Essex Whelks, Essex
North Norfolk and the Thames Estuary are the best whelk grounds in Britain, though they can be found all around the coast, and off Yorkshire there is an important whelk fishery too. They were and are mainly considered as ‘just’ the food of the urban poor, either shipped inland to our industrial cities or consumed by the seaside on day trips or for the better off, during a whole week away. Freshly caught and simply boiled in salt water, if the whelks are in good condition they are delicious, a meatier and chewier version of lobster – well, almost.
The whelk, which is just a big edible sea snail, is a little regarded resource as far as most British cooks are concerned, even Rick Stein not being that keen. They find their way onto seafood platters in some restaurants, but even there feature little. Treated a bit more adventurously, however, they can be excellent: I have eaten them grilled over coals and then served with a chilli sauce in Taiwan; the Koreans and Japanese go for them too, for their texture as much as flavour.
Southend is the British place most associated with the whelk, bought from stalls on the front. ‘He couldn’t run a whelk stall’ being in common parlance, indicating even selling much desired product from a tiny outlet is beyond somebody’s capacity, gives an idea of their popularity at coastal resorts. Once a serving of whelks, doused in sharp malt vinegar and a bit of salt, was part of a day at the seaside for Londoners just as much as a go on the dodgems and a walk on the pier. Southend’s more genteel neighbour, Leigh-on-Sea, has its celebrated sheds selling whelks along with cockles and mussels for the discerning customer.