By Fiona Sims
This is an edited excerpt from Nammet: A Celebration of Isle of Wight Food and Drink, published by Medina Publishing, £19.99, produced in aid of the Isle of Wight’s Earl Mountbatten Hospice and curated by Caroline Gurney-Champion (with a little help from me). Photographs by Julian Winslow and Cam Snudden. And yes, that is chef Robert Thompson on the cover.
There has been a Wheeler fishing on the Isle of Wight ever since the 1400s, and Wheeler’s Bay, on the Island’s south coast, is named after my family. My father initially didn’t continue the family fishing tradition, as it was almost impossible then to earn a living from it. Instead, he worked as a longshoreman on Ventnor beach, and latterly Steephill Cove - supervising the deckchair and canoe rentals. Then he took up fishing again, and my brother and I joined him as soon as we left school - against his advice, but there was no stopping us!
We go out fishing every day for crab and lobster, mackerel too sometimes, and use all the seafood we catch in our restaurant, The Crab Shed. The crab pasties and crab sandwiches are hugely popular - so much so that we now have to buy in crab from other local fishermen to meet customer demand, but they all come from the same water, just a little further along the coast. We added crab burgers to our menu last summer, which went down really well, and lobsters are cooked to order every day.
We’re lucky enough to live and work at Steephill Cove, a mile down the coast from Ventnor. It’s a stunning spot, but it’s actually incredibly exposed, and the most challenging thing about fishing these waters is getting the boats on and off the beach here. There’s absolutely no shelter, and you’re completely exposed to the South West winds, with a groundswell to contend with and a very narrow entrance to land the boat in. But I can’t say I’ve ever had any desire to leave the island. The only question really was ensuring we could earn a living here, and thankfully that seems to have worked out.
I’ve always liked the combination of crab served with tomatoes but they do have to be sweet. Best to use Isle of Wight baby plum tomatoes or if out of season add a bit of sugar. The combination of the fresh crab with tomatoes, chilli, wine and buttery garlic crumbs is really good, and easy to make. One for a dinner party. You do have to love garlic though. Crab shells make good containers for these bakes or use large ovenproof ramekins. It’s freezable, too - just reheat for 20 minutes from frozen.
500g fresh crab (use a higher ratio of white meat for best results)
350g fresh baby plum tomatoes, chopped
Oil of Wight and a little butter for frying
2 onions finely chopped
50 ml dry white wine
Pinch of dried hot chilli flakes
Breadcrumbs (2 or 3 thick slices)
Small bunch of parsley
8-10 cloves of IOW garlic, very finely chopped
Salt and pepper
Heat the oven to 180 degrees C. Melt the butter in a small pan and briefly sizzle one clove of crushed garlic before adding enough breadcrumbs to top your bakes, stir in a little of the parsley. Fry the onions in butter and olive oil until softened over a gentle heat, then add all the chopped garlic, and cook for another minute or so ensuring the garlic neither burns nor remains raw. Turn up the heat and splash in the wine, tomatoes, chilli and salt and pepper, cook this mixture for around 5 minutes until the tomatoes cook down a little then mix in the brown crab meat (you may need to add a pinch of sugar if the tomatoes lack sweetness). Then add the fresh chopped parsley and fold in the flakes of white crab meat. You can add some more breadcrumbs to firm up the mixture if it’s too wet - you want to eat this with a fork not a spoon. Spoon into the shells or bowls and then top with your buttery breadcrumbs.
It’s difficult. We sympathise. Despite being an entirely different shape and size we have an uncanny ability to turn up in the same outfit (usually black) and order the same dishes. We both wear glasses, swathe ourselves in scarves and fancy Daniel Craig.
© 2015-21 Fiona Beckett & Fiona Sims (the2fionas.com), photography © Gary Latham, website by Scend