Home   What's On   News   Article

We review Mannings Seafood Stall in Margate in pursuit of the perfect whelk


Before I was a glint in my father's eye, my parents once toured the seafood stalls of Kent and Sussex in pursuit of the finest whelk money could buy.

I don't think they visited seaside resorts specifically to update their league table - or at least you'd like to think not - but the result was that quality shellfish was often a topic of debate by the time I turned up and spoilt their free-wheeling fun.

Whelks - they are funny looking fellas, you can't deny it
Whelks - they are funny looking fellas, you can't deny it

From an early age I remember being briefed on where to go and, perhaps more importantly, where to avoid. I imagine it was similar to the way the location of the Holy Grail was passed down within secret society circles. Dan Brown may wish to write a book about it one day.

For them, the quality of the whelk - an acquired taste for many - was the determining factor of quality.

And like all good family advice, I feel I now recognise a tasty sea snail when I stick one down my throat.

Which is handy because after last week's budget-busting food review by a colleague who tackled a meal for one costing £71, the Eat My Words coffers were a little depleted.

What better then, as the sun shines, to highlight a staple at coastal resorts around Kent's magnificent coastline - the seafood stall - and where my 'meal' (well, more elaborate snack) cost less than a tenner.

Art and cockles - neighbours for many years now
Art and cockles - neighbours for many years now

These are, after all, tough times.

So I find myself on Margate seafront just before noon on a sun-soaked day where the crowds of people leaping off every train which pulls into the town's station resemble the numbers heading to a football match. With, if truth be known, an equal number of tattoos on display.

My destination is Mannings Seafood Stall - a drop-kicked paint set away from the Turner Contemporary and where the promenade branches down to the Harbour Arm.

For more than 50 years it has been a cornerstone of the traditional day-out and has seen the town's fortunes ebb and flow and as such, it has become a cornerstone of the resort.

And given the early hour, it is doing brisk business - a steady flow of people coming up to sample its wares. From a £3 shallow tub of cockles to dressed crab or, for the deeper-of-pocket, a bottle of Champagne and half a dozen oysters for £43. Which sounds steep, but I'd wager a damn sight more expensive down the Thanet Way in Whitstable.

On a sun-soaked Sunday the seafood stall was doing brisk business
On a sun-soaked Sunday the seafood stall was doing brisk business

Feeling such a bill may raise an eyebrow or two at KentOnline Towers, I opt for the simple pleasures - a tub of cockles, one of whelks and, for good measure, one full of mussels too. In truth, it's what most people will sample in a bid to get that authentic taste of the sea. I could, and given probably about half of the people gathering down here are from east London, have gone for jellied eels. But frankly I'm not keen.

The staff are efficient and friendly and before we know it my eldest and I are standing by the neighbouring seawall ready to dig in.

The views across Margate's Main Sands are beautiful however, there is one blot on the landscape. Namely two dead seagulls on the inaccessible bit of beach just below us. I'd like to think they died of old age but cannot help but think it was avian flu. Let's not dwell on their demise, we agree. And just pray they didn't eat a dodgy whelk, thrown down by the last folk eating their shellfish here.

It's not the ideal sight to spot a dead seagull in these days of avian flu - or next to a seafood staff for that matter
It's not the ideal sight to spot a dead seagull in these days of avian flu - or next to a seafood staff for that matter

Now, let's not pretend otherwise, these cockles and whelks are liberally vinegared. It shouldn't obscure the taste but it certainly gives everything a pleasing tang.

So...let's start with the whelks. They are, as a species, not going to win any beauty awards. And I've long since realised that they do not bear close scrutiny.

But, on first glance, they look a decent size, have a reassuring pale colour with a blush of yellow that, experience suggests, is a good sign.

Who can resist these seafood classics?
Who can resist these seafood classics?

And, thank the Lord, they are good. They avoid the slimey taste which can so often dog one's enjoyment of them. They're chewy - but not overly - and they release that lovely, unparalleled taste which makes them unique in the world of shellfish. The vinegar sets them off a treat. My parents would approve (but probably won't bother trying them as they didn't rate Margate highly when they were on their voyage of taste-testing back in the, cough, 1960s).

They had a point though. Good whelks are often hard to find. And, for reasons they've told me about (the season, where they're from etc etc) one good dish is by no means a guarantee of reliable quality. But, let's not be mean for no good reason.

This, dear reader, is a top notch whelk.

On to the cockles and these little fellas are tiny little things - even in the world of tiny cockles. In fact they're so titchy, it's quite difficult to spear them on the wooden utensil which came with each tub.

The taste? Well, due to the sparsity of meat on them, they're merely acceptable.

On previous visits here (I've been known to make a special trip for a pint of cockles in a bag drenched so heavily in self-administered vinegar it seeps through both the plastic bag they're in and the paper outer - a sign, I always feel, I've given them enough), they have been excellent. Such is the hit and miss risk of such fruits de mer.

Which leads us onto the mussels.

Your reporter gobbles down a whelk in a, frankly, questionable shirt
Your reporter gobbles down a whelk in a, frankly, questionable shirt

With the whelks a big hit, the cockles a mere five-out-of-ten, it is only fitting that the mussels are near the bottom of the ratings.

They're too watery, too tasteless, too miserable to even finish.

Mussels are one of the great 'they have to be good ones' to be tasty. Order moule marinère and woe betide if the mussels aren't plump, fresh and full of flavour. These would not make the cut, sadly. Very disappointing.

Would I recommend Mannings? Of course I would. If all dishes had been hopeless I'd have told you to steer clear. But the reality is that, in the same way you might swallow down a dodgy oyster with your Champagne, shellfish can be hit and miss. It's all part of the fun.

But Mannings does a fine job - and hopefully will continue to do so. The range is good - even for those on miserly budgets like me - and the tubs while not going to be a substitute for a lunch, enhance a trip to the coast; in the same way a similarly priced ice cream does.

Plus just where, I ask you, would Margate be without such a stall? It's a bit of history and one which needs to survive.

There are worse places to dabble with a bit of cockle and whelkage
There are worse places to dabble with a bit of cockle and whelkage

Out of five:

Food: All hail the whelk...the cockles were too small to pack any real punch...and the less said about the mussels the better. ***

Drink: I didn't get one...but the Champers looked good (but doesn't it always?)... ***

Decor: It's a traditional seafood stall. You buy at the counter then walk wherever your mood takes you to eat them. But it looked clean and everything was well shaded and chilled from the sun. Shame about the nearby dead seagulls, but that's not Mannings' fault ****

Staff: Very friendly - even pointed out the vinegar when I almost committed the schoolboy error of forgetting to splash the stuff on ****

Price: Three tubs for £9. My childhood memories would suggest inflation has hit the shellfish industry hard...but the portions were good and for those distinct shellfish snacks as part of your coast trip experience, you can't really complain. Well, you could, but what would be the point? ****

Close This site uses cookies. By continuing to browse the site you are agreeing to our use of cookies.Learn More