Last weekend it was that time of year again. I remember writing about the Aldeburgh Food and Drink Festival a few years ago, shortly after I started blogging. I recall that I fondly wrote of light winds and clearing skies and that special autumnal nuance that accompanies those shortening September days.
This year has again been a repetition. Following a Sou’ westerly of ‘hooley’ proportions the previous weekend, the epicurean Gods looking benignly over Aldeburgh, deemed that high pressure and a balm of perfect weather, should descend and be applied once more, meaning that for the second year in a row, our now much-vaunted and esteemed ‘Wild Suffolk’ area, a seasonal amalgam of hunted, caught, foraged, gathered and plucked offerings from our surrounding rural backdrop, was once bathed in a glorious light.
Now…. ‘Wild Suffolk’ what does that mean to us? What does that phrase conjure up for us and why do we rejoice in such historical and deep-rooted provenance. Food of the lonely shoreline, harvest field, thicket and forest, a smorgasbord of seasonal produce; hunted, caught, foraged and gathered from our wild domains and prepared and cooked using the lore and tradition handed down over the centuries from our forefathers. Why, when, how to and with what?
To unravel these natural mysteries of the field, David Grimwood and I, along with a merry band of like minded wild-foodie souls, once again conjured together a gathering of experts, producers, hunters, foragers and chefs to show the Festival-goers at Aldeburgh Food, just how seasonal, wild produce can be an exciting, affordable and nutritious accompaniment to everyday fare, a delicious standalone meal created and crafted from local ingredients or a surreptitious or opportune snack, taken whilst enjoying the environs of our wonderful countryside.
Well the first year went so well, we thought we’d repeat the exercise and so following months of meticulous management and painstaking planning, the second instalment in the Wild Suffolk story took place, spurred on by our dedicated and passionate cohort of wild food exponents.
Of course for me it’s all about our seas and the bounty within, that our hardy fisherfolk reap in all weathers and often at great personal cost. Eating seafood that’s grown and nurtured beneath the waves in a wholly natural environment has always intrigued, fascinated and inspired me and being able to convey that passion to others is now very much my mission. To interpret the quality that comes with seasonality, to identify opportunities that exist in abundance and to deliver these to the table with respect, traceability and integrity that underpins the accompanying flavour, nutrition and provenance of seafood, that sadly and only too often, passes through the fishermen’s hands unnoticed and unappreciated.
Seasonality is key to the understanding of our wild food, whatever the product, but never more so that with fish and shellfish. It’s taken me a lifetime to understand the seasonal and geographical nuances that different species display and how to identify the right time to tap into their utmost quality and to utilise these amazing creatures in their absolute prime.
As Aldeburgh occurs in early autumn, seafood-wise we’re at a change over point in the dynamic and balance of species inhabiting our relatively shallow inshore waters. As I repeat to chefs (often ad nauseam), we’re the poor relation in East Anglia, compared to other coastlines when it comes to seafood diversity and are notably bereft of opportunity. Our fishermen here invariably have to settle for what is ‘swimming past’ (as they often bemoan) and of those historical catches several species are now ridiculously restricted or off limit, such as skate and the spur dog (the finest rock-eel, although abundant once more), due to the ‘one size fits all’ top-down fisheries legislation, so typical of the cumbersome Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) which soon, we will leave in our wake.
As I write these words, I’m actually sitting in the Swordfish Inn in Newlyn, our most Westerly fishing port and a community that I increasingly see as a second home. The fishing opportunities here are extensive to say the least and on the market, literally a few yards from my room, up to 50 different commercial species of fish and shellfish can be landed daily, compared to the paltry handful of Total Allowable Catch (TAC) opportunities afforded to the 30-odd Under 10m skippers, who operate from Felixstowe Ferry to Lowestoft.
But opportunities do exist, if only our local consumers knew it. Yes, we have cod (sometimes), bass, (often), we are awash with skate (roker or thornback ray) and lobsters and crab feature throughout the summer, but there are also a myriad of other lesser-known, forgotten and ‘underrated’ types that have either fallen out of favour or have been resigned to the cook books of yore.
I am convinced that, equipped with a little knowledge, a modicum of confidence and a willingness and open-mindedness to experiment, the by catch that our local fishermen currently consign to their bait bins, can provide us with incredible flavour, satiating protein and a package of health-enhancing dietary supplements that constitute a true low carbon, superfood.
So, fully bunkered with enthusiasm and with the freshest seasonal ingredients we could muster, our resident wild food cookery guru, Jose Souto and I embarked on a passionate and hopefully educational masterclass on how to utilise two of our most abundant wild resources on the East Coast, the herring (Clupea harengus) and the whiting (Merlangius melangus).
These two iconic and eminently delicious species have accompanied my journey in seafood throughout my life. From my earliest memories of the wafting threads of kipper smoke behind Godfrey ‘Fishy’ Thorpe’s shop in Felixstowe and my father’s unerring persistence in getting me to eat ‘the bones and all’ at countless Sunday breakfasts, herring has been there and I’ve loved it, in all its forms. Whiting too, my first ever catch on a rod and line aged 5 years old in Felixstowe Bay and also my most plentiful, with my dinghy often wallowing ashore, with little freeboard, awash to the gunwales with stiff-fresh silver, green and yellow bars that we often handed out liberally to folk on the beach as they crowded round.
Two national and personally historic catches that we sadly have so very little time for any more.
For the herring, well, I won’t labour its history here, suffice to direct you to a previous post of mine, from earlier in the year, where their heritage and local provenance is amply explained .
The whiting, however, is perhaps worthy of additional comment and is I believe noteworthy, inasmuch that its delicate, sweet, flavour goes unnoticed alongside the more robust gadiformes of haddock, cod, saithe and hake. A shoaling, predatory bottom feeder, the whiting inhabits the shallow seas around the UK in vast numbers, moving inshore to feed on shrimps, crabs, worms and fry, seldom exceeding 2lbs in weight here, although further North, on Peterhead Market, I have regularly observed 5lb+ specimens. They and their barbuled cousin, the whiting pout, pouting or bib, have always constituted part of my autumn bag and like the herring it’s a fish that I’ve enjoyed throughout my life in so many different recipes and has always been the first image that springs to mind when ‘fresh fish’ is mentioned.
So, whilst I recounted snippets of history and information surrounding both specimens and having prepped the fillets for the demo, Jose explained and demonstrated in concise order, just how simple it is to get the best from these fish, using the ‘less is more’ approach and subtly using other ingredients to enhance their flavour and not mask it.
The herring we marinated in a cider vinegar, rapeseed oil and mustard glaze and then griddled the remainder very simply, with scored skins and liberally brushed with olive oil to ensure an even and just-cooked finish. Jose was at pains to explain to the crowd, how overcooking of fish is so easy to achieve, but so unnecessary with a little knowledge and attention to detail. Slightly undercooking and resting should always be aimed for, so that dryness is avoided and the oils allowed to work their magic creating that rich depth of flavour.
The whiting was another triumph, the fillets topped with a lightly-fondled mix of breadcrumbs, parsley, sea salt, butter and grated cheddar, which when baked, gave the appearance and texture of a crumble, with a delicious and delicate crunch that burst with flavour before the whiting flakes brought a fragrant sea- sweetness to the palate.
Needless to say, our by-now, ravenous audience descended, locust-like on the stage and within a matter of minutes had polished off the entire spread. Approving comments came thick and fast as we basked in the enjoyment of having engendered to the crowd, a feeling of satisfaction, seasonal simplicity and the confidence to perhaps try something different. Encouragingly though, what also became most apparent, was that many there, like I, still remember the recipes and ingredients of our parents, grandparents and years gone by, that although now perhaps largely forgotten, remain for all time, to be resurrected, sampled and enjoyed, exactly when Mother Nature and the time of year dictate and affording us the opportunity to eat ‘wildly and well’.