How the winkle lost out to the burger

Jack O'Sullivan on the demise of a staple food
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The strong pound may be destroying the shellfish industry, but its long term enemy is the British palate. The winkle pickers are gone, the jellied eel is a rarity, the whelk stall has all but disappeared. Burgers, chicken nuggets and chilled ready meals have ousted the ocean's own convenience foods from the everyday menu. We just don't seem to want shellfish anymore, which makes the exporters even more vulnerable to currency variations.

"Winkles and cockles used to be a regular feature of a Saturday and Sunday," says the famous Islington fishmonger, Steve Hatt jnr. "People don't do it anymore." So yesterday in Fort William in the west of Scotland, the best of the shellfish catch was not being bought locally. It was being collected straight from the boats by big Spanish lorries as they landed, to be consumed in Spain. "Most of what is landed here doesn't reach our shops," says Alan Brown, manager of the local Crannog Smoke House.

He also argues that the huge investment in equipment, including up to pounds 100,000 for a reasonable boat, has driven up fishing costs. Then, says Steve Hatt, there is the expense of handling, purifying and transporting a food with a shelf life of perhaps five days, often too short for supermarkets. "The good old whelk costs more now to handle that it was worth when it was caught."

But British reluctance to buy is rooted in a long-standing fear of food poisoning. "In the 19th century, there were crises over the rearing of shellfish and associated disease," according to Tom Jaine, editor of The Good Food Guide. "There was lots of legislation to control production." These fears have been enhanced amid concern about pollution and knowledge that shellfish accumulate toxins. There is one rule when entertaining the Queen - never give her shellfish.

Indeed, though Elizabeth I introduced three fish days a week, this island nation has never taken full advantage of its marine resource. In 1863, WF Campbell, from Galloway, observed that while his Scottish compatriots starved back home without properly harvesting the sea, the French poor consumed a huge range of creatures, in particular molluscs and shellfish.

Tom Jaine believes the British are unadventurous about food. "There is a tendency, more marked in the last century, to restrict the numbers of things considered edible. One presumes these restrictions are generally related to industrial development, distance from the land and from food production."

Emily Green, the food writer, is less charitable. "People are very suspicious unless it doesn't actually look like shellfish. So they will eat prawns which are pink and packed in plastic and you won't hear them saying they are allergic to it.

"People say shellfish is complicated. But lobster is easy. You have to assault it a bit, but it is not complicated like owning a microwave or rehydrating space ice cream."

"The problem is that it's too real. It's alive. That can be scary. You have to do the killing. People are squeamish."