Category Archives: Food

When Did You Last See A Bloater?

Last week a magazine asked me to go to Sheringham in North Norfolk. I’d been there before, and to nearby Cromer famous for crabs and the pier.  A bit of research turned-up Richard Little, now in his 80s he’s been fishing for crabs for over 60 years and is a Sheringham legend.  About 12 years ago Richard went into partnership with fishmonger Angela Barrows, and together they opened “Richard’s” a seafood shop in Church Street.

I rang Angela and asked her to arrange for me to meet Richard at the shop, she told me ring on the way. With visions of crates of live crabs being unloaded from an old wooden fishing boat by an even older fisherman, just past Fakenham I stopped and telephoned Richard. But he was too busy to see me. No amount of wheedling, “…but I’m coming all the way from London…its a 300 miles round trip…please…” would change his mind. “Leave me alone,”  he pleaded.

Fishermen always have one eye on the tide, and I expect he had pots to pull or nets to mend.  Nevermind, I thought, I’ll turn the car towards Cley Next The Sea (pronounced Cl-eye) and visit the  Smokehouse.

The Cley Smokehouse never disappoints, and after deliberating over the possible delights of smoked eel and smoked prawns,  I bought two bloaters for about £3.  Bloaters have all but disappeared from the nation’s fishmongers, and most people have neither heard of bloaters nor tasted one.  150 years ago bloaters were the most popular smoked fish , more popular than kippers, and always associated with Yarmouth in Norfolk, where the locals described themselves as Yarmouth Bloaters.  Yarmouth was founded on the herring fishery, just 100 years ago  Yarmouth was home to 3,000 herring boats, and in the season 5,000 women were brought by special trains to gut and pack the herrings. The shoals moved down the East Coast for 6 months followed by these migrant fishworkers.

Bloaters are herrings, salted or brined and then cold smoked whole, with their innards intact, for up to 18 hours. Smoke them for longer, perhaps 3 weeks,  and they become the legendary ‘Red Herring’, crisp and very dry.  But after 18 hours the result is a light smokey taste, not so strong as a kipper, and because a bloater is a whole herring the flesh stays plump and moist, bloated.  Cold-smoking doesn’t cook the fish, it lightly cures them, fish have been preserved by smoking and salting since prehistoric times, but these days the smoke is more of a flavouring than a preservative.

Along the coast road I stopped at Cookie’s Crab Shop in Salthouse, every time I’d been in the vicinity of Cookie’s it had been closed, but today it was very much open and busy.  I joined the queue and bought a crab sandwich (£2.70), and mused at the perfection, simplicity and sheer freshness of this quintessential English sandwich, compared with the usual pre-packed sandwiches you see in supermarkets and service areas.

Continuing towards Sheringham along the coast road I passed cottages offering ‘Crabs: Boiled and Dressed’, and ‘Samphire’.  I thought to myself that if I lived here I’d probably live on crab, and samphire too, when they were in season.

In Sheringham I drove around looking for Richard’s,  a friend had asked me to bring back some bloater paste.  A nice lady (Mrs Little?) sold me the last pot of bloater paste (£1), and a whole boiled crab (£3).

We had the bloaters the next day, though they’ll keep for a week in the fridge, the fresher they are the better. I deliberated about the possible cooking methods, grilling or baking, and decided on grilling them as recommended by Jane Grigson in ‘English Food’.  By chance I’d been given a lettuce, and not any old lettuce.  It was the opening day of the Brockley Open Studios,  and Clarissa was showing her paintings and drawings, we fell into a conversation with Laszlo, a new neighbour, who noticing the lettuces, beans and tomatoes growing in our front garden enthusiastically told us about all the things he was growing in his garden. He promised return with a special lettuce,  a Fat Lazy Blonde. I thought he was joking but no, there he was beaming and holding a large plump floppy lettuce. The Fat Lazy Blonde is a heritage lettuce, something the Victorians’ would have recognised. The name is a corruption of  Grosse Blonde Paresseuse, a French butterhead lettuce from 1859, and as the name implies a comfortable laid-back leaf!  The lettuce took pride of place on the mantlepiece under “Chanel Headscarf” and next to some rhubarb brought by another visitor.

Grilled Bloater with Mustard Butter

You’ll need 1 or 2 bloaters per person. Cut off the heads and fins.

50g (2 oz) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature

25g (1 oz) Hot Horseradish Mustard, or Dijon mustard


Black pepper

Prepare the mustard butter by simply mashing the mustard into softened butter, do it to taste. You could add some chopped chives if you wish.

Slash 2 or 3 cuts into each side of the bloater and brush with the mustard butter. Lay some chives across the bloater and put them one at a time in a buttered pan and place under a hot grill for 2 minutes each side. Scatter with black pepper and serve with plenty of chunky bread, and a quarter of lemon. I added some Fat Lazy Blonde lettuce leaves, a perfect foil for the hot fish.

“The Only Reason for Making Honey is So I Can Eat It,” said Pooh.

A couple of days ago I heard that the Deptford Deli was closing, very sad, a nice place to sit outside in the summer, and where I bought my supplies of Deptford Creek honey.

When the talk started of ‘colony collapse disorder’ a couple of years ago, I went in search of  local beekeepers.

Deptford Creek is the tidal mouth of the Ravensbourne River, where it empties into the Thames. This stretch is dominated by the overhead track of the Docklands Light Railway following the Creek on a curving viaduct. Julian and Jeanie Kingston live on the Creek in the ‘Sabine’, an old boat built for the Kiel Canal in 1895.

The Sabine is moored next to a builders yard full of scaffolding planks, bits of old plumbing and an old coach and an ice-cream van. Amongst all this are Julian’s 16 brightly painted hives, and besides bottling the honey Julian makes wax polish, and “pretty blinding Mead”. This year supplies are limited, most of Julian’s hives wiped-out by an unfortunate leak from a nearby workshop, one of the perils of keeping bees in an urban industrial location. But as Julian rebuilds his colony, Deptford Creek Honey will be available from time to time at the Creekside Centre.

About a mile away in Brockley, Camilla Goddard has hives in a local churchyard, some on allotments in Grove Park, and some in Greenwich Park. I met her at the churchyard, slightly apprehensive at getting up-close to 6 bee hives. In fact I’d worn dark clothing so as not to upset the bees. Wrong!  “Wear dark clothing and bees think you’re a possible threat, a rival swarm,” warned Camilla. But as it turned out, the bees were friendly, bumping into us and hovering around as Camilla wielded her smoke pot.

Both Camilla and Julian learned bee-keeping from books, in Camilla’s case “Bees at the Bottom of the Garden” by Alan Campion. We drove to the allotments at Grove Park where I met some very friendly growers. “When I met my first swarm, I ran into my shed,” said one, but now they’re enthusiastic about the hives. Back at Camilla’s flat, in the garden she scraped the honey from the frames. “There’s a lot of ignorance and a lot of fear about bees,” she said, and dipped her finger into the honey.

Almost immediately a bee settled on her finger, attracted by the scent of the honey. “It’s probably one of mine, from the church,” she said, “bees lives are all about self-sacrifice, these little creatures are really amazing, they create this wonderful stuff, honey!”

Of course honey is wonderful to cook with, here’s one of my favourite  Richard Corrigan recipes:

                                        Crispy Oysters with Honey


4 – 6 oysters per person, either shuck them yourself, or ask your fishmonger to open them, but keep the shells.

Vegetable oil for deep frying

Cup of flour seasoned with salt and pepper

For the dressing,

175ml (6 fl oz) cider

125ml (4 1/2 oz) white wine vinegar

225g (8 oz) honey

Juice of  1 lime

Roughly crushed black peppercorns.

For the batter,

500g (1 lb 2 oz) rice flour

50g (2 oz) cornflour

5g (1/5 oz) bicarb of soda

Bottle of ice-cold mineral water

First make the dressing by pouring the cider and vinegar into a small pan, heat to the boil and bubble away till the volume is reduced by two-thirds. Then add the honey, whisking at the same time, and the crushed pepper. Remove from the heat, add the lime juice and put to one side.

Mix the batter ingredients together in a large bowl, till it resembles double cream.

Heat the oil in a deep-fat fryer, or a deep frying pan, to 190C, then dust the oysters in the seasoned flour and dredge them in the batter. Shake off any excess and using a slotted spoon lower them into the oil. Do 4 – 6 at a time, lowering the heat slightly. Let them fry till they are golden, less than 2 minutes. Then remove and drain on kitchen paper while you fry the rest. Serve with the dressing, more pepper and a few salad leaves.

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