Vicky North celebrates a revival in Welsh coastal eating
Our strong, Welsh coast line teams with marine life and has a long heritage of drawing bounty from the sea. High in protein and generally sustainable, seafood ought to be our daily food of choice. Yet for many, it’s not. When did we fall out of love with our national catch and how can we haul it back onto our dining tables?
Seafood has traditionally been big business for Wales but by the 1960s, fish stocks such as herring had fallen away due to overharvesting. Grappling with rising costs and legislation, fisheries went into sharp decline and with them went our appetite for coastal fare.
The good news is that the herring are back. Stocks are once again buoyant. But boats in our harbours no longer jostle for space. Articulated lorries park at our quaysides and are loaded with tanks of live crab and lobster, destined to be shipped overseas. Welsh produce travels. Spain, Portugal and France enjoy our spoils and more recently, China. “Truth is,” says Mandy Walters, owner of Cardigan Bay Fish (www.cardiganbayfish.co.uk) and seafood entrepreneur, “If you’re on holiday in France and visiting a local market, the live lobster and crab you see for sale in the tanks are most likely to be from our Welsh shores. Th e average French householder is more likely to know how to prepare it than we are.”
Mandy is on a mission, “It’s all about education,” she says, bustling around her production shed, clad in a blue plastic apron. “More people need to know what we have from our coast and we need to make things accessible.” Behind us, a vat nearly as tall as I stand, labours hot in the fresh air. A giant pressure cooker packed with live crab is rapidly boiling its contents through to their final moments.
“I don’t refer to myself as a fishmonger,” says Mandy, who sells her produce at a weekly market in St Dogmaels, “I simply prepare the catch as it comes in.” A family business, Mandy’s husband Len and son Aaron are fishermen and cast their nets on Cardigan Bay. The offerings are seasonal, local and incredibly fresh. “It depends on the tide and weather,” says Mandy, “Sometimes we’ll have pollock, mackerel or seabass. The prawns arrive in November but further up the coast off Aberystwyth, you’ll see them a month earlier as it takes time for them to make their way down the bay.” Picture a shimmering, broadband of shellfish, wriggling and glinting their way down the Welsh coast. “Lobster and crab are more reliable,” says Mandy, “And caught all year round.”
Mandy’s favourite fish is sewin, caught from the river Teifi, Towy and Taf by coraclemen. Coracles are small, circular one-person boats which date back to pre- Roman times. Len and Aaron hold one of just eight licences on the river Teifi and work late at night to catch sewin which are prized for their rare status and firm, deep-crimson flesh. West Wales Coracle Caught Sewin is one of 15 Welsh products to have the coveted European Union’s Protected Food Name status, along with Anglesey sea salt, Carmarthen ham and Welsh lamb.
Where there is water, there is fish
Further up the coast on the Menai Strait in North Wales are David Evans and Robin Hodgson, founders of Michelin recognised, Welsh seafood dining group, Dylan’s (www.dylansrestaurant.co.uk). David tells me how Dylan’s, now three restaurants strong, began seven years ago. “We sat on the footings of our new building in Menai Bridge and looked out over the Strait,” recalls David, “It occurred to me, where there is water, there is fish.” The menu was born, offering locally sourced oyster, scallops, lobster and crab. “The economy has been really fragile for our fishing community as wholesale prices haven’t gone up in over 25 years,” says David, “I believed we could offer a life line so I spoke to my kitchen team and said we need to help Siôn stay out on the water.” Siôn Williams from Porth Colmon supplies the restaurants with lobster and crab. David’s team created the Llyn Peninsula Crab Cake and it is now a menu staple. David pays his suppliers well and says, “We give the fishermen an extra pound per kilo for produce. It works because we secure our supply and help our producers. It’s hard, dangerous work and you’ve got to respect that.” David is also driving demand for sustainable mussels, “Menai mussels are flushed twice a day by the tide and are of exceptional quality,” says David, “We cook them in Welsh cider, cream and tarragon and they’re one of our most popular dishes.”
Shellfish make sense. “We’re living at a time when food production is placing huge pressures on our environment,” says Shaun Krijnen, supplier of mussels and oysters to Dylan’s and owner of Menai Oysters (www.menaioysters.co.uk), “We’re encouraged to eat less meat and more plants and yet no-one is talking about shellfish. Oysters and mussels are efficient and create quality protein, high in omega three for basically no input on the part of the farmer – I don’t have to water or feed my reefs.”
Health benefits of seaweed
Another seaside super food is seaweed, “I began foraging on the coast of Wales because you can basically eat anything you take from the rocks,” says coastal forager and founder of Wild About Pembrokeshire, Julia Horton-Mansfi eld (www.wildaboutpembrokeshire.co.uk). Talking from her home in the city of St Davids, Julia says, “Seaweed has amazing qualities and is hugely diverse.” Julia enjoys seaweed every day for breakfast, “I serve with marmite and avocado on hot Dutch biscuits and it has helped my arthritis enormously.” Packed with vitamins and minerals, seaweed is also a good source of protein for vegans. Standing in her kitchen, Julia’s eyes twinkle as she runs her hands over strands of drying sea spaghetti suspended from the ceiling. “We have twelve different types of seaweed on our Welsh shoreline and they all have their uses.” Picking up a strip of dark brown kelp, Julia says, “I wrap this around fi sh for barbeque and oft en slip a few pieces into a beef stew for the umami fl avour.” She adds, “Did you know that monosodium glutamate originally came from kelp? It was traditionally used in Japan as a flavour enhancer.”
Mid Wales’s husband and wife team, Siôn and Rhiannon Tansley have similarly looked to Japan for inspiration. In 2016, they founded Swshi and began delivering fresh sushi to front doors across Wales. “We realised that in our rural area, a sushi restaurant would struggle,” says Sion, “So we decided to do things differently.” Swshi (www.swshi.co.uk) is a pop-up service that publishes delivery dates on social media. Customers place their orders once their county has activated. “We use Welsh fi sh and seafood whenever we can,” says Sion, “Even our soy sauce comes from Wales.”
If you prefer your seafood outdoors, head on down to Cafe Môr at Freshwater West (www.beachfood.co.uk). Sited in a National Trust car park and overlooking a rolling beach, Jonathan Williams tends to his food trailer grill. Wearing a colourful bandana wrapped tightly around his head, he swift ly tosses Welsh sea black butter through crabmeat, ready to cram into a crusty roll. “Th ese are always popular,” says Jonathan. “And we have fi sh on the menu every day too.” Jonathan has a good rapport with his fi sh suppliers who operate from small day boats, “I always ask if there’s any weird stuff ,” he laughs, “I’ve made Dog Fish scampi before now and I love the challenge of making something new.”
Across Wales, small scale is taking effect. Food entrepreneurs are reinvigorating our appetite for seafood, with an emphasis on local, sustainable and seasonal. Eating the best fish is no longer a challenge – it just takes a little digging out and a willingness to try something new.
“Let me tell you a story,” says Shaun Krijnen, “Years ago, Keith Floyd made a programme about cooking mussels. Overnight, demand shot up to 12 tonne a week. That’s what we need – the Keith Floyd effect.” The more we see how delicious and easy seafood can be, the more we’ll be enticed to give it a try.