14 Jun 2012

Salt and Skipper

Douglas Blyde sails for his supper at The Pier, Harwich. 
BEYOND children productively crabbing on the pier, Cross Spider T’s crew make their final preparations to slip the mooring to join the Queen’s Jubilee flotilla. Moored beside her antique hull is the modern, gleaming Viking Blue, a 51ft long-range fast cruiser. Its skipper, Lee has been ‘on the water’ since five years-old, although only a decade of his life has seen him serving as a professional yachtsman. Until 2000, he headed Essex police’s CID until ‘almost pegging it’ on account of the ‘un-healthiness’ of that life... 

With a tug of the bow-thruster, Lee motors the vessel to the calm waters of the River Stour. Here, outstanding natural beauty contrasts a phalanx of the cranes of commerce, which look as dramatic in silhouette as they do illuminated at night, when they approximate skyscrapers. 
Soon we are under sail, carving the surface of what chef, Tom Bushell, sees as his salty larder, while causing little wake. Below, I imagine cod, sea bass, lemon and Dover soles, and lobsters and crabs teeming. Nearby in Colchester, the famous oysters sift and filter the sea. 
After several years as head chef at Dedham’s Le Talbooth, which celebrates 60-years in the tenure of the Milsom family this year, Bushell changed course for The Pier (under the same ownership) to fulfil his desire to cook mostly fish. Behind the jaunty blue and white facade, its restaurant and bistro was established on a whim in 1978. Late raconteur, Gerald Milsom liked Boston seafood restaurant, Jimmy’s Harbour-side so much, he created the homage in Harwich. 
We navigate towards Harwich International Port, the tall stacks of a factory which makes wind turbines piercing the silver sky. Ironically, there is so little wind today we soon resort to the Volvo engine. An RDS announcement cracks across the radio suddenly, although the traffic jams it warns of are irrelevant out here today, waters of which are still, bar the occasional skiff, yacht and monumental cruise liner bound for the Northern routes. 
Centuries ago, The Mayflower, a symbol of the early European colonisation of the United States, and very likely built in Harwich, cut these haven-like waters. Such is the local fondness for that vessel, a sea-going replica is due to be built. 
A clap of thunder sounds like a canon. Appetites building, we gently dock at the jetty, untangling ourselves from vivid lifejackets. The crabbers are gone. In The Pier, immediately opposite, stars and stripes pattern seats and sofas in the Ha’penny Bistro, while architectural canvases of wooden boats by apprentice shipwright turned artist, James Dodds hang in the upstairs restaurant, where we head. The interior design was done by Geraldine Milsom, whose husband Paul joins us for lunch, our view of the jetty framed by ornate iron railings. 
Bushell prepares dressed Harwich crab from specimens rather grander than those the children netted, with bright shiso and rapeseed oil mayonnaise, then seabass from fisherman Tony of boat, Michelle (guests can take fishing courses). ‘He caught it yesterday,’ says Bushell calmly, adding: ‘and it needed a day to relax.’ A fellow writer enquires if the accompanying samphire is local. ‘No, it’s from Norfolk,’ says chef, head down slightly. Paul Milsom interjects: ‘See, we’ll only call local if it’s really local!’ 
Sail and Dine is available at The Pier, Harwich, one of several events which also includes ‘flicks and chips’ (meal at The Pier then film at Harwich’s 200-capacity Electric Palace, whose patron is Rabness resident, Clive Owen). 
The Milsom Cookbook, featuring the chefs of Le Talbooth, Pier, Milsoms and Kesgrave Hall is published in September (Absolute Press). 
Article is a longer version of one for Hardens.com