Fishy and Dishy at Pembrokeshire Fish Week
According to Visit Britain’s tourism chiefs, Pembrokeshire Fish Week, held early July, is the UK’s best food festival.
But what does award-winning food writer Christopher Hirst think?
Since he’s also the author of Love Bites: Marital Skirmishes in the Kitchen, we thought it only right to ask his wife along too.
Like the sea life it celebrates, the 200-odd events of Pembrokeshire Fish Week range from the massive - over 13,000 attended the tasty kick-off to the festival in Milford Haven - to the minnow. At one of the latter, which took place in an elegant Georgian house in Haverfordwest, I gazed at a serpentine fish that zigzagged its way across my dish in shades of grey, green and indigo. I can tell you the precise colours because, for the first time in half a century, I had painted a fish on a plate. My wife’s mackerel may have been more elegant but my creation scored on originality. ‘No one has done an eel before,’ admitted Shauna Conant, who runs a daily ceramics session called Fish Week Masterpiece at the Creative Cafe.
Soon afterwards, I enjoyed an equally unusual maritime plateful - the real thing this time - at the Swan Inn, a delightful pub overlooking the pocket handkerchief of a beach at Little Haven. For £13.50, my vast spider crab was one of the best seafood meals I’ve ever had, though not perhaps the daintiest. My side of the table resembled a war zone as I hacked my way inside the warty shell and tore apart the foot-long claws to get at the incomparably sweet meat within. It was a tremendous, hugely satisfying meal but my wife was happy to have chosen the more compliant sand sole, which required no more than a bit of deft fork work. Insanely, we export almost all our spider crabs to Europe and sand sole is equally rare on British menus. Three cheers to the Swan’s talented chef for championing such under-regarded treats.
We were accompanied at our fishy feast by Kate Morgan, Pembrokeshire County Council’s Food Development Manager. She came up with the brilliant idea of Fish Week, now in its 13th year. ‘We wanted to make the most of our coast,’ Kate explained. ‘It’s the only festival that covers the whole week and a whole county. There’s a lot going on even if you don’t like fish.’
But if you do, it is pretty close to heaven. As well as a healthy UK audience, visitors from fish-loving countries like France and Holland are drawn to the festival. Fringed by sea on three sides, the endlessly interesting Pembrokeshire peninsula has the edge on other coastal counties. The interior also has much to offer. Following the drive down from London our arrival at the luxury B&B of Canaston Oaks near Narberth was wonderfully restorative. Great spotted woodpeckers in formal plumage of black and white pecked at nuts on our patio while motionless cattle on distant hills might have come from a child’s toy farm.
‘Suppertime!’ My wife’s cry woke me from my rural dream. Fortunately, our meal was only a couple of miles away. We dined at The Grove, a country hotel tucked away down a narrow verdant road. ‘Coracle-caught sewin (delicate sea trout) served with poached oysters wrapped in translucent slices of simmered apple’ was an astonishing starter to have at the end of a country lane near the furthermost point of South Wales. My wife’s ecstatic response to her crab mayonnaise, crammed with long filaments of white meat, deepened my regret at missing the Grove’s Fish Week Barbecue, which took place after our departure for London.
Restaurants and cafés alike put on special events and dishes for Fish Week. At the Druidstone Hotel, a bohemian establishment as singular as its isolated clifftop setting above St Bride’s Bay, we joined 130 others for a fish feast consisting of 20 different options ranging from Russian fish pie to Cajun prawn fritters. Including a jolly post-supper ceilidh, the price was £13.50 per head.
A Beginner’s Seashore Foraging Walk with Julia Horton-Powdrill proved to be an unexpected highlight of our time at Fish Week. After leading us down a precipitous path to Caerfai Beach near St Davids, Julia instantly headed for rocks uncovered by the departing tide. ‘This is laver,’ she proclaimed, grabbing some gleaming strands of seaweed hanging on the side of a boulder. ‘You have to cook it for six hours. It’s the same as the nori you use to wrap sushi.’ Coated in oats and fried, laver becomes laverbread, a favourite component of the Welsh breakfast. But there was much more in Julia’s oceanic cornucopia.
‘This dark maroon stuff is dulse, my favourite seaweed, great with chicken soup or oxtail. Another variety called pepper dulse has quite a strong hit of spicy heat. Put it in a coffee grinder and use as a condiment.’ Julia’s litany of seaweedy delights might have come from Macbeth: ‘Bladderwrack, thongweed, gutweed...’ Somewhat more agile than her London-based beginners, she scampered across the rocks gathering samples for us. Thongweed, we discovered, is also known as sea spaghetti. How do you eat it? Ask Julia: ‘Just like ordinary spaghetti. Delicious!’ Back at the top of the cliff, a nibble of her delicious quiche with sea lettuce confirmed that seaweed is completely misnamed. It is among the tastiest of vegetables.
Events throughout the county gain a maritime tinge during Fish Week. Under the stony gaze of Prince Albert’s statue, Marion Davies led a guided tour of Tenby Harbour, surely the most picturesque in Britain. Her talk touched on the Victorian cleric who attacked oysters as ‘ungodly, unclean and unhealthy’ and the apposite Greek inscription on Tenby’s Regency Bath House: ‘The sea washes away all the illnesses of man.’ Equally appropriately, our circumnavigation ended in the Buccaneer Inn with massive piles of well-stuffed crab sandwiches.
The mid-week focus of the festival was a masterclass by four celebrity chefs at the Torch Theatre in Milford Haven, preceded by a dinner cooked by two of the stars. Mackerel, chorizo and broad beans by Bryn Williams of Odette’s in London’s Primrose Hill was simple and tasty. A plate bearing separate islands of salted caramel, hazelnut cream and baked apple slices formed the equally excellent pud by Alyn Williams (no relation) of the Westbury in Mayfair.
At the masterclass, the chefs cooked fish they had caught that morning. The audience salivated over the varying approaches to mackerel (bhajis and risotto) from TV cooks Ravinda Bhogal and Anthony Evans. It’s the first time I have ever seen a crab cake get a round of applause, richly deserved for Anthony’s inventive crustacean variant on Yorkshire pudding. Bryn and Alyn displayed their culinary skills with skate and pollock while dispensing advice that was eagerly consumed by their audience. Did you know that ‘rock salmon is not pretty but it’s one of the most delicious fish you can get out of the sea’? Or that ‘cooking fish en papillote (in an envelope of aluminium foil) is a great way of cooking for stress-free dinner parties’?
After our final night at Boulston Manor, a B&B that is as comfortable and welcoming as it is grandly luxurious, we were cooked a special Fish Week breakfast by our hostess Jools Thomas. Her kedgeree was so angelic that we virtually flew down the A40.
Pembrokeshire Fish Week makes a perfect focus for a long weekend or short break and will allow to sample more of the freshest fish that's comes straight from the Sea to Plate.