It’s a tragic truth that, though we’re developing a strong food culture in the UK, we are still pretty hopeless about celebrating it. I know we’ve been good about getting protected status for pork pies and Stilton cheese, but we’re still way behind. Spend any time at all driving around Europe and you’ll realise that even the smallest village has some unique foodstuff — some shape of pasta or aged sausage — for which they will shut down the entire town for three days every year and celebrate in a bizarre festival. There will be dancing in the streets, feasting, usually a confrérie or even a Gesellschaft, with robes and occasionally special hats.
If anything on our islands deserves three days off and public dancing, it is the brown (or edible) crab. It’s our most prolific crustacean, being found all around the Atlantic, North Sea and Channel coast of the UK. They also crop up around the northern French coast and, more rarely, in the Mediterranean, where the locals chuck them in soups. It’s a hefty-looking thing, with a high proportion of body and claw to legs. Other crabs may be more elegant but ours, built like a heavily armoured aquatic bulldog, is pretty much purpose-built for good eating. The big oval carapace contains inedible gills, known colloquially as “dead man’s fingers”, a lot of loose brown meat — largely a delicious fishy fat — and a fair amount of flaky white meat, which has a delicate, sweet flavour but requires hockling out in nuggets from the legs or more labyrinthine parts of the innards.
Americans favour their own local “Dungeness”, “blue” or “stone” crabs — depending on region and local fishing traditions — but seem universally to favour the white meat. In the UK, the brown and white meats are separated when the crab is stripped and recombined, as you’d expect with any UK foodstuff, according to class-ridden precepts. For the posher seaside diner at the better hotels in town, a “cocktail” of the white meat, perhaps dressed with a little mayonnaise, was usually served in a glass with shredded lettuce. A “dressed crab” in the more democratic oyster bar or shellfish stall on the prom would involve the white meat served back in the shell with a little brown meat to be stirred in at will.
We should also consider making more of a song and dance about the pasty. The “pasty” shape is one of the Platonic solids of cooking. Anywhere you look on the globe where there’s a local dough, someone will have worked out how to cut a circle out of it, load up some filling, fold it over and crimp the edges. Central and South America have empanadas, Japan has gyoza, the Italians have ravioli and calzone, and that’s before we start on pierogi, manti, kreplach and samosas. In England, we have the mighty Cornish pasty, stuffed with beef and potatoes and seasoned ferociously with white pepper.
What is odd is that nobody ever seemed to have thought about combining these things. I’ve looked, I’ve searched. In Sète, in the south of France, they make tielle à la Sétoise, a sort of flat round pasty stuffed with chopped octopus and tomatoes, but it’s a tiny regional speciality. You’d be hard pushed to find anyone in Cornwall who seemed to think about the possibility of putting any of its abundant fish into a convenient pastry container, not mackerel, not sardines and, amazingly, not the noble crab.
A crab pasty, people. Just think about that. Gorgeous flakes of fresh crab, the rich umami base notes of the brown meat, hot pastry . . . maybe a cold glass of something with a foamy head. Sat on an English beach and watching the sun sink. There isn’t anywhere on our seemingly endless coastline, where local boats aren’t pulling in fresh crab for well over half the year. Why, in the name of all that’s holy, isn’t the crab pasty our national dish?
Well, as it turns out . . .
It’ll take you 45 minutes on a ferry from Lymington to Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight — 3.9 nautical miles in distance and 40 years back in time. Once you land, there’s public transport of sorts, or you can drive for about 50 minutes down roads that wind along the coast, becoming narrower and more entirely retro as the miles pass. Along the southernmost edge of the island is a geological feature called The Undercliff, a long stretch where the land has slumped towards the sea, creating an area that feels protected from the land side — effectively hidden by the cliffs rising behind.
The last mile or so into Ventnor is probably suitable only for groups of five young people wearing Aertex shirts and T-bar sandals and riding bicycles with picnic baskets. Actually, I’m not sure that Enid Blyton wouldn’t have found it a little remote because, unlike those corners of the country that have been colonised by Boden-clad second-homers, Ventnor is defined by the difficulty with which it’s reached.
Ventnor, though it first became popular at roughly the same time, has none of the meretricious bling of Brighton or Blackpool. Someone once described Brighton as a loud, blowsy Edwardian tart of a town. Judged by those standards, Ventnor is a tiny little grandmother, in a hat, white gloves and a light cloud of lavender talc. There is a small promenade — nothing flashy, you understand — that turns into a path along the base of the crumbling rock faces. Leaving the town behind, you strike out into The Undercliff to Steephill Cove.
This, let’s be honest, is the stuff of every food lover’s fevered dreams. Who has not wanted to cross the ocean, drive for miles across tractless wastes and hike for days in search of an obscure and unique culinary treasure? It might not be camel hump, stewed in date juice in a Bedouin tent in the Nefud, but the sun is beating on my head, I have sand in my boots and my map tells me I’m geographically at the furthest point from an avocado in that part of the UK to which my expenses will extend.
Steephill Cove springs from an odd anomaly. In most parts of the country, planning laws and the natural market forces of property ownership have made seaside living a rare and coveted thing, but this wasn’t always so. In remote areas, families who made their living from the beach, from seaweed harvesting, inshore small-boat fishing, potting for crabs and lobsters, were granted informal rights over short stretches of the shore by local authorities or landowners. As seaside towns developed, some of these “longshoremen” adapted. They began running boat trips for holidaymakers, renting them deckchairs or fishing rods and, in return for the opportunity to benefit from trippers, they kept the beach in good order and supplied a rudimentary lifeguard service. The role usually passed down through families and, today, the Wheeler family are the longshoremen of Steephill.
David, at 91, is the patriarch. His family have fished this coast since 1640 and, though these days he leaves most of the pot-hauling to his sons, he’s still at work on the beach every day. He’s been awarded an MBE for his services to the community. Son Mark, married to Vanessa, runs a thriving little restaurant in a wooden shack called The Boathouse — solidly booked throughout the summer for simply cooked seafood in idyllic surroundings. There are a few lovely little cottages that can be rented in the summer months but it’s brother Jim and his wife Mandy who have taken over The Crab Shed, home of the legendary Steephill Crab Pasty.
“When Jim and I first got together, we weren’t married — just friends. At the time, there weren’t any tables here. This,” Mandy says, indicating The Crab Shed kitchen, “was just the crab picking room, so people used to come here to buy crabs and lobsters from Jim’s parents. He wanted to diversify from the fishing. We were just thinking about what would be a good thing to do and I’d always been interested in food, so we came up with the idea of a crab pasty. We just needed something people could take away.”
The sheer simplicity of that is beautiful. The gorgeous, plentiful local ingredient in the most traditional “hand-holdable” format. The purest response to what delighted customers. The development process, though, was not without its challenges.
“When we first started, it was Jim making them. He used to make his own pastry because traditional pasties are made with shortcrust. It was quite funny that we’d see all the crusts left along the cove on the wall. Obviously, they were just too filling. We chatted about it and said, ‘Look it’s crabmeat, it needs to be lighter . . . we’re not putting any potato in it, so let’s use puff pastry.’” As tipping points in culinary history go, this one is up there with the discovery of the bacon sandwich.
The Steephill Cove Crab Pasty has all the indicators of the most globally recognised culinary icons with DOP status — family tradition, rooted in national and local culture; the freshest and most authentic of local ingredients, minimally messed with and a kind of logic in the creation that just makes you wonder why there haven’t been crab pasties for a thousand years. A Frenchman encountering the crab pasty for the first time would weep, write two books about it, form a brotherhood to promote its cause and have a complex series of rules codified to protect it. Mandy, with the calm diffidence of a true islander, just quietly says: “It really got quite popular and everyone started talking about it.”
The recipe, is, naturally, a carefully kept family secret. I’ve watched and taken loads of notes and, as far as I can tell, these are the steps.
Take some decent quality,
real butter puff pastry.
Cut a circle.
Put some crabmeat, a rich mix of
brown and white, on one side, season.
Fold over the top and crimp.
Bake until done.
I suspect the Wheelers add some vegetables (it would make sense in a pasty). Shredded leeks or spring onions, sweated in butter, might be a wise choice, and seasoning seems to involve the white pepper in enough plenty to be redolent of the standard meat Cornish pasty, but with enough restraint that it doesn’t tread on the subtle marine funk of the crabmeat.
You could try this and it will be very good. You could pimp it to your taste with added potato, mace, make it triangular, add more brown meat, more white, a shot of Pernod, a twist of tarragon, the variations are endless . . . but it will never be truly sublime unless you’ve caught your own crab that morning or hiked along the cliff bottom to buy it off a bloke who has.
In Sète, France, so serious are they about la tielle that they’ve erected a statue to the octopus. It’s a big, bronze thing in the town square and everyone is justifiably proud of it. I’m not sure if the quiet folk of The Undercliff are ready for it, but as a nation we should be twice as proud of the crab pasty, and maybe it’s time for a giant bronze crab on the promenade at Ventnor.
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