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

Country Living (UK) - - Con­tents - words by ruth chan­dler recipes by hearst food net­work food and drink edi­tor ali­son walker lo­ca­tion pho­to­graphs by cris­tian bar­nett

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

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