The Whelk: A Victorian Superfood Revival?
Whatever happened to the humble whelk? When I told friends of mine that I was doing a project on whelks, I was met with blank expressions; very few knew what they were, none had tried one. Several had a vague idea of whelks being something found on rocks or knew that they were some kind of slimy sea creature.
And yet I’m sure if I had asked people from older generations, the outcome would have been different. For whelks were popular once. In fact, food journalist Gareth May claimed recently that whelks were the “Victorian equivalent of the doner kebab”(May, 2014). Sold out of wheelbarrows in poorer areas of London such as Whitechapel and Lambeth, they served as a popular street food, especially after an evening of heavy gin consumption.
Admittedly, it doesn’t seem too likely that whelks will replace all those popular carby options and regain their status as the go-to drunken snack. Nevertheless, there has been a push recently to get whelks back onto menus. In 2014, the Pommery Dorset Seafood Festival promoted whelk-consumption with their ‘Great British Whelk Revival’ stand, featuring novel whelk recipes, talks about the whelk and even whelk shell painting. The chefs involved claimed that whelks are delicious when cooked properly and event director Brian Cooper expressed his frustration that “the UK lands over 10,000 tonnes of whelks each year” and yet we still continue to export about “95%” to the Far East (where they are a relatively sought-after food, particularly in South Korea). Cooper announced that “We need to highlight this amazing source of whelks on our doorstep…plentiful, low in calories, high in protein and containing over 10 times the amount of vitamin B12 than beef, whelks should be back on British menus and flying off fishmongers’ counters” (Wallis, 2014).
So, clearly there is good reason to promote a revival of the whelk. But how likely is it that whelks will indeed resurface in a big way? I decided to track down some restaurants which do sell whelks and find out what their chefs have to say on the matter. In the whole of London, I was only able to find 3 restaurants with whelks on their menu: the first was Sichuan-Folk, a small Chinese restaurant on Brick Lane, the second was Ark Fish, a family-run fish restaurant in South Woodford and finally, there was Randall & Aubin, a slightly more expensive and modern-feeling seafood restaurant situated in the heart of Soho. Ark Fish and Randall & Aubin agreed to be interviewed.
Randall & Aubin Restaurant
At Randall & Aubin, I spoke to head chef John Murphy as well as chef and co-owner Ed Baines who opened Randall & Aubin with Jamie Poulton, in 1996. R&A has always sold whelks. They source them from a company called Ocean Fleet in Brixham.
Ark Fish Restaurant
At Ark Fish, I spoke with (camera-shy) Mark Farrell, chef and owner of the restaurant since it opened in 2003. He tells me Ark Fish has always sold whelks. He buys them at Billingsgate and they come from Kent.
Do whelks sell/who do they appeal to?
Mark included whelks on the Ark Fish menu because he wanted to offer a broad range of seafood. He says that they are not ordered a lot but that they do sell. Normally “about 6 kilos a week”. John from Randall & Aubin claims that people come to Randall & Aubin primarily for the oysters. Last night, “only 1 person” ordered whelks. But Ed hastened to add that sometimes at the weekend you might get a few people actually coming into the restaurant because they’ve spotted whelks on the menu.
Both Mark and John talk about whelks being a nostalgia food which appeals much more to the older generation. Mark claims that ‘you don’t get many young people trying them’ and that the people who order them tend to be those who ate them as kids. “It’s very old school to eat whelks”, John tells me. Both restaurants also make reference to the origin of whelks as an East-End working-class food.
Mark confesses he isn’t too keen on whelks: they’re “very chewy…and the big ones are absolutely vile”. Ed on the other hand loves the whelk. He claims it isn’t solely the older generation who like whelks and compared whelks to “Marmite”: A lot of people hate them but “the people that like them really love them”, they’ll think “ooh they sell whelks there” and “they’ll come track ’em down”. He tells me that the Brazilian manager at R&A loves them as do a lot of cabbies. He also adds that American film-star Antonio Fargas, famous for playing the role of “Huggy Bear” in the TV series “Starsky and Hutch” was a huge fan of the whelk. Whilst working in a West End stage show, he used to come into the restaurant “every day for a plate of whelks!”
A lot of Chinese people will also come to R&A to eat whelks. John attributes this partly to the restaurant’s location, just minutes away from Chinatown, but also to cultural differences: People from China and South Korea tend to be more “adventurous” in their eating habits. Brits on the other hand are “squeamish” when it comes to food. We get stuck in our ways and stick to the food we know.
Potential for a Revival?
With Ed drawing the Marmite comparison and his claim to fame of “Huggy Bear”, I began to feel hopeful about the possibility of a whelk revival: Yes, Marmites not for everyone, but then again, a lot of people sure do love it. Certainly it shows that people didn’t stop eating whelks due to indifference.
Yet when I asked the 3 chefs explicitly if they thought there was potential for a whelk revival, they all gave me a flat-out “no”. And I sensed little hesitation in their voices.
In both restaurants, the chefs put this partly down to the problematic appearance of the whelk. Mark explained, ‘they don’t look the part…people turn their noses up before they’ve even tried them. Ed told me that ‘people have become very sanitised about food’ and while South Koreans are less easily fazed, in Britain people find the ‘snail-like’ resemblance of whelks off-putting. Moreover, perceptions of whelks as slimy and chewy are totally widespread. The general consensus from both restaurants was that whelks have got stuck with a bad reputation and the chances of them shaking it off are minimal. While Mark agreed with others about the overly-chewy nature of the whelk, Ed and John claimed that this is an unfair representation and expressed frustration about ‘people not knowing how to cook them properly’. Ed explained you’ve got to ‘boil them gently for around 4 hours’ to soften them. Yet, regardless of whether or not chewiness is inherent to the whelk, its appearance and perceived chewiness prevents people from wanting to try it. So it becomes a vicious cycle in which they are denied the opportunity to shake off this bad reputation.
It seems that whelks don’t appeal to a wide enough audience to make a comeback. As John put it, they are ‘too much of an acquired taste’ and even Ed, despite being a strong advocate for the tastiness of the whelk, expressed surprise at the appearance of whelks on the menu of Colbert, a restaurant in Sloane Square. He remembered thinking ‘they won’t sell, not to the Chelsea crowd’. He explained that whelks tend to appeal much more to ‘the working-class man’ and those who were brought up eating them. Yet nowadays, extremely few people are brought up eating whelks so this doesn’t sound promising for their culinary future.
Both restaurants claimed that there’s certainly enough of a demand to keep whelks on the menu. But not enough for them to make a comeback in a big way. Mark was the most pessimistic of the three men, concluding that they are essentially ‘a dying thing’.
A final thought
At the Dorset Seafood Festival, Nigel Bloxham, a chef heavily involved in ‘The Great British Whelk Revival’ announced, “The stigma behind the whelk is that it’s chewy and not very nice looking…I urge people to try it again; you’ll be converted” (May, 2014). During my time at Ark Fish, Mark was horrified to discover that, despite conducting an entire interview on the little mollusc, I had in fact never even tried a whelk. He insisted I eat one immediately and I must admit, I certainly wasn’t converted. Yet if we stick by Ed’s Marmite analogy, then that’s not to say you wouldn’t consider it a tasty treat.
However, judging by the speed and certainty with which all three chefs dismissed the suggestion, perhaps Gareth May was being slightly optimistic when he declared, “don’t tell the oyster but we could be on the cusp of a whelk revolution”.
May, G. (2014) “Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable- so why did we stop eating them in the UK?” in Independent: Lifestyle- Food & Drink
Wallis, A. (2014) “Willkomen, Bienvenue, Whelkome” in Dorset Seafood festival: Latest News (http://www.dorsetseafood.co.uk/news/article/?news=22)