The Weasel: Something fishy

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The Independent Online

The whiff of the kipper is perhaps the most alluring of culinary aromas. In an extreme example of this fragrant potency, some particularly fine kippers recently attracted me from a distance of 40 miles. I was irresistibly drawn to Whitby from our base further down the North Yorkshire coast. Packing cool box plus Mrs W and two friends from London into the Weaselmobile, we tooled along the meandering road from Scarborough through moors made psychedelic with flowering heather. Since it was a sunny Saturday, Whitby was packed to the gunwales. Wedged like grouting into a V-shaped cleft carved by the River Esk, the town has little space to accommodate the hordes drawn by its kippers and its other assets.

Fortune's on Henrietta Street has been smoking herrings since 1872. It is an intriguing thought that much of the drama described in Bram Stoker's Dracula, published in 1897 and partially set in Whitby, must have taken place in an atmosphere imbued with kipper smoke from this establishment. Fortune's is located at the far end of Whitby Old Town, a cobbled cul-de-sac packed with quasi-mystical souvenir shops (Whitby Wyrm, Incantation, etc) and archaic sweet shops. If you spend your time lusting for Bronchial Lozenges, Berwick Cockles, Fried Eggs and Sarsaparilla Tablets, this is the place to come. You can also get sweet cigarettes, sold in the Bowdlerised form of Candy Sticks, though, oddly, Sweet Tobacco has eluded the confectionary police so far.

Having struggled through the crush, we negotiated the steep corner that leads to Fortune's. But when we reached the tiny, ancient shop just after midday, we found only misfortune. A sign in the window declared "KIPPERS AVAILABLE", though a dismaying codicil added "TOMORROW". They had sold out. "I said we should have set off earlier," announced Mrs W annoyingly.

"Never mind," I consoled our friends. "We'll go to the Magpie for lunch." The prospect of fish and chips at this legendary eatery got everyone's juices flowing merrily. Sadly, we were not the only ones with this idea. A queue of hungry supplicants extended down the Magpie's stairs and for a considerable distance along the road outside. "Let's go to Elizabeth Botham's tearoom," I further consoled. "You'll like that. It's like the last century hasn't happened." The business was founded in 1865, so Whitby's famous Transylvanian visitor could have popped in for a Yorkshire curd tart following his unconventional arrival ("an immense dog jumped from the bow on to the sand") on the wrecked schooner Demeter.

Due to the Dracula association, Whitby holds great appeal for Goths. You constantly see black-clad, pallid-complexioned covens sauntering round the town. Personally, I would have thought the Count had certain drawbacks as a role model. Halitosis (Chapter 2: "his breath was rank") was the least of his problems. Hauling up the long hill to Botham's, we passed Goth Crafts, where you can snap up a coffin-shaped hip-flask (£32.99) or a 3ft cast-iron light in the shape of a dragon (£289.99). At a rival establishment called Great Goth, I bravely asked the price of an extensive range of satin basques on behalf of any readers who feel the urge for Gothic constraint. "From £21.99 to £69.99," replied the assistant, a trifle warily. She appeared to doubt the bona fides of the Weasel as a devotee of dark glamour.

Puffing our way into Elizabeth Botham's, lunch seemed almost within grasp, but when we clumped upstairs to the dining room another queue lay in wait. It proved far easier to purchase the deathly and macabre in Whitby than the healthy and nutritious. Admitting defeat, we scarpered empty-handed from the cluttered port. A few days later. Mrs W and I again ventured to Whitby. This time we managed to acquire three pairs of plump kippers from Fortune's. We were about to start on our journey home to have them for lunch, but the car wouldn't start. "Funny," said the puzzled AA man. "I don't know why your starter motor should have gone." The dark curse of Whitby had struck again.

nother seafood had an even more powerful allure for me. On 1 September, I travelled 250 miles for the Tabasco British Oyster Opening Championship, held at Bentley's restaurant off Piccadilly, London W1. Celebrating the return of an "r" to the month, 15 professional shuckers prised open 900 native oysters. The winner was Armando Lema, of Coastline Galicia fishmongers in St John's Wood, who cleaved 30 oysters in 3 minutes 40 seconds.

In previous years, I had been persuaded by Tabasco's charming British PR to take part in proceedings. On one occasion, I competed in an amateur round against Christine Hamilton, who spattered me with the sponsor's product. A year or so earlier, I was conscripted to be a time-keeper. It was only after the shucking began that I realised I was unable to work my stop-watch. Fortunately, the shucker I was timing was debarred for leaving debris in his shells.

As an old hand, I now know what to do when the PR person turns on the charm rays. You hide at the back of the crowd and wait for the opened oysters to emerge after judging. Then you plunge in. Some of the best-known names in UK food journalism demolished a large plate of native oysters in 3.5 seconds. (I'm guessing again.) Bringing out another plate, a waitress complained: "The people over there haven't had any." But by then her oysters had vanished. Like the Walrus and the Carpenter, they'd eaten every one.