some of the finest food you will find in Britain.  All around our coast, especially in places popular with tourists, simple eateries have sprung up that give you the opportunity to eat the freshest fish in sight of the sea where it was caught.   And although fish will move around, they have their preferred habitats, so that different resorts will have their own specialities.   Below are a list of places and their fishy specialities which I have enjoyed and I invite you to add your own finds to this.

WEST COUNTRY

Dorset

There is excellent fishing to be had around Portland and Chesil beach.  The Isle of Portland itself provides deep sea, rocks and wrecks and is particularly known for Bass fishing.  From Portland to Abbotsbury lies a great shingle bank, which shelves steeply, providing great fishing from the shore.  Along its length all manner of fish are caught, mackerel are perhaps the most prolific although during the summer month’s spider crabs are considered a pest.  Behind Chesil lies a salt water lagoon known as The Fleet and it is here that pacific oysters are farmed.

The Crab House Café, Weymouth. www.crabhousecafe.co.uk

Idiosyncratic, perhaps even slightly eccentric, this simple café is located beside the Portland end of The Fleet, where they have their own oyster farm.  Cracking fresh crab, accompanied by nothing more complicated than a salad grown on the premises, was one of my food highlights this summer.

Hive Beach Café, Burton Bradstock www.hivebeachcafe.co.uk and The Riverside Restaurant, West Bay, Bridport. www.thefishrestaurant-westbay.co.uk

Both close to Bridport, between Weymouth and Lyme Regis, so sharing many of the same specialities including hand dived scallops, brown crabs and spider crabs.

Hix Oyster and Fish House, Lyme Regis www.hixoysterandfishhouse.co.uk

The most expensive of these Dorset eateries, and with less direct connection to the fishermen who provide the mainstay of the menu, but making plenty of use of lesser known, sustainable species and specialising in oysters including those farmed on the Fleet and also at Brownsea Island.

South Devon

Brixham is the main fishing harbour on this coast, with day boats providing a wide variety of fish.  The wild and unspoilt Exe estuary produces excellent mussels.  The South Devon Tourist Board has this year begun a campaign to promote South Devon crabs, which are of excellent quality but also in plentiful supply – 2000 tonnes are landed each year of which 60% are currently exported to France and Spain.  Pacific Oysters are farmed at Bigbury Bay and can be sampled there, or in Salcombe at The Oyster Shack www.oystershack.co.uk .  Mitch Tonks seems intent on doing for Dartmouth what Rick Stein has done for Padstow.  Having first opened the Seahorse Restaurant he has followed with the more informal Rockfish Seafood and Chips.  Both can be relied upon to provide local, sustainable fish.

The Seahorse Restaurant and Rockfish Seafood and Chips, Dartmouth www.seahorserestaurant.co.uk and www.rockfishdevon.co.uk

Cornwall

Newlyn fish market lands some of the best fish in Britain, but much of this will make its way out of Cornwall.  Surprisingly, given the amount of excellent fish that comes from Cornwall, eating it at its source is not as easy as one might hope.  Having already mentioned Rick Stein above, it would be churlish to talk about Cornish seafood without repeating his name here.  Whilst I have suffered less than perfect service and incidentals on visits to his Padstow Seafood Restaurant, the fish itself has always been exemplary:  www.rickstein.com

Two things in particular say Cornwall to me with regard to fish: Native Oysters and Pilchards.  Having already identified places to eat farmed Pacific oysters (also called Rock Oysters or Gigas) in both Dorset and Devon I should explain here how rare and special our native oysters are.  There are only three places where they are still found in the UK – in the Fal estuary Cornwall and on either side of the Thames at Colchester and Whitstable.  Of these three, only in the Fal are they entirely wild and fished by traditional sail boats as no motors are allowed.   The taste of a native oyster will vary dependent on the waters in which it was grown.  In the Fal they take on colour and a faintly metallic taste from copper in the water.  They should never be cooked but cherished raw and ideally in comparison with other native oysters, although the only place you are likely to do this in the UK is in London at the Wright Brothers oyster bar in Borough Market.   These same brothers have recently taken over The Ferryboat Inn at Helford, close to where they run the Duchy Oyster Farm: www.ferryboatinnhelford.com .  Whilst this does include the cultivation of some native oysters, re-laid from their home of the Fal, they also farm the Pacific oyster there.  This has been somewhat controversial, as many fear that they will over-run the native oysters (Helford being a tributary of the Fal).  The wild native oyster is found around an area known as the Carrick Roads on the Fal, but frustratingly most seem destined for London or elsewhere.  The reason for this is probably because, unlike Pacific oysters which can be farmed all year round, the Natives are in season only when there is an “R” in the month, i.e. outside of the tourist season.

Pilchards are about as Cornish as you can get – think Stargazey Pie, but they have undergone rebranding as Cornish Sardines in recent years as Pilchards apparently have too strong an association with wartime fare.  Pilchards are in fact just large sardines and perfect for cooking on a barbeque.  As far as I know there is no fishmonger travelling around the campsites in Cornwall as there is in North Devon but I think they would do a roaring trade with sardines.  Sardinus sardinus are pelagic in nature but a couple of decades ago the large shoals appeared to have abandoned the Cornish shores – or perhaps the fisherman had just stopped actively fishing for them.  They are now relatively plentiful and an excellent source of vitamin D.  Whilst this article is really about eating fresh fish close to their source, for the reasons just mentioned I will take this opportunity to commend the canned sardine.  However, my recipe for this article puts an up to date twist on sardines on toast – in this instance with fresh sardines, a simple enough recipe to cook over the camp fire.  See Seasonal Recipes – Sardines on Toast

On the north coast of Cornwall, acclaimed chef Nathan Outlaw has now established his restaurant at the St Enedoc Hotel www.stenedoc.co.uk and www.nathan-outlaw.co.uk .  In addition to fine dining in the restaurant this also includes a simpler Seafood and Grill bar overlooking the Camel Estuary, where Rock Shellfish farm pacific oysters, mussels and clams.  These can be found on the menu here, along with Cornish sardines and other seafood, accompanied by local and prize winning Camel Valley sparkling wines.

North Devon

The North Devon coast was famed for its lobster, crabs and herring.  Clovelly is a beautiful old harbour from which more than 100 herring boats once operated.  Nowadays it holds festivals to support sustainable fishing and traditional methods.  In September it celebrates lobster and crab with all funds going to the National Lobster Hatchery at Padstow, then, in November, it hosts a Herring festival.  Lundy Island, in the Bristol Channel, became England’s first Marine Conservation Zone earlier this year and fishing for lobster has been banned there for five years now, resulting in a rapid increase in stocks in the immediate area but not, as yet spreading out to the surrounding waters.

Against the backdrop of these encouraging initiatives, European Lobster are considered relatively sustainable providing they are of caught in pots and are of adequate size.  The Walrus, operating out of Ilfracombe, is a member of the Responsible Fishing Scheme and aims to provide sustainably caught shellfish within the local area.  You can find a list of restaurants that they supply with live lobster and crab on their website: www.walrusfisheries.co.uk .  They have also teamed up with Mortehoe Shellfish, who cook the lobster and crab for consumption either at their home in Mortehoe or via their delivery van, which visits the many campsites in the area: www.moretehoeshellfish.co.uk .

SCOTLAND

Around 60% of the UK’s coastline is in Scotland.  With all its islands and sea lochs the opportunities to enjoy seafood in sight of the waters where it was caught are tremendous.  More than just in sight of water, many of these hotels and restaurants are situated in the most stunning scenery imaginable.

The fishing industry, which has always played a huge part in feeding the Scots and now much further afield is not so promising.  The deep, cold, waters of the North Sea provided the cod, plaice and haddock beloved by fish shops, whilst the rivers provided Salmon.  All are now in short supply and farmed Salmon, with its associated environmental concerns, has all but replaced the wild.

The inshore fisheries, capable of providing high quality direct to local restaurants and markets, are the ones that provide the hope of a sustainable future for fishing in Scotland.  From Scottish Sea Fisheries Statistics in 2007 we learn that there were some 1494 Scottish boats under 10m in length making up the bulk of the inshore day boats.  Compared with areas like Cornwall, what is striking is the lack of variety in their catch.  1292 of the 1494 small day boats are creel boats, fishing for langoustine, crab and lobster.  There were also 35 diver boats, mainly scallopers.  Shellfish is what to eat when in Scotland, with langoustine being the jewel in the crown.  It must however be creel caught as langoustine trawling is associated with some of the worst environmental concerns: by-catch of immature whitefish, seabed damage and high fuel use.  Some 40% of the world’s langoustine stocks are caught in Scotland, with Spain being the largest buyer.

Below is a selection of places to eat, based on my personal experience or recommendations, but I am sure there are many other “finds” waiting to be discovered.

West Coast and Islands

Crinan Hotel www.crinanhotel.com Overlooking Jura – a beautiful location.  Langoustine are landed daily.

Seafood Temple, Oban www.templeseafood.co.uk for 25 years what was affectionately known as the Seafood Shack on Oban Pier sold simply cooked fish direct from their own boats.  Following 3 years painstaking renovation, the owners now also have a restaurant just along the way.

The Three Chimneys, Isle of Skye www.threechimneys.co.uk .  The seven course tasting menu showcases a local ingredient in each course – fish features heavily.

Lochs Torridon and Gairloch are the only ones to have MCS certified creel fishing for langoustine.  On Loch Torridon the Torridon and Tigh an Eilean both serve these langoustine: www.thetorridon.com and www.tighaneilean.com (site under construction, call 01520 755251).

Shorehouse Seafood Restaurant, Tarbet, Sutherland www.seafoodrestaurant-tarbet.co.uk.  A family run restaurant at a remote cove on the west coast.  Julian Pearce and his son, Adam, fish for prawns, crab and lobster from their boat, the Fulmar whilst Julian’s wife Jackie runs the restaurant.

The Captain’s Gallery, Scrabster www.captainsgallery.co.uk Scrabster is the ferry departure point for the islands of Orkney and Shetland as well as the most northerly fish market. The Captain’s Gallery is situated on the harbour and therefore has the pick of fish so fresh that sushi and sashimi are specialities of the restaurant.

The Creel, St Margaret’s Hope, South Ronaldsay, Orkney www.thecreel.co.uk .  Alan Craigie showcases the best of Orcadian food, which of course includes fish from the surrounding waters.  Creel caught lobsters, crab and the Orcadian speciality Spoots (razor clam) are regulars on the menu.  Long before others were switching to lesser known fish species, Alan made a point of introducing them to diners by pairing them with popular favourites.

EAST ANGLIA

Britain’s east coast, on the North Sea, was once the primary location for our fishing industry but those days are long gone and the old fishing ports have something of a ghostly air about them.  The number of large trawlers has been decimated, but hopefully in time we will see an inshore fishery grow up to take its place.  From Norfolk to London this has already started to happen, thanks largely to the farming of shellfish.

Norfolk

The north Norfolk coast with its tidal marshes and sandy beaches is a Designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, rich in wildlife and with ideal waters for farming shellfish.  Brancaster Staithe is known for the farming of Pacific Oysters ( or Gigas as they are often known) and mussels.  You can eat these at The White Horse whilst watching the mussel fishermen cleaning their nets or local boats returning with their catch. www.whitehorsebrancaster.co.uk

A little further along the coast lie the Stiffkey (pronounced Stewkey) marshes.  These are famous for Stewkey Blues, a type of cockle with a distinctive blue colour.

These might well appear on the menu at nearby Morston Hall, north Norfolk’s only Michelin starred restaurant – www.morstonhall.com .  What you are assured of is locally caught fish, much of it landed at Morston Quay, just a few hundred yards away.  Expect cockles, shrimps, mussels, oysters, crab, lobsters and marsh samphire when in season.

Just along from Morston is Blakeney where Andy Rendall catches crab and lobster to sell from Blakeney Crab Shed (01263 740988).  You can buy these shellfish ready cooked and dressed to take away but if you want to buy them to “eat in” Cookies Crab Shop at Salthouse, near Blakeney can oblige.  Weather permitting you can eat outside, otherwise you will definitely need to book one of the few tables in the garden shed!  Bring your own wine.  (Tel: 01263 740352 of see www.salthouse.org.uk ).

Cromer Crabs are reputedly the sweetest in the country and those caught in Cromer Bay justify their reputation.  This could be down to the chalk shelf below the bay or the fact that they are caught young (115cm is the legal selling size).  They also have a higher proportion of white meat to brown than crabs caught elsewhere.  However, their popularity could lead to their demise.   They are now fished all year round and what is sold commercially as Cromer Crab may in fact have been caught hundreds of miles away, frozen at sea and just processed in Cromer.  There are only 12 boats operating out of Cromer, looking after 200 pots in the bay.  If you can be sure that this is where the crab came from then its well worth buying – but I don’t know where to recommend for this .

Suffolk – Essex

The Suffolk coast features more marshland interspersed with pebble beaches, such as that at Southwold.  Oysters are the main speciality between here and Kent with famous oyster beds on both sides of the Thames Estuary.  Smokehouses are the other big thing – a remnant of the herring fishery.  Lowestoft was a centre for herring fishing on this coast.  Rare delicacies such as Buckling and Red Herring can be found at The Old Smokehouse and JT Cole.  What Lowestoft doesn’t have is a good restaurant serving these smoked fish.  For that head further south to Orford.

The oyster beds at Orford were abandoned in the 1900’s until in the late 1950’s when Richard Pinney began to resurrect the Butley Creek beds with oysters he imported from Portugal.  Today the Butley-Orford Oysterage has its own fish shop, smokehouse and restaurant.  In addition to their oysters they also use their own boats to supply these outlets, catching sole, mullet, lobster and crab from spring until autumn, cod and skate most of the year, and herrings and sprats in the winter months.  See www.butleyorfordoysterage.co.uk .  The Crown and Castle Hotel at Orford also includes local fish on the menu.

To get from Norfolk to Orford you will pass Aldeburgh with its pebbly banked beach and row of fish shacks selling fish landed here twice a day.  There’s a bit of a shortage of places to eat the fish though.  The best restaurant in probably The Lighthouse but the Aldeburgh Fish and Chip shop is well regarded and always has a long queue.

Heading on into Essex the highlight along this stretch of coast is The Company Shed at 129 Coast Road on the island of West Mersea.  Here, during the winter months, you will have the opportunity to eat the rare Native Oysters, but to make the business viable, Richard Haward farms Pacific Oysters all year round: www.richardhawardoysters.co.uk .  Richard’s wife, Heather runs The Company Shed, built in 1955 for cleaning oysters, it was converted in 1989 to enable them to be sold here.  It is a wonderful no-frills operation.  You cannot book a table, so be prepared to wait for half an hour and then to share with others.  You also need to bring your own bread and wine.  All that really matters here is the quality of the shellfish (crabs, cockles and other shellfish are brought in to join their own oysters).  Two people can eat for £18.  Who could complain at that?

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