THERE’S a delightful fresh-from-the-sea aroma that greets you as you walk through the door of Latimer’s seafood deli and cafe in Whitburn, South Tyneside.
And then you see the counter packed full of fishy goodies and it is truly a sight for sore eyes if you’re a fish lover.
The super-fresh display features everything from langoustines, cold water prawns, dressed crab and brown crabs jostling for space with wild sea bass, haddock, monkfish, local red mullet, giant skate, squid, John Dory and flat-as-a-pancake turbot, Dover sole, plaice and halibut.
When I meet Robert Latimer, the man at the helm of the independent family-run fishmongers, he declines for obvious reasons, to shake hands! For which I’m rather grateful.
The 44-year-old former fisherman and fish farmer, with his twinkly blue eyes and boyish looks, is dressed in his sturdy stripy pinny that means business.
And he’s gearing up to fillet a huge 13kg halibut for a supper club and demo being held in the deli that evening.
I can’t help thinking he looks remarkably bright-eyed for someone who’s been up since 2.30am that morning collecting his fishy haul. Must be all the fish he consumes!
He says: “I was at Blyth at 3.15am and then North Shields and then back here. I sometimes then have another run up to Boulmer.”
The job is really all-consuming, as Robert admits to being up and down the North East coast, seven days a week, stocking up.
“Apart from the Shetland mussels and warm water prawns and a few other things, over 90% of what I sell is local. Most of it is from Northumberland, landed from day boats, that is to say, boats that go out and come back the same day. It’s so much fresher. They use one net, it’s single use, they’re out and then back.
“It’s a great time of year. Everything’s in peak condition.
“Supermarkets cannot touch us for freshness.”
Robert, who has won several awards, including Best Local Retailer in the BBC Radio 4 Food and Farming Awards, and also Best Independent Seafood Retailer, says: “I enjoy seeing the boats, I love the changing seasons.
“You never know what you are going to get. It’s so different.
“I’m proud to support the local fishermen. If you had seen them going out of the piers at Blyth...
“We don’t support them enough. We should be proud of what we’ve got here.
“Most of the langoustines and fish go to France.”
Robert’s seafood business, which also has its own on-site smokery, is 10 years old, and located on the cutely named Shell Hill at Whitburn, a crab’s claw away from the seashore.
But many will recall the fish emporium used to be a petrol station, which in an odd quirk, used to sell some of Robert’s fishy haul.
“We’re sitting in the pick-and-mix aisle,” he jokes.
“My grandad built the garage using sand and gravel off the beach. I was born in the bungalow next door.”
Robert now lives with his wife Ailsa and twin daughters, Isla and Freya, aged three, “over the shop”.
“My nana used to run the petrol station, my dad used to have a haulage business. And I used to sell wild salmon in the garage.
“We started stocking more and more fish in the garage and then the petrol went.”
Robert used to work as a fish farmer on the west coast of Scotland in Argyll, south of Oban.
“I used to run a salmon fish farm in Loch Fyne. Then I fished. I bought a boat from Sunderland and we creeled for crab, langoustines, lobster and scallops on the west coast of Scotland, between Jura and Scarba.”
He describes it as “rich pickings”.
“The quotas had a big effect on what we were doing, though, which brought us back here. We couldn’t catch enough to make it viable.
“Home’s home – and I came back. I wanted to come back home because I’ve got fishermen friends at Boulmer, Blyth and Whitby.
“We thought we’d start off with crab, lobsters, wild salmon and shellfish but the demand just grew and grew.
“We now sell a tonne of crab a week, mostly from Boulmer and Eyemouth.”
Robert also supplies Terry Laybourne’s 21 Hospitality Group restaurants and also Jesmond Dene House. “I rang Terry last night and told him we had wild bass, gurnards and langoustines. It’s all dependent on the catch and about working with the chefs.”
And Robert has recently branched out with his supper club and lunchtime events, which are held in the cafe space.
The café, which is only open at weekends for hot drinks at the moment, also has an outdoor decking area which lends itself very nicely to the themed suppers and lunches in the summer time.
He says: “The biggest thing at the moment is the demos we’re doing with the supper clubs. We started them in the summer and they have really taken off.
“The demos accommodate 20 to 30 people in the café area. I do the prep, explain about the fish where it’s from, why we’ve chosen that fish.
“It’s themed around the seasons and it’s all local stuff.”
The lunches and suppers cost from £20 to £40 per person and include a demo and two courses.
The supper club being held that night was dedicated to crab and halibut, the former from Boulmer, the latter from the Farne Deeps landed in Blyth.
This is where roving chef Anthony Brown comes in, who’s making his name with his pop-up restaurants.
The 30-year-old from County Durham used to work as a chartered surveyor, but is now dishing up at pop-up restaurants and supper clubs being held in venues as diverse as Broom House Farm, Biddick Hall and the Lambton estate, County Durham.
And, of course, the supper clubs and lunchtime gatherings at Latimer’s. Anthony explains: “Robert does the fishmongery and then I do some recipes and then a two-course meal.
“It’s really caught people’s imaginations. Diners know the product from Latimer’s is super fresh, I make tasty dishes and it’s not over-formal.
“We think about seasonality all the time with the demos. We did four weeks of lobsters recently and people were like ‘wow’.
“The fish is plump and fit and so fresh. That’s something to celebrate. You get to eat the best fish at the right times.
“It’s a chef’s dream working with super-fresh produce. I’m really passionate about local produce, about using and finding the quality local ingredients. And seeing that counter is magnificent!”
Last word goes to Robert, who adores all fish. And his favourites? “We are eating lots of haddock at the moment, and squid and scallops. I’m a big scallops fan.
“But then I love herrings in June.”
For more info on Latimer’s lunch and supper club dates, visit www.latimers.com or email Anthony Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org