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Winter warmers to be enjoyed on the beach

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: December 14, 2013

  • 'Dan The Fish Man' Garnett cooks fish and cockles on the North Devon coast at Northam Burrows in the company of Martin Hesp PICTURES: Richard Austin

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Life is full off norms, accepted truths and givens – but the older I get the more fun I believe it can be to chuck some of these in the bin. For example, we British do not do picnics in winter and we do not really enjoy beaches at this time of year either, unless we are on a quick windy walk with the dog along some spume driven strand.

But why not? Our new-style summers are all too often rubbish nowadays – so why not rug-up and dine al-fresco at the seaside on a bright, cloudless, winter's day?

The bonus is that some of the best seafood our island nation has to offer can be gleaned for free when the warmer weather has gone south – which is why there is a well known phrase about shellfish being at their best when there's an "r" in the month.

We will talk about that most delicious subject in a moment, but here is an observation to back my new-found theory that we should be enjoying the great outdoors in general – and beaches in particular – more in winter.

It was not that long ago when the waves around this peninsula would have been emptied of surfers by the end of September – now, thanks to wetsuits and the like, we see them bobbing about on the most horrendous of freezing days.

The same could be said for walkers – when I was a lad growing up in West Somerset you would never see anyone marching about Exmoor or the Quantocks on a winter's day except, perhaps, for the odd shepherd. Now the hills are alive with Goretex on even the dampest and darkest midweek afternoons.

So why not don some of the same protective gear – put on a few thermal layers – and go picnicking on a beautiful beach on a bright day in December, January or February?

Moreover – choose the right beach, take a rake, a bucket, a new-fangled outdoor gas cooking device, a pan, some wine and a couple of other ingredients and there is no reason you should not prepare to enjoy one of the best meals you will have tasted in years…

That is more or less the exact invitation that I was presented with the other day – it came from the well known North Devon seafood purveyDan Garnett and, as everyone who buys fish from his stalls in the area will know, Dan The Fishman is a bubbly and vivacious soul. He is hugely passionate about all forms of seafood.

Which is why he occasionally emails me fishy missives which begin with the words… "Why don't we…"

I will admit that when the recent email came in saying: "Why don't we have one of our beach cook-ups in winter…" I did baulk a bit at the idea.

When Dan mentioned the fact he would bring along a gazebo I demurred, thinking: I've got waterproofs and thermals – what could go wrong.

As it turned out we needed no protective clothing – let alone a tent – because, by sheer luck, the day we chose to meet on the eastern shore of Northam Burrows was one of the loveliest in weeks. Cold, yes – but totally cloudless and bright – and we soon warmed up by going out cockling in the low-tide mud.

Now, at this point I can understand there may be folk who will be thinking I have gone completely bonkers in my evangelism to get more people out and about enjoying the wonders of our countryside come what may – so to counter this and to test whether or not a plan like this was do-able, or even enjoyable, I took along two retired British Airways pursers as guinea-pigs.

Between them Keith and Chris (both long-term Westcountry residents) have more than 66 years of service, spent mainly working long-haul in the first-class cabins of one of the most prestigious airlines in the world. In other words, they know about luxury.

They loved every squelching, salty, aromatic, delicious, minute of the experience – even though it meant spending a couple of hours slip-sliding about in the Taw-Torridge mud.

While they were raking for cockles I helped enthusiastic Mr Garnett set up the cooking gear: "The real pleasure of cooking out on the beach is that things taste much better – at least as twice as good," he beamed from under his beard.

"What we're doing – to make it even better – is to pick some cockles and put them with some local fish. Winter is a great time for shellfish – they're not spatting like the mussels spat in summer.

"There's no excuse why you should be out enjoying our fantastic coastline at this time of year – you've got to pick your day of course," shrugged Dan as we marched down the beach to join the others. "But we're here with our thermals on and we've got bright sunshine – and what's wonderful is that it's so isolated – there are just a few of us on the beach just a stone's throw from some of the biggest towns in North Devon.

"There's nobody here!" he sighed. "Just us. The peace. The quiet. The sound of the curlews and other birds. The tide just slowly ebbing away. This is real country living!"

You see what I mean about him being a great salesman? But he was right – even if our haul of cockles was… um, how shall we say, not exactly breaking the backs of the men from BA.

Nevertheless, we harvested a bowlful and so sweet and utterly delicious was their briefly-cooked flavour that they entirely dominated the excellent fish dish that Dan and I prepared in under 20 minutes up at the top of the beach.

Here's Dan's recipe – but if you can't stretch to a cockle-hunt or a full-blown cooked meal, why not just pack a good winter picnic of hot fish soup or some other winter warmer – which you can take along in one of the amazing new lightweight flasks now sold for amazingly low prices in outdoor leisure stores…

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