Since I’ve been writing, I’ve come across a few like-minded souls who, to use the old phrase are “coming off the same page” as me. Promoting seafood is one thing and the industry surrounding it is massive, but trying to forge the link between the consumer and the guys who catch, is really something else and even more so when you’re trying to explain the abundance of UK-caught seafood and the realities of what it takes to land it.
The message we’re constantly trying to get across is that eating freshly caught UK fish and shellfish, is a process that shouldn’t just be the preserve of the affluent and that with the bounteous mixed fisheries that exist around our islands, now more responsibly and sustainable harvested than ever before, there really is something for everyone.
We export so much of this fantastic wild protein too. Those of us who regularly enjoy so many different seasonally-caught species, can’t help but wonder at the psychology behind the British public’s unerring desire to consume seafood in all its forms whilst abroad on holiday, but then bridle at the thought of cooking it, when back in the sanctuary of their own kitchen.
Nearly half a million tonnes of fish and shellfish, with a value of £1.5bn (Seafish 2016) left our shores last year and when you consider that value within the supply chain, it makes you realise just how much this incredible produce of ours is valued all around the globe. Brown crab to China, hake and spider crab to Spain, langoustine (Dublin Bay Prawns to us), to France, brown shrimps to Holland and whelks to South Korea are just a few examples of the most flavoursome and diet-enriching seafood, that we ought to be utilising domestically.
So, a couple of weeks ago in Northampton, I was lucky to be invited to witness a level of passion, that I’ve only generally encountered, in the fishy haunts of our harboursides and coves where only the best is served by the best.
The self-styled and eponymous Crabstock Boys aka Adrian Bartlett and Andy Hunting, are literally breaking new ground in seafood education. Adi (a lifelong Devon fisherman) and Andy (a serious foodie, blogger and food photographer) have combined their respective passions and talents, in a unique and alchemic blend of solid seafood cookery, but with an overriding determination to improve consumer knowledge, not just about how to enjoy the diversity of our marine food, but to learn how to source it, identify it and prepare it, with a knowledge unsurpassed by any seafood chef worthy of his salt.
Cunningly devising a way to entice both seafood converts and the unwary into their world, the enterprising duo have taken the world of Food Festivals by storm, turned them upside down and shaken them like the cod end of a beam trawl. It’s refreshing, its fascinating, it’s heartening and above all it’s inspiring.
The concept is this:
- Take the greatest variety of freshly landed, seasonal UK shellfish, possible.
- Cook in simple, traditional ways to preserve every ounce of flavour and integrity.
- Create a pop-up restaurant with maximum ambience and character.
- Assemble a Fruits de Mer platter, worthy of any Breton seafood bistro.
- Invite people to dine.
- Guide and assist diners in how to enjoy extracting maximum worth and taste
- Talk knowledgeably about each species and the industry that produces them.
When these elements combine, you have the perfect setting, atmosphere and environment in which to instil desire and evoke passion for a food that needs celebrating like no other.
The guys don’t do this for gain. There’s no industry funding or support, no gravy train here to promote their activities, it’s just hard, solid graft, love and devotion, but boy do they get results. Over the course of the summer, the “Crab stock and 2 smoking lobsters” restaurant will see 30 covers each day for two days, at five different Festivals, countrywide, demolishing approximately:
300kg Brown crabs (hens), 350kg Spider crabs, 150kg native lobsters, 75kg langoustines, 50kg whelks, 20kg mussels and 10kg cockles and clams.
All simply and aesthetically served up on platters, accompanied by the necessary tools: wooden block, rolling pin and spoon, affording the diners the wherewithal to (sometimes very unceremoniously) deal with the claws and chitinous carapaces that encase this just-cooked array of deliciousness and heathy sea-protein.
Guests arriving at the marquee are invited to their tables by the team of attentive and hardworking volunteers, who bustle and prep the feast in an open-plan, field kitchen, which for a temporary and very rustic, area of food preparation, is diligently ordered and spankingly clean; indeed, during my visit to Northampton, the boys were delighted to be prestigiously awarded a Five Star food hygiene rating, by the scrupulously observant, local Environmental Health officers.
The atmosphere, once dining commences, is one of mirth and infectious banter, punctuated by snippets of shellfish advice, wisdom and anecdotes delivered in very relaxed and informal tones, prompting even the most reluctant of tasters to indulge. The team are on hand to answer questions about cooking, cleaning, dressing and procuring the variety of shellfish on display and of course, notes to the provenance and traceability, so vital for the informed decision making required when consuming seafood.
With diners at liberty to purchase wine from a small but eclectically-chosen selection, the lunch sitting is relaxed and convivial, with no time constraints and ample time for curiosities to be satisfied. It’s just how a long, lazy lunch should be. Satiating, flavoursome and productive. Time for savouring every mouthful, time to accrue knowledge and time to share experiences. Indulgent yet educational.
For those not able to partake of this gastronomic seafood spectacle, the Crabstock Boys take to the stage during the day, in one of the incredibly popular cookery theatres organised by Living Heritage Food Festivals. Here, festival goers are treated to Andy and Adi’s expert blend of skill and myth-busting knowledge, in humour-fuelled demonstrations of dressing, shucking and picking which culminates in a simple and easy-to-follow recipe delivered by Andy, using his wealthy experience of home-cooking, tempting the assembled into experiencing for themselves, the sheer satisfaction of producing a meal using the freshest fish and shellfish.
And that’s what it’s all about in my opinion. Giving people the opportunity to try and taste and to instil the self-belief needed, to boldly and confidently embrace the concept at home, in a country where we lag so woefully behind our continental cousins, to the tune of 20-30kg/head of seafood consumed annually.
Bravo Crabstock! Long may your mission continue.
The late, great and eternally passionate Keith Floyd once said. “When it comes to eating fish and shellfish, we’ve lost our Grandparents’ nerve…” Wise words indeed and incredibly prophetic. But it needn’t be so. With the right guidance, drive and sheer determination, fishermen and chefs together, can influence our seafood diet in a very perceptible and tangible way and it’s happening right here, in a little pop-up restaurant under canvas.