Northumberland’s langoustines are the best in the world – but chances are it’s when you’re on holiday abroad that you a tackle a plateful of them.
We’re good at catching the langos but less good at keeping them here. Same goes for a wealth of other fish caught off our coasts but then destined for the rest of Europe.
It’s a familiar story. We’re getting better but the fact is that for an island we’re pretty bad at knowing what to do with fish that’s not the ‘big five’: salmon, cod, haddock, tuna and prawns.
It’s something they’re dedicated to putting right at Amble. The Northumberland harbour town is about to open a Seafood Centre as part of its regeneration project, Harbour Village.
Expect to see showy ‘flying fish’ auctions – just like the ones at Seattle’s famous Pike Place Market. Join the ‘Ugly Fish Club’ or sign up for a regular delivery of a fish box to go alongside your organic veg box.
The idea is to maximise the fishing heritage on the harbourside, to make sure more fish stays close to home, making the town a seafood hub for foodies, locals and visitors.
The Seafood Centre, due to open in May, is part of the Amble Harbour Village, a bright and modern waterside development of wooden ‘pods’ housing creative new businesses.
It’s looking good, and very appetising. The town already know for Spurrelli’s ice-cream parlour will soon have a seafront creperie and a pod selling ‘secret recipe’ pies made by the town’s butcher.
Helen Spark enjoys the grand title of ‘Seafood Broker’ for the new centre and explains; “Some of the plumpest, tastiest langoustines in the world are caught off the Northumberland coast.
“This catch is vital to the local fishing fleet and yet the wider population of Northumberland are unaware of their quality and availability. This is the same for much of the fish caught too.
“Our inshore fishermen catch a huge variety of quality, fresh, local fish and the Seafood Centre will act as a hub to intercept some of the quality local seafood caught off our coast and make it more available to locals and visitors.”
Helen hopes that Amble will become a ‘must-visit’ centre for fish-lovers.
“We hope that things like the ‘flying fish’ auction will add a touch of theatrics as an attraction in its own right and make Amble synonymous with great produce in the same way people sample local delicacies on a visit to Europe,” she adds.
In terms of seafood, this is certainly the right place. On the harbourside we meet up with chef Martin Charlton who owns The Old Boat House in Amble as well as Blyth Boathouse and Pride cookery school.
Martin’s on his mobile to a supplier sailing into the harbour, asking what today’s catch is. The distance between landing and kitchen will be about ten feet.
Inside the Old Boat House, there’s been a busy lunchtime trade on this sunny Tuesday. While the fish and chip shops round about are serving up their traditional fayre, there’s no shortage of serious foodies in the Boat House, happy to wade through a menu that features monkfish and chorizo stew, whole roasted seabass with fennel and orange, soft shell crab with Asian slaw, smoked haddock chowder or a decadent plate of lobster and chips.
Pride of place in the kitchen is a wood-fired oven which is brilliant for roasting the freshest fish, creating the best clean, unfussy flavours.
Martin can’t wait for the Seafood Centre to open up. He will be one of a number of local chefs who’ll be taking part in food demonstrations there over the summer.
“We get fish from the boats every day and that’s what’s on the specials menu”, he says.
“We get the ‘by-catch’, the fish left once the wholesalers have what they need to send to the rest of the UK and Europe. It might be a box with red gurnard, squid, cod, coley, mackerel.
“The idea will be that this is the fish that we will be able to see in the Seafood Centre, lesser-known varieties that people can come and buy and learn how to cook. It means the fish will be landed here, bought here and eaten in Northumberland.”
The Seafood Centre will hold dramatic ‘flying fish’ auctions for the public and the idea is to offer a greater variety of fish and encourage people to develop a taste for lesser-known species which are abundant in local water.
It passes on a sustainability message that will be backed up by cookery courses, recipe cards and it is hoped, a scheme where people can sign up for a ‘fish box’ delivery similar to organic veg boxes where contents are determined by seasonality and the catch of the day.
In Amble’s main street chef Jonny Bird and his wife Julie run the cool little restaurant Seasalt.
It’s been a real labour of love: they built tables themselves, found a wooden floor under layers of concrete and peeled away plaster to reveal a rustic stone wall. Specials are written on slates that used to be on Julie’s dad’s roof.
The result is a bistro with bags of atmosphere and laid-back appeal that perfectly suits its seaside location.
And the menu ticks the box too with sustainable fish a real feature of Jonny’s cooking. Spotted woof and coley make the menu today. Jonny serves them up with tempting accompaniments that would make the most fish-fearing diner go back for more.
Each fleshy fish is served as a pan-fried white chunk looking perfect and tasting harbour-fresh.
Jonny has worked across the region, including a spell at Slaley Hall. He also spent time working in France before settling in Amble and opening Seasalt.
Jonny’s menu usually has fish on the specials board based on the day’s catch. He’s not a ‘fish restaurant’, his menu includes a burger menu as well as classics like calves liver with truffle potato or the inventive pot roast ham hock with butter bean and chorizo.
“It’s nice to get fish on the menu that is landed here, people like that and it’s good getting involved with the new harbour development with cookery demos and that kind of thing.”
Facebook: Seasalt Amble @seasaltamble