Monday, 4 February 2013

The Whitstable Fish Market

Whitstable, Monday, 28th January
It’s been an interesting week in Whitstable.  Janet Street-Porter banished our local newspaper, the Whitstable Times to Room 101 for allegedly failing to report on anything other than Whitstable’s one-way system and the town’s parking problems. Unsurprisingly, no-one was amused. On Friday the Times published a full blown cartoon of Janet on its front page; big hair, big teeth, and a lopsided scowl.
In September last year, Janet was interviewed by the Telegraph’s Travel on why she loves Whitstable, ‘Great restaurants’  came first, and of course, she likes walking by the sea.  And again, no-on was impressed. Of the 12 published comments one from Delilah summed up the general reaction about the state of Whitstable ‘full of Janet Street-Porters with their pretentious friends from London, pushing up the price of everything.’ So it seems we don’t much like ‘Londoners’ descending on Whitstable with their 4x 4s and ‘braying kids’.
We’re lucky here in Whitstable, to live by the sea, in a town with its own fishmongers, independent butchers, several fruit and vegetable stores, at least two bakeries and some decent places to eat, many of them, chain free. People will come here. It is a nuisance when you can’t find parking in your own road and when the High Street is so packed you have to step out into it and dodge traffic just to walk five meters along. But at the same time, it’s a good life. People come because it’s beautiful and authentic, with shops and variety and character. Across the estuary from Whitstable you can make out the shoreline of the Isle of Sheppey, home to the town of Sheerness, with its open prisons and redundant steel factory.  It doesn’t quite have the same level of attraction, not yet at least. If crowds are the by-product of living in a decent place, I’ll have them.
Although I have to admit, it’s great when we’re quiet, like the last Sunday in January. It was a blue sky day, feverishly breezy with a winter chill. Whitstable has a working harbour with a fish market. It’s the first place I’ve chosen to write on in my blog – in which I am dedicating to food in this town where everyone loves eating. You won’t go hungry in Whitstable, it has every imaginable venue. Some have been awarded Michelin stars, others are happy to stick to kebab and fries. They all have their place.

The harbour is a hub of activity and industry, the Fish Market, Sea Scouts, West’s Oysters, Brett Aggregates, the sea-hut shaped market stalls for local traders. It’s alive with noise and motion. Terns dart in and out of fishing nets and coils of rope while gulls squawk and hover in the skies above.  
Whitstable’s Fish Market is easy to find. It’s situated on the South Quay, under the Crab and Winkle Restaurant. Outside its main entrance is its unofficial landmark, a fibreglass fisherman with a white beard and yellow jacket. He’s recently been joined by a bag of chips with legs and a face.  The theme continues into the market where bins are shaped like trout with gaping mouths.  
Inside its as colourful and noisy the harbour. The Market is just one example of one of the town’s more popular venues, serving visitors and adding an extra dimension to their day by the sea, while stocking up well for the rest of us. There’s a colourful deli offering dressed lobster, crab sandwiches, smoked salmon; an ice tray with local fish like sole, skate and wild sea bass and more popular assortments of fresh salmon and tuna fillets, mackerel, and squid. I’m endlessly ashamed when I pick any of these up at Tesco. New Year’s resolution, not to do that again when the harbour is on my doorstep!
There’s seasoned fishmonger cutting open rock oysters, gutting and weighing the stock, tourists swarming round counters stocked with muscles, oysters, whelks, jellied eels, crabs to be eaten in or taken away.
Oysters. There’s plenty of them everywhere you look.  The town is famous for them.  There’s nothing that beats half a dozen on a hot sunny day, outside by the harbour with a glass of white wine.  I’m endlessly amused by the treatment of this unfortunate mollusc, supposed aphrodisiac of the seas (it’s never had this effect on me, but I live on in hope). I accept that it has an odd appearance, for the uninitiated, it’s not a pretty sight and has been compared to many things which are simply not aphrodisiacs. People dangle them over open gullets, eyes closed, (I saw someone once pinching his nose), they pry them out of their shells with plastic forks, over season them with salt and Tabasco sauce, and then wonder why they taste of Tabasco sauce. People chew, splutter and choke them down,  laughing and insulting them.
Whitstable oysters are probably the best to start off on; they’re smaller (so easier to swallow) but have chunkier shells (which won’t matter, you don’t consume the shells). The harbour also serves up oysters farmed over in Ireland which tend to be a larger variety. So it’s up to you. Choose your oyster with care. A good oyster doesn’t need too much seasoning, a squeeze of lemon juice is enough and try not to overdo it.
The Market serves more conventional seaside alternatives for the less adventurous, ice cream in Mr Whippy cones, or cod and chips. Last year it was refurbished with indoor seating set towards the back so punters can enjoy their harbour feast in warmth. There are small touches to brighten up the venue; on the walls of one corridor are scenes of Whitstable and its harbour throughout time.
It’s a good place whatever the time of year. Sunday was just too cold for oysters, so I got some cod and chips to eat in and crab soup for later in the week. Tip – don’t leave crab soup it in the fridge too long after it's been opened.

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