Something deliciously fishy in Mersea

Ben Woodcraft started out in the fishing business collecting sacks of winkles on the Essex backwaters. Today he delivers top of the range, just-caught fish straight from our coastal waters direct to some of the top restaurants in London - and all from a converted barn on Mersea Island.

Victoria Hawkins

Ben Woodcraft started out in the fishing business collecting sacks of winkles on the Essex backwaters. Today he delivers top of the range, just-caught fish straight from our coastal waters direct to some of the top restaurants in London - and all from a converted barn on Mersea Island.

TONIGHT someone will be sitting down in the swanky much-lauded Locanda Locatelli restaurant in London's West End and ordering a scrummily delicious fresh fillet of wild sea bass, baked in salt and herb crust. And it'll cost. The chef here, Giorgio Locatelli, is Michelin-starred, and the price of this one dish won't give much change from £30.

Over at the famous River Café on Thames Path (the one where Jamie Oliver rose to fame) a similar fish, this time baked in a bag with porcini, trevise, thyme and Vermouth with Italian spinach would set you back a cool £28. And there's often a nice herb-baked sea trout with porcini mushrooms, Heritage potatoes, Chianti and sage on the menu at Jamie's own restaurant 15, which is not far from Liverpool Street station.

What the diners won't know is that the bass and sea trout on their plates were, likely as not, still swimming off the East Anglian coast yesterday, or maybe even today before being caught, sold, packed in ice and driven down to London earlier this evening straight from Ben's Fish on Mersea Island in Essex. And you can't get much fresher than that.

In the hallowed world of five-star fish, Ben Woodcraft is a bit of a star. For someone who started out in the business harvesting sacks of winkles, he now rates many a top notch metropolitan restaurant among his customers. He even sells fish to St John Bar and Restaurant, just around the corner from Spitalfields which has been named tenth best restaurant in the world.

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A fisherman for 20 years, Ben eventually gave up his boats and nets to concentrate on wholesaling and now sends two vans out every night from Mersea Island to do the rounds of some of the top-rated gourmet kitchens in the world.

He's a soft-spoken unassuming chap, with smiley eyes, who knows exactly where he's going - having set up his wholesale business in the Grade II listed barn that he also renovated himself. Future plans include opening a cookery school in another building, which his wife will run and they fully intend to lure top chefs out of their London kitchens to do the teaching. Of course, he knows them well.

“And luckily my bank manager is into a bit of cooking, which is quite handy. He quite likes the idea.”

Wearing his customary work white overalls and wellies, he sits upstairs in his office, which affords fabulous views across the flatlands outside and tells his story. He was brought up on the river at Heybridge Basin in Essex and while his father was a merchant seaman, the menfolk in the family before him had all worked on the river.

“I always wanted to be a fisherman for some reason and as my grandfather and great grandfather were wildfowlers and fishermen, which was part of they way they got their living, it was in the blood a little bit. I loved the river, I love sailing, I have always worked on the river and never wanted to work in a mundane job.

“I started off my career picking up winkles in the River Blackwater and then taking them into London to sell in Billingsgate, places like that. Sometimes we would get ten hundredweight, that would take about three or four hours but you would get two or three sacks on an ordinary day.

“You find winkles in different places near low tide and we'd just pick them up, scoop them into buckets and tip them into sacks and then come along in a boat or dinghy later and pick them up, as the tide came in. They are quite heavy! That's how I started; then I used to catch fish and got different boats and bigger boats… biggest one I had was just over 30ft and called Jubilee Queen, which was built in the Queen's Jubilee year in 1977 and was like a small trawler type, a netter. That was in West Mersea.

“We'd catch everything from sea bass, grey mullet, Dover soles, quite close in and then we used to go fairly well out in the Thames Estuary. There's lots of sea bass here still and locally we are rich in skate and Dover soles, there's a lot of them, and things like grey mullet. There used to be cod in the winter but not really now and you get sprats and herring in the winter too but the market for them has gone really, there is just is not the demand for herring.

“I got into selling fish by accident really. I used to sell my own fish and then started selling other people's. My partner Amanda, who is now my wife, who comes from London and worked there knew some people in the London restaurant trade and we met others through friends really. She said, you are mad selling to traders, why don't you try and sell your fish direct to restaurants rather than someone else?

“It started on a small scale, selling fish to a couple of pretty prestigious London restaurants. One of my first customers was the River Café; a friend of mine knew Rose Gray and we started to sell her what we were catching, like sea bass, and then through word of mouth we picked up a few more and within a year we had about ten customers. I was still fishing then and didn't have any premises and used to just take the fish straight from the boat.

“When we first started that we lived on Osea Island, up the top of the Blackwater. I had met Amanda at a party on a barge in Maldon 13 years ago. She had seen an advert in the Sunday Times for a 'house to rent on remote Essex island' which turned out to be Osea and all her London friends thought she was mad! To get there you go across another causeway, which is literally a track across the mud. It's not like here in Mersea - there is a proper road to get over here!

“Is Mersea like a huge place in comparison to Osea? Oh god yeah! It's like a metropolis here, Osea Island has like 14 people living there and it is cut off by the tide most of the time. There are no shops or anything like that so you had to make sure you had got everything you need.

“Here on this island we've got West Mersea, a little town which has got a bank, a Co-op and other shops and East Mersea, where we are now, is quite rural. East Mersea is nice and the views here are fantastic, you can see miles and miles from the office. Straight ahead is France, that way slightly, Holland!

“After we met I moved to Osea and went fishing and started my business from there and as that grew we had our first little son come along and moved off the island again and back to Mersea. I'll be 50 next year, I am getting on a bit and Ned is now 11, Paddy is nine, and our little girl Tess is five.

“Amanda did work in the film business so yes, we may be a strange couple to have come together. She was a costume designer and used to do all the clothes, mainly for ads and also videos with pop stars, so she's dressed lots of famous people. She'll see someone on the TV and go 'I dressed them' but she doesn't namedrop, only to me.

“It's a different world for her here but she loves the outdoors and she's into cooking and she does cook a lot of fish, yes. She loves it. I told her she only married me for the ingredients!

Two years ago though the barn, just down the road from where he lives, was literally falling down. “I totally brought it back from the dead. It took five months and when I first got it and put scaffolding up inside, you could see right through both sides. We stripped off the old iron roof and replaced it with red tiles and created almost a building inside a building. It is all insulated and there is now a big prep room, where we prepare and pack the fish. At one end there is a great big cold room and at the other, a little office where we do most of the sales. Upstairs there is a large sort of admin office.

“It's got all the original timbers; once I got it all empty and stripped back I got it all treated to kill any worms and beetle and it's is a beautiful building, we saved it really.”

So is his bank manager into barns as well? “Well, I was amazed. The first time I brought him and his senior guy down here to show him this falling down dilapidated barn I thought he was going to say to me, 'you must be mad' but he said 'you must buy it'.

“As much as possible we sell local fish from here - it comes by road from West Mersea, Lowestoft, Walton, Harwich and the like and I also deal with Richard Haward Oysters on Mersea Island - Colchester Natives as they are called. I meet all the fishermen and either our vehicles pick them up or they bring it here. We have to buy in some fish from Scotland and abroad because I now supply 50 or 60 restaurants in London.

“And there is quite a mark up by the time it's on the plate but if you have got a Michelin star… My wife went to Locanda Locatelli for a meal and you can pay £300 or 400 for a bottle of wine in there! There have been lots of new London restaurants in the last ten years that are famous now and we do quite a few gastro pubs there as well.

“And there are places like Jamie Oliver's 15. Of course, I knew him from the River Café, that's him up there in a photograph on the wall with me and my son taken in Mersea. It was when he was still thin! It's quite funny because when I first supplied the River Café, he was just one of the junior chefs but he was quite friendly and then when they did this programme about the River Café he was spotted by one of the TV people, who thought he'd be a good guy to make a programme about.

“Then they made that first Naked Chef programme and he never looked back really and good luck to him.”

With his fish going down a storm in the capital Ben said: “Funny thing is, I only really have a few local customers. They include The Thorn in Mistley, The Sun at Dedham and the George and the Dragon out near Coggeshall, plus one or two little pubs, but because I started in London I expanded there and that's where the business is really.

“Our vans leave here at five o'clock every night and have a circuit that they do, so if you are eating in a smart restaurant you can be eating a fish that has been fished and come off the boat almost that day. That's why we are so successful and have pinched business from the big London fish merchants. It's the quality rather than anything else. Some restaurant people expect you to have everything on all the time. But I stick to what I do and being stubborn I'll say this is what we've got today, if there isn't any more you'll have to wait until they catch some more tomorrow, whereas these big fish merchants pile it high and then the quality goes because obviously you hold on to some older stock all the time.

“Ninety per cent of the restaurants have it all delivered - the dream is that they would like to go to the market and choose it all themselves but they have too much to do.”

Ben is still into boats but it is mostly of the sailing variety now. He is currently working on one of his boy's toys - a fine wooden Norfolk sailing boat - which is being rubbed down in one of his outbuildings. He is also into racing.

“I have always loved sailing and have sailed since I was a kid. One of the first boats I ever had was a West Mersea Sprite, a traditional clinker built boat, made in West Mersea. There are none there now though there is a big fleet of them at the Blackwater Sailing Club in Maldon. I also used to sail traditional fishing smacks but now I race just dinghies, really, with the kids. They are my mid life crisis. Some people get a sports car, don't they?”

He's obviously a contented and satisfied man who loves his life.

A tail is tantalisingly just visible poking out of a polystyrene box. Opening the lid, there lying on a bed of crushed ice is a huge locally caught sea bass. “Now that's beautiful,” said Ben, “it was probably caught yesterday and he'll be on somebody's table tonight!”

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