Nigel Bloxham has a simple mantra – “the fish is the star” he says, but in truth he's a bit of a star himself, running not one but three fish businesses. Seafare Products in Paignton is the longest established, followed by the Crab House Café™ a Wyke Regis, the gateway between Weymouth and Portland Bill, and Fleet Oyster Farm, on the Fleet immediately adjacent to the café.
The café is the showcase for everything else; here you can find crabs, shellfish and the freshest of locally caught fish, oysters harvested from the water just beyond the cafe. This is a paradise for anyone looking for top class fish, expertly cooked in a relaxed setting.
The crabs, when they arrive, are not only huge but are accompanied by a bib, hammer, pick and a pair of claw crackers.
Nigel and his team of chefs have sourced and cooked them – now it's all over to the diner.
For those reluctant to do their own work there are other options, such as mussels from Devon, scallops or fish cakes.
But it is noticeable how many tables are doing it for themselves and all around me children are begging their parents to let them “have a go” too. There can be no better way of getting your customers to interact properly with their food.
Although it is clear that Nigel is passionate about fish and about cooking, calling it “an exasperating, long-winded hobby”, his life has been long connected with fish, fishing, processing and selling it. After training as a Chef in Torquay he found himself in the wet business, selling fresh fish across the country, supplying Keith Floyd as he started his career as a TV chef.
Nigel was one of the first to sell butterflied mackerel fillets, despite being told by colleagues they would never catch on. He then turned to processing and set up Seafare Products to make use of cuttlefish, which he watched rotting on the quay in Brixham.
His hand-cured and marinaded seafood salads and other artisan products are now an international business, but sadly the revival of cuttlefish's fortunes means he is no longer able to source it in Brixham.
When he took over the oyster farm in 2005, there was already a cafe-bistro on site and he saw the combination of the two as the way forward. The café was even simpler then than it is now, a couple of tables inside, a few more outside, a simple fryer and a fan, serving oysters, teas, ice cream and wet fish.
The format had already been recognised by Rick Stein, praising it for its simplicity and charm, and the quality of the oysters.
“We didn’t need to change it very much,” Nigel says. “The essence was right, locally caught fish in the cabinet, you chose your fish and away you went. We had 17 on the first night and thought it was busy – now at the height of the season we can have 117.”
Whilst little of the interior has changed - wooden floors, pictures of oysters and crabs and scrubbed wooden tables – the offer has. The menu changes every day – sometimes twice a day – according to what is available.
Fresh fish comes straight small day boats fishing mostly from Weymouth or Portland, prominently displayed on ice in a counter at the front of the restaurant, the day’s specials are on the blackboards.
The lunchtime menu offers lighter eats along with the shellfish or oysters. The rest of the menu will depend entirely on what has been landed that morning, but will favour inexpensive, less popular fish such as red mullet and black bream, as well as offering cod fillet or monkfish tails.
While there is no meat on the menu, Nigel has options that satisfy most carnivores.
“For non-fish eaters we steer them towards huss or stake because there’s only a bone in the middle,” he explains. “It’s about how we connect people with food, so we serve the huss with a red wine, thyme and bacon sauce – it’s a meaty fish with a sauce they feel comfortable with.”
Clearly Nigel is a man with a mission to get people to eat more fish. He wants his customers to understand the difference between really fresh fish and mediocre fish.
“The attitude to fish is changing hugely,” he says. “It’s a healthy food and a lot of people want to know more about it, but are frightened of it, of cleaning and cooking it. It is such an unknown.
It’s popular with TV chefs, it easy, quick, its fast food, and if you use underrated fish it is cheaper. It doesn’t mean that I only want to eat expensive fish, but you can make those go further.”
Just as a footnote, for those who have any doubts about how shellfish are cooked, Nigel believes that The Crab House Café™ is the only seafood restaurant in the country to use the crustastun, a humane killer for shellfish. While Nigel does not advertise this, he is happy to talk about it to any customer who asks.
OFFERINGS FROM FLEET OYSTER FARM
Oysters have grown and thrived in the Fleet, on and off, for hundreds of years. Nigel took over the oyster farm in early 2005, and day-to-day running is taken care of by his father-in-law, Dave Scott.
It had been running successfully since the late 1980's, but known as Abbotsbury Oysters, which tended to confuse visitors who would look for the oysters at Abbosbury, several miles away down the Fleet.
"We thought it would take nine months to get going, but it took longer, although we've got a good market now," Nigel says.
The oysters - the elongated Pacific or rock oysters, cassostrea gigas - are grown using a unique system of net baskets hung on poles, washed at least four times a day by the rising and falling tides.
"When we came they were being grown in the traditional northern hemisphere way using bags on iron racks," he explains.
"Our system is designed so that the oysters can move more, even in rough weather. It knocks off the surplus shell so they concentrate on meat growth as opposed to shell growth."
This method is also, he says, less labour intensive and produces better oysters, ready for the table within 18 months compared with the three to five years in most other oyster fisheries.
The sea waters flood into the Fleet twice a day, mixing with the fresh water which runs into the Fleet from the chalky Dorset streams, which Nigel says contributes to the oysters' sweet and slightly salty taste.
These plump, meaty oysters are sold as Portland Royals, the biggest, followed by Portland Princesses and then the Portland Bistro, slightly smaller and ideal for cocktails.
The cafe uses up to 1,000 a week at the height of the season, and they are also sold to Harrods and local chefs such as Mark Hix, who uses them in his new restaurant, Hix Oyster and Fish House, in Lyme Regis.
Although the purists may say that oysters are best eaten raw, with a little lemon juice, Nigel offers them in many guises, to encourage more people to try them.
"I would rather eat them cooked than raw, they're soft, creamy and firm," he says.
So he serves them Italiano, with pesto and parmesan, or Country style, with cream and bacon, and he occasionally smokes them.
- Western Morning News - Saturday August 30 2008