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Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Lobsters, Crabs, Eels and Oysters

2009 marks the 50th anniversary of one of Suffolk's (if not the country's) great seafood establishments, Pinney's of Orford. Recently Food Safari took a group of intrepid seafarers to find out more. Along they way we found dozens of lobsters, numerous crabs and a few lively eels.

We kicked off the day with a trip up the River Ore; with the 2nd World War military buildings of Orfordness on one side and impressive Henry II era castle on the other. Peter, our skipper and guide explained that he'd laid lobster pots and an eel net in various spots. Nothing was guaranteed but he hoped we'd have a good catch.

Moving from spot to spot, Peter pulled pots filled with numerous treasures, including various sizes of lobsters, common shore crabs, eels, whelks, sea urchins and jellyfish eggs. Peter showed us how to identify male and female lobsters (the swimmerets, the small feather appendages on the underside of the tail on male lobster (cock) are hard, whereas on a female (hen) lobster, they are soft and feathery). Peter reminded us that you are not allowed to fish for lobster unless you have a valid permit and you must return the lobsters to the sea that are below the legal 10cm size, that is measuring from the eye’s to where the tail is attached to the body. But we were lucky enough to find a few lobsters which were large enough to keep and a couple of lucky people were able to take one to prepare at home.

Positively the most lively find of the day were a few eels, whose writhing, snake-like bodies caused shrieks of horror from some of us on board, including me! Determined that we shouldn't have the opportunity to prove how hard they are to kill, these eels would not be stopped, and frequently managed to wriggle their way out of the crate onto the floor of the boat and rather too close to our unsuspecting feet!

Back on dry land, and with the lobsters safely stowed in the fridge, we set off to Butley Creek, home of Pinney's of Orford. At the tail end of the second world war, Richard Pinney, fed up with London life took to the Suffolk coast and began looking for ways to make a living. His first enterprise was cutting rushes from local dikes and rivers, drying and platting them into mats and carpets. He then turned his attention to the river and set about restoring the derelict oyster beds in Butley Creek. Despite being warned by local people that if he wanted to lose all his money, oysters were a good way to do it, he started laying down oysters from Portugal, which grew and fattened very well.

At the same time, being a keen fisherman, he began to look for new things to do with his catch, he began to experiment with smoking in a disused compartment at the end of his cottage. The results were so good that he decided to buy some salmon and the smoking business grew from there. He developed a unique system of burning whole oak logs - a system which has been refined but hardly changed to this day.
We were welcomed by Bill Pinney, founder Richard's son, who went out to dredge for oysters before our eyes. While partner, Harvey Allen, told us the history of Pinney's. Bill explained how his father discovered that Butley Creek's combination of natural plankton's, salinity and clean waters, was an excellent oyster fattening ground. The oysters grown now are bought in from the hatcheries at a very small size and laid on our beds for 2-3 years before being harvested.

While at Butley Creek, I spotted both samphire and sea purslane growing on the banks of the river, a bonus for everyone concerned who harvested some to take home.

The amazing smells coming from the smokehouse lured us over, and I asked Harvey if he ever tired of the delicious smell. His answer was, of course, "no". In the smokehouse, we saw how the fish are first salted or brined, and then hung in the smokehouse where they are then flavoured and preserved by smoke that is produced by gently smouldering whole oak logs in a specially designed smokebox. Trout, mackerel, sprats, eels, cod roe etc are hung for a few hours before being hot smoked (cooked over the open fire) while salmon is cured over a period of about 48 hour.

By this time our tummies were beginning to rumble and we headed pack to the Pinney family's restaurant, The Butley Orford Oysterage, in Orford's pretty Market Hill. The restaurant and shop were opened in the 60s and as well as serving Butley Oysters, and smoked fish we also found other fish landed daily by the family's boat. Suitably revived by a glass of Muscadet and one too many smoked prawns, we were treated to a demonstration of how to carve a whole smoked salmon and how to open oysters, before all have a go ourselves. The group was something of a team now and calls of encouragement and generous rounds of applause rewarded everyone's efforts.

Finally we settled down to enjoy a delicious seafood platter of some of Pinney's finest produce - oysters and smoked salmon of course, but also rollmops, angels on horseback, and scallops, all the more enjoyable for knowing exactly where they had come from.

For more information about joining Seafood in a Day visit:

The fantastic photographs in this blog are courtesy of Emma Kindred of eightOne.

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