BRITISH IN PARTICULAR
To highlight some of the delicious, quintessential ingredients that are farmed, fished, grown and made up and down the country, we meet some of the remarkable producers that help bring them to our table
as the sun rises behind an inky-black horizon, it illuminates porpoises and dolphins playfully diving in and out of the waves. Everyday scenes like this are just one of the ways in which nature rewards fisherman John Davies for starting his day at 3am. Off the coast of Cromer in north Norfolk, where he works, the chalk and flint seabed is said to yield the sweetest-tasting crabs in the country, making ‘Cromer crab’ nationally, if not internationally, renowned and John’s chief quarry. “We’re like hunter-gatherers, really,” he says of those in his profession. “It’s a wild product and unpredictable. On a good day, you might land 1,000 crabs; on a bad one, it could be just 100. It varies so much – that’s the beauty of it, though.”
A pre-dawn beginning – in order to catch the tide – six days a week would be tough for most, but that and all the other aspects of John’s work are in his blood. He’s the eighth generation of his family to take up this line of work, which has been a key part of trade in this clifftop town for time immemorial. “I never, ever wanted to do anything else,” he explains, before describing his first trip out on the boat with his father Richard when he was just three, an experience, he says, that left him ‘hooked’. The basics of crab fishing have changed very little since the time of John’s ancestors, but today modern machinery and technology have improved efficiency and safety for him and his three crewmen, Stuart Clarke, Clifford Large and Stephen Barrett.
While his grandfather took sailing and rowing boats out to sea, John and his crew have a catamaran. Due to its increased stability, radar and two GPS systems, it can travel further out to ‘work pots’ at a wider variety of locations and therefore increase their catch, although John’s 40 years’ experience and extensive knowledge of this watery wonderland also give them an edge: “There’s nothing on paper, but I’ve got a map of the seabed in my head.”
The crew travel to each ‘shank’ of pots (an anchored line of 25 roped together), which are between four and 12 miles from the coast. Stephen hauls them out of the water via a hydraulic winch with Stuart on side to sort, harvest and grade the contents with the help of John. It’s Clifford’s role to remove any crabs that have hung on and pass them to John, re-bait the pots with gurnard, horse mackerel and cod and plaice frames (the trimmings left over from filleting) and plunge them back into the depths. Often it is late morning by the time all the shanks are processed and the men return to Cromer’s pebbly beach. They then head to John’s workshop and yard in nearby East Runton where 95 per cent of their catch is boiled in ‘coppers’ (having been placed in warm water first to render them unconscious due to the lack of oxygen), ready for retail and trade customers.
Due to the fact that these crustaceans become dormant in winter, the crab fishing season runs from March to December. After two months of catching up with maintenance jobs on the boat and equipment, and enjoying some leisure time, John is more than ready to get back to fishing and looks for the customary natural signs that tell him it’s time to do so: “When the hawthorn comes into leaf, the daffodils are out and frogs start crossing the road, you know that the crabs will soon be emerging, too.” It’s an annual ritual to sample some of his first catch of the year and John believes there’s no better way to eat fresh Cromer crab than simply dressed, with a salad and bread and butter. Towards the end of autumn and into early winter, crab yields tend to dwindle and the crew supplement catches with sea bass, cod, herring and mackerel. While on the water, one of the highlights for John is seeing migrant birds and geese, and rescuing those species lost in the fog: “I often bring back goldcrests in my dinner box and release them from the beach.” Whatever the weather, the Richard William (named after John’s father) heads out six days a week – only a gale force eight wind will prevent it going to sea.
As well as supplying the wholesale trade at Lowestoft and Ipswich, John sells his crabs in Davies Fish Shop, which was bought by his parents 40 years ago. At its busiest, there are four members of staff out the back, dressing as many as 20 crabs every half hour, while five more sell them at the counter. When demand is high, boosted by holidaymakers from Easter until
"It's a wild product and unpredictable- but that's the beauty of it"
early September, customers may be lucky enough to enjoy a crab caught that morning – to eat it at its freshest, some even start tucking in on the premises. Davies Fish Shop has a loyal following of locals, including those who have been coming since John’s father’s time. In order to keep up with demand during peak periods, John can be out on his boat seven days a week but when he does have Sundays free, he uses them to follow in his father’s footsteps another way – by launching Cromer’s RNLI lifeboat.
While he answers the call of the sea, John’s wife Claire is instrumental in running the business. She co-owns and works in the shop every day during the summer, sends out trade and wholesale orders, then does all the paperwork before opening hours and during the evenings. Their two children, Charles, 28 (who suffers from seasickness), and Laura, 25, help out but both have their own full-time jobs. Although neither of his children look set to take over the family business, John is hopeful that members of Cromer’s younger generation will continue the town’s proud crab-catching tradition. However, as you might imagine, for now his ambition is never to retire: “Even when I’m unable to fish full time, I want to be involved, perhaps mending pots, boiling up crabs, enjoying the camaraderie and, of course, going to sea some days. It’s not so much a job as a way of life.” Read on for some delicious recipes using fresh crab meat.
Davies Fish Shop, 7 Garden Street, Cromer, Norfolk (01263 512727).
This month: Cromer crab
With his crew, eighth-generation fisherman John (opposite) uses techniques honed over 150 years to fish for lobsters, cockles and whelks – as well as the famed Cromer crab
Cromer crab is renowned for its sweet, delicate flavour and higher proportion of white meat to dark – this species is slow growing, meaning that the shells are packed with more meat by the time the season starts