Ever since I was a small boy and scrambled about on weedy, slippery and enbarnacled skin-chaffing rocks at low tide, I’ve met this time of year with huge anticipation. Back in those days my father and I would hope for a good Sou’westerly blow for about a week before a low Spring tide and if the elements combined, then we were rewarded without about an hour at slack water, at the very bottom of the tide, to explore an all too often hidden and seldom seen world of pools, pilings and crevices that played home to a host of marine life that utterly fascinated me and still does.
Early May would see the start of the brown crab season and as the local fishermen would mumble “we’re now seeing a few on the crawl” out would go their pots, sometimes very close inshore, on the little reefs just below the Chart Datum and the sea would become speckled with the many different “dahns” or marker buoys that marked the “shanks” (strings) of pots. So close in fact, that often on the arrival of a good low tide, gear would gradually become awash as the tide fell away, the cork lines and tows stretched out across the shore, with the wavelets streaming through the netting of the pots.
The best low tides were always between about 7am-8am and about the same again 12 hours later in the evening. Exploring a new and seldom revealed landscape, at those hours of the day was quite magical. The whole sensory process was different too. Apart from the obvious sights – starfish, limpets, periwinkles, prawns and rockpool fish such as blennies and gobies, low tide took on a totally different smell, the exposed bladder and flat wracks, drying and pervading the atmosphere with a delicious ozonous and iodine aroma, which you never get at high water. But there were spoils to be had too. As we picked our way across our favourite marks, from the Fludyer Arms Hotel to the Spa Pavillion (which would take about an hour), we’d seek out any sizeable brown crabs that we spied, tucked into cracks and beneath ledges. May was definitely crab month, lobsters generally came a little later.
We’d cart our catch home in a bucket, (if we were lucky enough to find any) and my father would instantly get some seawater heating on the stove for the “boil up”. Once cooked, he’d meticulously pick every morsel of white and brown meat, never getting bored and revelling in the fact that he’d gathered our dinner. We simply adored seafood and living within sight and earshot of the beach made it an incredibly special experience.
And it’s crab season once more. Just last weekend, I steamed out of the River Deben at Felixstowe Ferry aboard “Avocet” and headed for the eastern end of a reef of rock that we always used to know as the “Cambridge” a noted haunt of both crab and lobster.
I know I’m in an incredibly fortunate position to own a boat and as I’m not a commercial fisherman, (but empathise completely with them and their communities), I only do this as a rather expensive, but enlightening hobby, which not only serves to inspire my writing, but gives us a good feed of local shellfish into the bargain.
My pots are kindly donated and repaired “seconds” from my good friends, the Bywater brothers, Cromer crab fishermen, from the picturesque Norfolk village of East Runton. The dahns (markers) I’ve made myself and the bait (salted herring) is again kindly donated by stalwart mates and Ferry fishermen, Ed and Rob Butters. I just don’t have the time to get afloat as much as I’d like, so if I can get out to haul them once a week (weather permitting) I reckon I’m doing well. The pots are 38 inch “parlours” which means they have two chambers connected by a tunnel. Because of this feature, they can be left fishing for longer, as once the quarry has entered the second chamber, there’s virtually no escape. The bait is secured by means of a “bait string” the herring being inserted between two taught strands of twine and held in place by a stop.
Currently, I’m just fishing them in pairs, but as I add a few more to the fleet over the next few weeks, that might increase to threes, with a dahn at each end of the shank. The dahns, or markers are important. Obviously they serve as a recognisable mark to head to, but also something to grab hold of as you come alongside. Let year I used orange trawl headline floats, which were neither very visible nor easy to grab, as a boat hook to snare them was always involved. Annoyingly too, three were cut off by passing marine traffic, as they just weren’t visible enough.
However, the new dahns look good and steaming toward my little group yesterday, the sight of their flags gently fluttering in a light southerly as they denoted my gear, filled me with a huge sense of anticipation.
That has to be the high point for me, the not knowing, the sense that something or nothing might lurk inside the tarred net and hoop construction. It really does produce a great adrenalin rush, hauling, and although I’ve done it many times, the excitement is always the same. You just don’t know what’s there, until that pot heaves over the gunwales. Unlike in Cornwall, where I’ve been out fishing with some of the Newlyn guys in gin-clear water, the seas here are muddy, the silts and sands from the East Anglian estuaries, colouring and clouding, with plumes of swirling sediment. The water does clear for a while, usually in June, when you can often see down a few feet, however, by mid-summer, normal service has been resumed and the inshore fisheries have returned to a sludgy murk.
So, after coming alongside, knocking the engine out of gear and picking up the pole of the dahn, hauling commences. All the commercial fishermen have hydraulic haulers which takes the back-breaking strain out of the job, but I have no such luxury. Hand over hand, sweat and effort slowly brings the pot to the surface and then the draining creel is unceremoniously lugged onto the deck, stacked and the next tow (rope) engaged. I can’t imagine how years ago my then skipper, Dougie Goodall, managed to singlehandedly hand-haul about 100 pots a day. After just six, I can feel muscles tightening, but then I suppose my infrequent trips mean a considerable degree of unfitness!
Happily, the first pot this year did not disappoint, yielding two decent brown crabs and a just-sizeable young lobster. (The minimum landing size -MLS, is determined by measuring the length of the carapace, from the rear of the eye-socket which should be no less that 87 mm on the East coast.) Already that had made my trip. As I worked through the others, rebaiting, clearing, sorting and reshooting, another half-dozen crabs added to the tally, with just as many undersized fish being returned to grown on for another season. A handful of whelks too and a couple of velvet crabs – a satisfying and successful start to what will hopefully be a productive summer’s potting.
Back on the mooring and after a good scrub down to remove the mud, grit, escapee hermit crabs and the like, the catch is ready to be transported back to shore, in the dinghy and thence on home for the next stage of the process.
For serving the first crab and lobster of the season, I’m very much of the opinion that less is more and dismiss all thoughts of gratin, chowder and thermidor in deference to a far simpler salad, or in this case, both the lobster and crab arranged in a tian and accompanied by our own freshly-steamed, home grown asparagus, a rather sublime Nathan Outlaw-inspired hollandaise and some beautifully earthy, Jersey Royals to complete what I confess, is now something of an eagerly-awaited ritual now in the Warner household.
Nothing goes to waste and having dressed out the crabs and lobster (or undressed as Father used to say) all the frames and shells get simmered, along with a good mix of onion, celery, bay and black peppercorns in the bottom oven of the AGA for an hour or two, or until I’ve remembered it’s there 😉 This incredibly intense and piquant stock can then be frozen in trays and used as a flavoursome base for risottos and sauces throughout the year. Seafood sauces and bisques live or die on the quality of the stock and so its manufacture is just as an important part of the process.
There really is something so incredibly satisfying about cooking and preparing seafood that you’ve caught yourself and I count myself to have been blessed with the knowledge and means to be able to do this. It really is a labour of absolute love and an indulgence in a passion that never tires me. I shall be making the most of this deliciously sweet crab meat over the next few weeks and then it’ll be over to those blue beauties to complete the summer.