Britain’s estuaries should have signs up saying: “Seafood here, pick your own, eat all you want.” In years gone by, much of the edible protein in our rivers was part of the local diet. So what is there that is abundant and free and, above all, delicious? I wanted to find out by gathering an A1 supper on the Camel Estuary in Cornwall. I needed a guide to help me locate less obvious seafood, both crunchy and slimy. Padstow’s harbourmaster told me to telephone Ed Schliffke. “He’s your man,” he said. Ed is famous as a guide for sea-anglers from upcountry, and for his bait business and tackle shop. With white hair, a dark tan and a Cornish burr (although his name is Polish/German), he’s hardcore Westcountry and a prize-winning hunter of the warrior bass, whose capture he’s turned into an art form. They call him “The Rockhopper”.
We met on our bikes on the Camel Trail, the busiest summer cycle route in Britain. If you know what you’re after, finding free seafood just requires patience. We could have saved ourselves a lot of trouble and booked into one of TV celebrity chef Rick Stein’s Padstow establishments. Thanks to him the town is the seafood capital of Britain. Stein has made fish sexy again – at a price, mind you. But there’s tons of free seafood in the waters by Padstow, waiting to be harvested by those happy to roll up their trews and squelch around in the mud.
We were not after anything resembling a fish, more the finless grub that takes little skill to gather and which most people turn their noses up at. Our hunting ground was in sight of Rock and Trebetherick, a dead fashionable area heaving with Porsche Cayennes and blaring barristers on their hols. The Camel Trail on the other side of the water is the former Victorian line to Padstow. It is an extension of the old Bodmin and Wadebridge railway, opened in 1834, one of the earliest railways in the world. It was built to carry sand for sweetening acid farm soils from the Camel Estuary inland, and also began to offer excursions to flower shows, bazaars and suchlike. Among the most popular day trips were those to watch public hangings at Bodmin gaol.
Our first port of call was Ed’s collection of old car tyres on the shoreline. Here he catches peeler crabs for bait. When they shed their shells they are vulnerable, so seek protection in the rim. We ran our hands along the inner rubber and pulled out some samples. Ed can tell a peeler’s readiness by squeezing its side in the way a chef would assess a fillet steak for rareness. “Steiney sometimes serves these,” he said. “But they don’t do anything for me. I use them for bait. See this one – that’s 95p worth,” he chuckled. Bait is good business. A few went in the supper bag for a starter.
We had set our main sights on cockles. This meant a wander down into a lonely, curlew-haunted creek. Ed said he’d kill me if I revealed locations for the best cockles but he was worrying about nothing. When we got there, there was a dismal amount and most were tiny, among millions of empty shells. Ed couldn’t explain it, although in Padstow’s pubs the blame is partly directed at the Welsh. The beds, they say, have never recovered from a few years ago when Welsh pickers arrived on their quad bikes and hoovered up the lot. The water quality is also suspect but in the end the cockles’ disappearance is a total mystery. The animals spat alright but then die inexplicably young. We raked around in the mud and gathered a few mature ones for the bucket.
Mussels would have to form the mainstay of our seafood feast. They are not hard to find but it’s easier if you bump into a professional mussel-man. Young Luke Marshall was on his barge with his collie, waiting for low water and the chance to crate up some mussels for his father’s shellfish business. As he knew Ed, he generously chucked some our way. It was good to have some weight in our bucket – at least now a decent seafood supper looked a possibility.
Mussels are everywhere, on every wet rock of every beach, but it is hard to find large ones that are worth eating. In Palermo’s ancient fish market last year, I watched a group of Sicilians eat huge, raw mussels from the shell. They squeezed lemons on to the meat, which they slurped down like oysters, shell in one hand and cigarette in the other. It was a wonderful sight. You wouldn’t do that in Cornwall – too much sewage outflow. But, as Ed explained, sewage has its upside for fishermen. He goes for grey mullet near outfall pipes and often finds undigested carrot in their stomachs. “It means the fish are well fed and in good condition. It doesn’t put me off eating them,” he says, with a disgusting smack of the lips.
Oysters were not part of our remit. They are grown on the Camel but privately, and are not for collecting by hungry shorecombers. They are said to be of the best quality, the fine sand and strong tides sandblasting their ex-teriors, leaving a clean shell so you have very little frill to remove when it comes to shucking them. The Rock Oyster Festival, a new annual summer event, is the best way to sample these without breaking the bank. Winkles, however, were next on the menu – they are abundant. Often sold in a bag with a pin for extracting the flesh, they are a delight, their snail shells containing delicious spirals of meat. We bagged up dozens to cook with the mussels, along with sea lettuce, shredded and fried with sugar and salt, Chinese-style.
What about clams? There are many differing species of clams native to British waters – pallourde, manilla, surf, hard back and soft shell. The American hard back clam has been here since the arrival of ocean liners from the US. Chefs would chuck leftover shellfish into the water before docking in the Solent, or so the story goes. As the tide was beginning to turn we had rather blown our clam opportunity, so we hurried up to the sands near the mouth of the estuary to see if we could at least bag some razors, the next best thing.
Ed furiously poured salt (a way of irritating a razor clam out of its vertical burrow) on a few holes to see what came up. Nothing. The sea rushed over our hunting ground. A week or so later, I returned to prove that razors were there, and indeed they were. Fishing for them is hilarious. With salt down their burrows they pop their heads up, and if sufficiently annoyed, they shoot out like startled fat pencils. Then, gingerly, you pluck them from the sand. The best way of cooking razors is like mussels. Chuck them into the pan and steam until tender, with white wine, garlic and parsley. The meat will fall out of its shell. Then slice them like leeks, reduce the liquid, pour it on the clams with more parsley and you have a feast. However, our experience was worrying. Abundance of all species of fish, crustacea and bivalve seems to have gone from this estuary, which once supported over a hundred fisherman. Now it supports one or two. “At this rate, we’ll be eating sandeels,” said Ed, though we’d underestimated how much we had gathered. And we hadn’t yet started netting for shrimp.
Our seafood tea consisted of a very mixed bag. The winkles were a delight, hot butter their only sauce. The cockles were pathetic little things but the mussels were simply the best I have ever eaten, their flesh saffron yellow and as plump as you like. The sea lettuce was delicious and I steamed some sea spinach, which grows like weed along the banks of the river, as an extra side dish. The peelers were repulsive, like soggy pork crackling that tasted of cat meat. I would have done better to make them into a soup. The afternoon had been a race against time and we hadn’t had enough of it to start looking for gutweed, kelp and sea beet. I did, however, bag up some delicious samphire which goes for a bomb in shops.
Had we had more time, a dab or two from the sand at low water would have been nice. These are easily caught by jabbing blindly into the sand with a rake-like tool. More upstream dabs, to me, taste faintly of mud, though Ed thought this was nonsense. Our day was a lot of effort but that in a way made the meal all the tastier. The views of the river and the sun dropping on the horizon certainly added an extra loveliness to the butter sauce.
More seafood in The Field: