Globe-trotting gastronomy: Giant crabs and peerless pork pies in Yorkshire's Filey Bay
When my parents left me a small modern house near the North Yorkshire resort of Filey, in early 1997, my instinct was to sell. I had been living in south London for 25 years and the 500-mile round trip made it unfeasible as a weekend retreat. But before selling, my wife and I decided to use the house for a long summer holiday. At the start of our break, we received a surprise invitation to share a house in Malibu. It may seem insane to reject such an offer but, as we walked on the sand of Filey Bay with the North Sea crashing ashore in great breakers, my wife said, "How could it be any better?"
A couple of miles inland, we discovered the glorious Yorkshire Wolds, which subsequently lured David Hockney from California. A third reason why we still have our North Yorkshire house 15 years later: the startling excellence of the local foodstuffs from this surf'n'turf setting.
We began our exploration by feasting on the crabs and lobsters caught in the pots of Filey's tiny fishing fleet, crustaceans so sweet and succulent that the majority are exported to the shellfish-obsessed French and Spanish. I can think of few foods that taste better. At the height of the summer glut, prices can tumble. Three crabs for £1.50 is not unknown and you occasionally get "wingless wonders" (lobsters that have shed a pincer) for around £2.
Another incomer, Giorgio Alessio of the acclaimed La Lanterna restaurant in nearby Scarborough, was so delighted by the maritime harvest that he bought a licence to use the town's wholesale market. "The fish is not just good, it's amazing," he enthuses with Piedmontese brio. "Because it comes from inshore boats, it is as fresh as you can get anywhere. Cod comes ashore bright-green. We also have wonderful silvery sea bass. The flat-fish season has just started – brill, turbot, Dover sole. Halibut will be with us soon. Then there's ling – a beautiful, solid fish. Local squid is very good-quality, so much more tender than the Mediterranean. We get crabs as big as dustbin lids."
Like the intensely flavoured spider crabs, almost all the little velvet crabs go to the stew pots of northern Spain, but Alessio corners a few for a pasta sauce that the novelist Kathy Lette once extolled as "an orgasm for the mouth".
Summer brings catches of wild salmon and sea trout making their way up the east coast. Available in rare profusion last year, the big, sleek trout are more delicate in flavour than wild salmon, but as cheap as farmed salmon. Alessio froths like a boiling pan that so much of this maritime haul is exported. "It's so frustrating. We have wonderful fish but people don't know about it. They ask if it comes from blinkin' London."
Carnivorousness is deeply engrained in Yorkshire folk. The local beef is as good as you get anywhere. It accounts for around 70 per cent of sales in Adrian Colling's small butcher's shop in Filey. "I buy cattle at Malton livestock market and it is slaughtered at a small local abattoir. We hang meat for up to a month." Colling hands over his joints with a reassuring guarantee ("A lovely bit of sirloin – would you like some fat with that?") and recipe tips. He once used a side of beef to give me a seminar on obscure cuts.
Local pork is equally outstanding. The meat for London's Ginger Pig chain comes from near Pickering. Yorkshire has a limitless appetite for pork pies. If you like pies with cured (pink) meat, the best are warm from the oven at Glaves Butchers in the village of Brompton outside Scarborough. Their irresistible allure means customers tend to get a spurt of hot juice down their shirts despite being warned at time of sale. The best pork pies with uncured (grey) meat are made at Bullivant's farm near York using home-grown pigs. Filled with luscious chunks of pork, these splotchy domes are sold at farmers' markets in Driffield, Malton and elsewhere – but get there early or the pigs will have flown.
After discovering the splendid game of the area, we whiz up the A1 in winter, salivating at the prospect of pheasant and grey-leg partridge for £4.50 a brace. Sometimes a knock on the door provides even cheaper game (£0.00) though we have to do the plucking. I'm sure many other places in Britain have similar gastronomic riches – Orford in Suffolk is particularly well-endowed – but we find new treats with each visit. Top among recent discoveries is Yoadwath Mill Smokery run by Andy Stewart, who produces the best smoked salmon I have ever tasted from an isolated valley outside Kirbymoorside. With treats like this – and I haven't even mentioned the fish and chips fried in dripping – we have no plans to flee this cornucopia.
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