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EAT! In food festival kicks off and has a number of events to take a bite out of

It’s time to come out of your shell and get your claws into one of the Eat! In festival’s more unusual dining events

It’s a name that could probably only have been dreamt up over a few pints – and definitely one you’ll have trouble pronouncing after one too many.

The Crustacean Appreciation Association is something of a mouthful to say without getting your tongue in a twist.

But if your tastes veer towards edible aquatic arthropods, it’s a foodie morsel you’ll undoubtedly want to get your teeth into.

The group (and yes, its handle was dreamed up over a few glasses of real ale) is the brainchild of well-known North East chef Graeme Cuthell of Irvins Brasserie fame and food consultant and former Belle and Herb café proprietor, Sam Storey.

It’s officially launching on February 20 at Graeme’s award-winning restaurant on North Shields Fish Quay.

The Crustacean Appreciation Association (or CAA from now on) Feast is one of the more quirky and eye-catching fringe events taking place as part of the 10-day Eat! In food and drink festival.

Eat! In is the new winter offering from Eat! NewcastleGateshead. It follows on from the success of last summer’s Eat! Out, which celebrated the nation’s love of al fresco dining.

Rather than dish everything up at once the Eat! organising committee – of which Sam is one – decided in 2014 to do their version of a progressive meal, albeit with a near six month break between courses.

If the summer event was the light and airy starter, then the new winter festival is definitely the heartier, cosier main option.

Eat! In kicks-off on February 20 too with a packed programme, including a new take on the already popular Secret Paladares, an immersive Drink Along Movie experience in the lavish world of the Great Gatsby, and a Medieval Lanten feast at Newcastle’s Saint Nicholas Cathedral, among the many highlights food connoisseurs have to look forward to.

Dressed crab at Irvins North Shields fish quay
Dressed crab at Irvins North Shields fish quay

Another of which, of course, will be the unveiling down river from Newcastle-Gateshead, of the CAA.

Diners at the CAA’s inaugural meeting are being promised a fun and filling night to remember that hopefully won’t leave them too shell shocked.

The winter weather, and therefore supply permitting, Graeme is planning to serve up a five course spread featuring crabs, lobsters, shrimp and langoustines plucked fresh by the North Shields’ fishing fleet from the frigid deep and landed just yards from his restaurant.

There will be drink, live acoustic music and no doubt jokes aplenty as the evening wears on, of the ‘seafood and eat it’ kind, to reel guests in. Exactly what form this fishy frivolity is set to take is being kept a closely guarded secret by Sam, but it will probably be best to go along with an open mind and to expect the unexpected.

And at the end of the night everyone who’s attended will go home with free membership of the Crustacean Appreciation Association.

Sam’s toying with the idea of bestowing special CAA badges on members. There may even be a snappy secret lobster handshake involved.

There will definitely be invites to future CAA gatherings at Irvins Brasserie, however, if the idea catches on.

It is, says Graeme, “all a bit of light hearted fun, a chance for people to get together and enjoy fantastic food in convivial surroundings.”

But behind the humour there is a series message.

North Shields Fish Quay was once one of the busiest places in the area thanks to the Customs House, shipping office and sailors’ home, with chandlers, grocers, fruiterers and butchers all catering to private trade as well as the fishermen.

There were 158 inns and taverns in the lower town on the fish quay, and in the 1930s around 300 people were employed in the smokehouses alone.

Records show that in 1911, 50 trains a day were transporting fish from Tynemouth Station heading to Newcastle, the wider North East and beyond.

And in 1936 at least 70 trawlers called North Shields home.

Lobsters at Irvins North Shields fish quay
Lobsters at Irvins North Shields fish quay

Now there are only a handful of colourfully painted boats moored in the harbour, and much of the shellfish landed when the weather is kind to the fishermen still plying their trade and auctioned at the quayside fish market, ends up not in the hands of local restaurateurs and consumers but on dinner plates thousands of miles away.

This dramatic change in affairs is the main reason that Sam and Graeme were inspired to launch the CAA.

“The fish quay is a really big place for langoustines and prawns, but the vast majority landed end up going abroad,” Sam says, shaking his head. “Quite often when you’re down on the fish quay you will see these fork lift trucks trundling past loaded with boxes of ice. Well, they’ll be full of langoustines heading abroad.”

Graeme adds: “The upshot is that we should all be eating more seafood. The quantities of langoustines that are heading to France every week is unbelievable.

“There are plenty of crabs landed here on the fish quay, but how often would you go into a restaurant in Newcastle and see a locally caught crab on the menu?”

Graeme and Sam, who are both passionate local food advocates, feel part of the answer is to encourage people to fall back in love with seafood and to encourage them to use what is a fantastic resource on their doorstep.

Rather than buying what may well be imported fish from their local supermarket, Sam says people should be encouraged to instead head for their local fishing port, be it North Shields, Seahouses, Amble or Hartlepool.

“I am a huge fan of North Shields Fish Quay,” he states. “It has such a lot going for it. There’s the lovely little fish quay beach which is a fabulous place to skim stones. Then there’s the walk down the River Tyne from where you can see all the ships coming and going and the cross river ferry.

“Afterwards you can go and get a bag of chips and sit on the quayside and look at the view or watch the catches being landed.

“I think the fish quay is such an undervalued area. There is so much going on and such a lot to see. And then, of course, you have all that fabulous fish.

“There are several really good fishmongers. Taylor Seafood is fantastic and they do a great deal where you can get a £5 box of fish. It offers up so many meal possibilities.

“It’s an excellent place for cooked crabs. What could be better than sitting on the beach eating cooked crab claws?

“For me there is nowhere like the fish quay in the North East.”

Yet while people love to visit and stroll along the waterside or dine out in one of the plethora of restaurants and fish and chip shops that have opened along Union Quay and Bell Street in recent years, the vast majority don’t come to buy the very thing that helped put North Shields on the map: seafood.

Chef Graeme Cuthell at Irvins North Shields fish quay
Chef Graeme Cuthell at Irvins North Shields fish quay

Many fortunes were made, though, on the back of the fishing industry, not least Richard Irvin, whose fleet of more than 90 steam-powered trawlers fished the local waters and were the envy of the world’s fleets.

He gave his name to the Irvin building from where Graeme now runs his spacious brasserie specialising in hearty meat and fish dishes.

It was Richard’s son, George, who was sent to South Africa in 1902 to see whether there might be an opportunity for his family to expand their business interests into the colonies.

In 1907 George Irvin joined forces with a Swede named Carl Johnson. Together they set up the pioneering fishing company of Irvin and Johnson in Cape Town, a successful business which still exists to this day.

If he were alive, George would be shocked to see that the once vibrant fishing industry is but a shadow of what he would have grown-up with in North Shields.

It’s the scandal of the modern age that as a legacy of the 1970s ‘Cod Wars’ coupled with EU legislation, most British caught fish now ends up on foreign tables, while those visiting UK fish and chip shops will be eating imported haddock or cod from Norway, Denmark or Iceland.

And as regards lobsters, crabs and langoustines, Graeme says people either no longer know how to eat them, aren’t prepared to pay the often exorbitant prices charged or can’t get hold of what they want.

But it is a Catch-22. If there is no demand locally, then the fishermen who go out all in weathers to bring the catch of the day in, will sell elsewhere. “If you are only going to get £10 a kilo around here but can get £14 a kilo in London, then what are you going to do?,” Graeme says.

“And if the consumer can get a Canadian lobster cheaper than a British one, then that’s what they’ll buy.

“But if the demand for locally caught crustaceans goes up then more will stay in this area because there is a ready market and the price will come down.

“That’s one of the reasons behind the Crustacean Appreciation Association. The starting point is that it is all about having some fun and a good time. But hopefully we can build on that and make the public more aware of how much wonderful shellfish and crustaceans we have within our reach.”

Chef Graeme Cuthell and Sam Storey at Irvins North Shields fish quay
Chef Graeme Cuthell and Sam Storey at Irvins North Shields fish quay

* The Crustacean Appreciation Association Feast takes place on February 20 as part of Eat! In, at Irvins Brasserie, North Shields, NE30 1HJ, from 7.30pm. Tickets for the five course meal cost £45. The book go to www.irvinsbrasserie.co.uk

For more information on this year’s Eat! In festival and the many other food and drink events taking place between February 20 and March 1, go to www.eatnewcastlegateshead.com or following on Facebook at www.Facebook.com/EATNG

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