Where to find the ‘Seven Good Things of Sussex’
PUBLISHED: 16:16 18 October 2017 | UPDATED: 16:16 18 October 2017
An old folk rhyme celebrates our culinary heritage. Steve Roberts set out to investigate how these unusual delicacies fare in a world of changing tastes
When I volunteered to explore the modern resonance of the famed Seven Good Things of Sussex, I feared I had bitten off more than I could chew. I’m a plain eater, but had landed a two-day culinary road trip sampling up to four fish, two crustaceans and a bird.
The rhyme recalls an England almost lost. The days when a small town had its own local delicacies are largely gone, which is a shame.
The last good thing, the wheatear, is a small, ground-dwelling bird of the chat-thrush family. Bourne refers to Eastbourne, as the birds settle on the downs near here before wintering in Africa. For me, a bird lover, consuming this little chap was something of a deal-breaker.
But people certainly did eat them once. Wheatears were trapped on the downs by shepherds, who sold them to poulterers and hotels. Apparently they were delicious spit-roasted, basted with butter and strewn with breadcrumbs.
So my quest started in search of trout. It’s quite conceivable they could be found in Amberley’s river, the Arun, as the rhyme infers, but I decided to head to Chalk Springs Fishery. It’s in an attractive woodland valley, a few minutes from the centre of Arundel and not far from Amberley.
The fishery was created in 1984 on the site of old watercress beds. It is now one of the premier still-water trout fisheries in England, with some five acres of water fed by natural springs, which keep the lakes crystal-clear throughout the year, ideal for brown and rainbow trout.
I spoke to owner Darren Smith, who has been at Chalk Springs since 1990. The farm supplies trout for four lakes where fly-fishing takes place on day, half-day and evening tickets. Fishermen take their catch home but a few trout are also sold to local pubs. Darren described his work as a “way of life” and on a summer’s day, with the sunlight dappling the water, I entirely understood.
Actually catching a Pulborough eel looked unlikely. I fancy eel was over-fished in days past when our ancestors regarded it as a delicacy. The jellied variety, once beloved of East Londoners, has been on the wane since World War II, whereas the baby elver is now the UK’s most expensive foodstuff. Eel blood is toxic to humans so it is vital to cook the dish properly, although our digestive system also breaks down the toxins. It’s no longer a particularly popular dish, but can be delicious by all accounts.
Pulborough is on the Arun, but you might also find eel in the nearby Adur. I headed for Amberley Castle, now a hotel, about eight miles away, where I found eel on the Sunday lunch menu – smoked, with baby gem, apple and cucumber.
Having got this close to Amberley village (of trout fame) I ventured in, and found an exquisite village dotted with old thatched cottages. The Amberley Village Tea Room is a mother and daughter operation. It being lunchtime, I was seduced by homemade carrot and fennel toast. This was originally the village slaughter house, providing meat for village butchers (note the plurality).
The Arundel mullet can be caught right there, the tides on the river being such that the fish reach the town, where locals are known as ‘Mullets’. There’s an annual Arundel Festival mullet fishing competition in August.
After all the hard work, I needed some evening sustenance. The Swan Hotel, in Arundel’s High Street, fitted the bill, a Grade II Listed pub, a pebble’s lob from the Arun. The Swan did me proud. When I declared what I was up to, I was offered two mullet dishes: red mullet, cider, saffron, mussels and clams, or grey mullet, smoked lemon and basil risotto. The food was delicious and the service impeccable.
I awoke the next day consumed by one burning question: is Chichester still famed for its lobsters? It’s certainly served there: The Jetty at the Chichester Harbour Hotel, in North Street, features local lobster on its menu.
Selsey and its cockle are both mentioned in Ben Jonson’s play, Volpone (Act 2, Scene 1). Fishing has long been Selsey’s ‘raison d’être’, with the local seafood catch featuring on the menus of most pubs and restaurants. I headed for the fishermen’s huts on the East Beach, close to Selsey lifeboat station.
The ladies inside Julie’s Hut, which is open seven days a week, invited me in so I could see some of their amazing looking seafood. The cockles are not from Selsey, but they do have Selsey crab, whelks and lobster. I spotted tubs of cockles (£2) and felt my job was done.
I aborted my search for Rye herring for geographical reasons. I was based over in West Sussex and didn’t fancy the journey to the furthest corner of East Sussex in pursuit of what may have been a red herring (sorry). Anyway, notwithstanding all that, the place to go would be Webbe’s at the Fish Café, where the fish board starter, includes pickled herring. You’ll find them in Tower Street and so will I at some point.
Our culinary tastes are ever-changing, of course, and we could, no doubt, come up with a modern version of the Seven Good Things to suit today’s palate.
I’d be happy to bet that in coastal Sussex fish would still be on the menu but not, perhaps, the beleaguered wheatear.
The Seven Good Things
• Pulborough eel: eels have poor eyesight, but an excellent sense of smell.
• Selsey cockle: about ten cockle species occur in Britain’s coastal waters.
• Chichester lobster: lobsters have blue blood and can live for up to 50 years.
• Rye herring: herring has been a staple food since at least 3,000 BC.
• Arundel mullet: mullet have no connection to the hairstyle popular in the 1980s.
• Amberley trout : rainbow and brown trout have been interbred to produce ‘brownbows’.
• Bourne wheatear: its Latin name is Oenanthe oenanthe (so good they named it twice).
Places to eat and drink
• Eel – Amberley Castle, near Arundel; 01798 831992; www.amberleycastle.co.uk
• Cockle – Julie’s Hut, East Beach, Selsey; 01243 603378
• Lobster – Chichester Harbour Hotel, North Street, Chichester; 01243 778000; www.chichester-harbour-hotel.co.uk
• Herring - Webbe’s at the Fish Café, Tower Street, Rye; 01797 222210; www.webbesrestaurants.co.uk
• Mullet – The Swan Hotel, Arundel; 01903 882314; www.swanarundel.co.uk
• Trout - St Mary’s Gate Inn, Arundel; 01903 883145; www.stmarysgate.co.uk