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Kent shellfish: From jellied eels to whelks, cockles to oysters, which seafood treat is the best?


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Once upon a time, every seaside town would have a stall where freshly caught shellfish was being sold.

It was, for many, an integral part of a trip to the seaside. A stroll along the front for the bracing air followed by the taste of the sea , be it cockles, whelks or pint of winkles.

Jellied eels, whelks and cockles being sold in days gone by in Folkestone
Jellied eels, whelks and cockles being sold in days gone by in Folkestone

From Folkestone , where it seemed you could barely go more than 50 yards without someone selling you a range of tasty treats, to Margate and the Marsh, even pub car parks got in on the act as their popularity boomed.

But changing habits and demand has seen them in decline over recent years; where once there were a handful serving each resort, today most have just one - if any.

So just what are those who haven't dipped their toes in the vinegar-drenched joys of a bit of seafood missing out on?

While everyone's taste is different, we give our countdown - in reverse order to build up the tension - of the finest shellfish being sold on a stall near you.

And while you're quite likely to disagree with the choices, one massive caveat should apply to every shellfish dish you try. The gulf in tastiness depending on the month you buy them, variety, freshness and seasoning can be enormous. Many have been put off one type of tasty morsel for life due to one dodgy dish. Persevere. Try them a few times at different times of year and from different sellers. Then make your own decision as to just what is King of the Kentish Shellfish.

The cockney's favourite - jellied eels...an acquired taste
The cockney's favourite - jellied eels...an acquired taste

8. Jellied Eels

First of all, before we start this countdown, it should be said that the best shellfish don't necessarily stand up for much close examination. Let's just say that few, if any, will win any awards for their aesthetic beauty. But when it comes to taste, they can generally take on all comers.

The humble jellied eel, best served with a dash of vinegar and touch of white pepper, is a case in point.

Eels aren't everyone's cup of tea. And when sliced up, boiled in a stock which then cools and sets as a jelly, it's rare they change your mind. But people love them.

For many, the fact this odd little delicacy languishes at the bottom of the list will come as something of a surprise. But they're just a little too Chas n Dave, cor blimey guv'nor aren't they?

If you lived within the sound of Bow Bells then I'm sure you can be shot for lesser things than dissing the national dish of the East End , but this is Kent. Here we go up the stairs not the 'apple and pears', so I'm afraid these slippery little critters aren't getting any higher up the crustacean hit parade (and I know they're not crustaceans before you mention it).

You either love or hate shellfish...and if you live in Kent a taste for them should be in your genes
You either love or hate shellfish...and if you live in Kent a taste for them should be in your genes

7. Winkles

If there is a shellfish in rude abundance along the Kent coastline - and easily (if not somewhat cautiously) harvestable by the day-tripper - then it is surely the winkle.

But rather than risk picking up some sort of unpleasant bug by bagging yourself a load from the shoreline, best to get them properly prepared from a stall.

Yes, it has a sniggersome name, but they are also deceptively tasty. They're a classic too. Boiled up and then arming yourself only with a pin - no doubt health and safety has added to their decline in popularity over the years - the eater spears the tiny bit of flesh from within the shell and satisfyingly scoffs them.

But, they are a little, whisper it, boring. So for that reason alone I'm afraid they don't make higher up the list. They're nicer than jellied eels, mind.

Prawns are part of the staple of every good seafood stall
Prawns are part of the staple of every good seafood stall

6. Prawns

While for most shellfish a dish will suffice, for prawns 'a pint of' variety is probably going to be the way to go. After all, unless your stall of choice has taken the fun out of it, these little fellows come 'shell on' and force you to get down and dirty with your treat.

To find the little pink things which you will be all too familiar with drenched in Thousand Island dressing and making up a prawn cocktail, you need to summon up something of your hunter/gather genetics and 'skin' them first. Which normally means (and look away if you're a tad squeamish but remember they're dead and cooked at this point) pinching just below the head and pulling it off, followed by carefully unwrapping, from the under belly, the shell to reveal the delicate flesh inside. That sounds worse than the reality, but at least with this method you earn your mouthful.

The only drawback is that it is a mighty messy way of eating and, as a consequence, it's not top five.

Crab is a delicacy - but for that instant taste of the sea it's not our number one
Crab is a delicacy - but for that instant taste of the sea it's not our number one

5. Crab

Now crab ought, really, be higher up the list. After all, done well, crab is one of life's luxury foods. But what you tend to get if you've ordered this from your friendly stallholder, as you stroll along the seafront keen for something tasty, has already been somewhat processed (I know everything has generally been cooked and shelled before it is served up before you but crab seems to be completely stripped bare and then refilled into its lifeless corpse, or 'dressed' as it's rather more politely called).

Crab is, without question, delicious. Especially the claw meat. In that weird way we have where the creatures we so admire and associate with a natural environment can be so scrummy (think lambs, think cows), crabs represent the seaside therefore your first bite is very much with the eye and the mind.

But...in this reviewer's humble opinion, it's a dish best served in a restaurant not at a shellfish stall. So for that reason alone, it finds itself only modestly placed. Perhaps a trifle unfairly.

Granted, they won't look like this when you buy them at a stall, but you get the picture
Granted, they won't look like this when you buy them at a stall, but you get the picture

4. Mussels

When it comes to the previously mentioned scope in different taste experiences, then mussels are surely right up there.

Have one shrivelled little thing and the splendour of a plump, juicy one to redeem the species could be forever lost.

But when they're right they're one of the very best. True, they need a dose of seasoning to bring them to life, but a good mussel will get your tastebuds tingling, if not being particularly easy on the eye.

Of course, a little pot of the things is a far cry from when they're served up in a creamy white wine-enriched moules marinière dish, but they still pack a punch.

Oysters and Whitstable are forever linked...and the town won't let you forget it
Oysters and Whitstable are forever linked...and the town won't let you forget it

3. Oysters

Now we're getting to what, in this reviewer's mind at least, are the crème de la crème of the crustacean world.

And in terms of marketing and image, the oyster has long been king. Whether its the chance of finding a pearl in the shell or their apparent aphrodisiac qualities (courtesy of the zinc levels they contain, in case you wondered), they are the Apple iPhone of the shellfish world. Albeit not as polished to look at. You can barely move in Whitstable without something being called the Oyster This, or Oyster That and just look at the magic its worked on house prices there. They are the mollusc with the Midas touch.

Certainly, taking a look at the flesh isn't something you want to spend too much time on - far better to enjoy the pretty shells sat on their bed of ice. But they are perhaps the number one taste of the sea. Primarily due to the over-riding taste being like taking a swig of the North Sea.

But that would be selling them short. Whether you douse them in Worcester sauce or just a little lemon juice, whether you neck them like a shot of Sambuca or chew them, when they're good they're divine.

They're not going to win any beauty awards, but whelks pack a punch
They're not going to win any beauty awards, but whelks pack a punch

2. Whelks

This could be seen as a somewhat controversial choice, but to hell with it, whelks are one of the great unsung heroes of the shellfish world. Granted, they could not look less appealing if they tried - they make jellied eels look like a super model - but, my word, get a good whelk liberally splashed with vinegar and I defy you not to consider them a classic.

And, perhaps most importantly, they actually feel like a proper bit of food. They're chewy, the pack in flavour, and they fill you up. And for that reason alone they were just a hair's-breadth away from claiming the top spot.

You do need to choose your time to eat them - September to February is generally accepted as when they are in their prime, and they need to be lovely and fresh (otherwise they can tasty rubbery and tasteless) - but they would give most food stuffs a run for their money.

The only reason they don't achieve the top spot is that all too often you'll get a disappointing bowl of them. So, purely on consistency grounds, they're in at number two.

Ladies and gentlemen...your winner is...the cockle
Ladies and gentlemen...your winner is...the cockle

1. Cockles

And so we reach the winner. And what else could it be? If you've been to the seaside and never stopped for a dish of cockles then you have missed out on a quintessential part of the British day trip.

So why has the cockle been crowned King of the Kentish Shellfish Stall? Well, let's see. They look nice - that splash of orange is both unusual and aesthetically pleasing - you get plenty of them if you buy a little dish of them (although I'd argue even nicer in a bag containing a pint of them) and they have the uncanny ability of tasting good. Not to mention that armed with one of those little forks the stalls have, eating them (drenched in vinegar, natch) is a non-messy way of spending your day.

There are variations, granted (it's not like you're buying a Big Mac after all), but getting a disappointing bowl of cockles is a rare thing.

Just never, ever, be fooled into thinking the little jars of cockles you can buy in a supermarket will come close to the delight of a fresh cockle from a seaside stall.

In short, the cockle is a worthy winner.

But don't take our word for it - support your local seafood stall and go and treat yourself.

For more news on big brands and good places to enjoy a tasty bite, head to our Eat, Drink, Shop section

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