Fisherman Sion Williams and fishmonger Mark Gray have championed a revival of local produce from the Llyn peninsula in north Wales – and here they share their tips for enjoying the fruits of the sea.
Reaching out into the waters south of Anglesey, the Llyn peninsula has been inhabited for thousands of years. The Bronze Agers who made homes here knew how to pick a spot for living their best life. Much of the Llyn coast is now designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and as well as being a source of great local pride, its fishing heritage is a significant boon to hungry visitors.
Sion Williams is a fisherman who launches from Porth Colmon, a sheltered cove on the north side of the peninsula. He’s now got a few years on the boat behind him, but he started young – perhaps inevitably, given the salty triumvirate of geography, history and family. “I started fishing seriously when I was 13,” he says. “My brother and I bought an old fishing boat with an even older outboard motor, and we were given a few lobster pots from friends and family. Before that, I used to go out fishing with my father and uncle – I got the bug from a very early age.”
Shellfish is big on the Llyn peninsula, but crews of the small boats here are resourceful, working with the seasons to bring in a range of seafood that spoils local cooks for choice. “My main fishery is lobster and brown crab, but I also fish for whelks, spider crab, velvet crab, bass, mullet, pollack and mackerel, and also some whitefish species when they’re in season,” Williams says. His vessel, the William Stanley, is named after both his grandfathers and is one of a small local fleet that is part of the fabric of the peninsula. “We have about 45 fishing boats, most under 10 metres in length, fishing from small coves and harbours dotted around the Llyn. These small fishing businesses support many other businesses in the area and they’re a huge asset to the tourist industry – many holidaymakers, when they come, enjoy watching us go about our daily routines and buying some of our catch.”
The Welsh catch hasn’t always been valued as it should, Williams says, but appreciation is growing for these local riches. “Over the years a high percentage of our produce has been exported, but recently there’s been an increased effort in promoting and selling our seafood locally. Seafood festivals held in north Wales have proved really popular in showing people what’s available locally and how to cook it, as well as introducing the customer to the producer.” And with online ordering and home delivery available, everyone can take advantage.
When Williams gets his fish into his own kitchen he likes to combine the catch into a comforting classic. “In the wintertime, you can’t beat a robust fish chowder made with pollack, whiting and brown crab with plenty of herbs, spices and double cream.” Dishes like these – and others such as creamy seafood risotto, stuffed cannelloni flashed under the grill, or seafood crepes with chopped dill in the pancake batter – are a great way to combine the earthy sweetness of crab with robust whitefish like pollack and coley – close relations of each other – which are firm and well-behaved in the cooking process.
Williams now sells some seafood directly on his website, but is not the only champion of the Welsh catch. Mark Gray runs The Menai Seafood Company and knows where to get the good stuff (he is, of course, a customer of Williams’s!). He is soon to open a new shop in Penrhyn Port, Bangor, but right now his company is also serving customers via a Seafood Club at themenaiseafoodcompany.co.uk. They have received great feedback from customers who are happy to see such support for Welsh fishing. “The shop will provide an opportunity to sell local whitefish,” he says, “with tanks to hold local lobsters, crabs, mussels and oysters. We’ll sell local finfish such as bass, mackerel and pollack and tell the public about the history of the fishing industry and the port, with a chef doing demonstrations.”
A habitual pan-fryer of whitefish (sometimes the simplest way is the best!), Gray values the work of the local fleet as well as the food they bring in. “Small scale fishing operations like Williams’ have an intimate knowledge of the local environment and they can record data on commercial, protected and invasive species, and pollution. They’re also important to their coastal communities, so their work is really valuable.”
Job satisfaction is rarer than it should be, but working off the Llyn peninsula feels pretty good to Williams. “What I like mainly about my work is the freedom to be my own boss and reap the rewards of my own hard work. Every day is different with weather and the changing seasons and you never know what you’re going to catch from one day to the next. The not knowing is one of the attractions of the job – the next big catch is always around the corner.”