This late 19th century jar of bloater paste was very much an East Anglian product. With massive quantities of herring landed in Great Yarmouth every autumn there was no shortage of fish to turn into bloaters and then process into fish paste. Bloaters are herrings left to become bloated (or gamey) by being lightly salted and lightly smoked but left ungutted. They were particularly popular in Norfolk and are still available from a few places on the coast. The complete loss of the fishing industry and the almost total disappearance of the local fishmonger has led to them disappearing from tea tables though.
Bloater paste too has disappeared from the shelves. Shippams were the last to make it and they have now ceased production. In my twenties crab and bloater paste were made in Sheringham; compared with Shippams and other large fish paste makers it was very good. Crab paste was made from fresh boiled crabs from the Sheringham crab boats. The herrings did not come from Sheringham because they are not caught off the North Norfolk coast, but the fish would have been caught not far away. But whether it was crab or bloater paste, it was all 100 percent what it purported to be. None of this unspecified “fish” or (even worse) cereal was included. Now even the most expensive pastes are filled out with these ingredients today. Among the tastiest of seafood dishes is the Cromer crab. Although lobsters are also caught off the North Norfolk coast they all go to London for sale to the classy restaurants. We in Norfolk much prefer the taste of crabs. Lobsters are tough and flavourless in comparison.
The delicious flavour of bloaters is out of sync with times. Even forgetting about the acquired taste of the bloater, herrings are not widely eaten. They have BONES. Young people will give most fish a wide berth for this reason but will happily eat burgers, the mere thought of which leaves me feeling rather queasy. These minced beef rissoles were originally called Hamburgers but to make sure the ignorant did not assume that they were made of ham the producers called them Beefburgers. Now they are simply burgers. Whatever can all this possibly have to do with a town in Germany?
Kippers too make a nice fish dish, and can even be bought from some supermarkets – tinned and boneless of course. Kippers are more commonly available than bloaters and can be bought freshly smoked from such places as Whitby and the Isle of Man. Dabs may occasionally be on the fishmonger’s slab at the supermarket Morrisons but you best bet is to meet the inshore fishermen as they come in with their catch and buy them straight off the boat.
As you get closer to the Wash the smaller shell fish become available. Cockles and mussels and particularly whelks are popular and sold from the quay at Wells, but these latter are rather chewy for me. The fishing boats at Kings Lynn go after shrimps – pink ones – which they boil on the way back to harbour from the fishing grounds.
Although in the middle-ages carp ponds provided a succulent meal on meat free days, the only freshwater fish that we eat today are eels. These are sold as jellied eels and were popular with Cockneys. Now that Cockneys are a people of the past and East Enders are immigrants or their descendants from across the globe I rather fear for the jellied eel. Not that I particularly like jellied eels; far nicer to my mind is an eel freshly fried for breakfast. But even the eel is something of an endangered species in the rivers of England, or so I understand. I don’t know (and nor I think does anyone else) if the problem lies in our country or somewhere between here and the Sargasso Sea, where these animals breed. So I am resigned to never again having a fresh eel; to taste them you had to catch them for yourself.
THE BLOG FOR MEMORIES OF EAST ANGLIA