In 1877 the Great Eastern Railway reached Cromer. It brought with it holidaymakers who fell in love with the picturesque seaside resort on the North Norfolk coast.
Cromer was unusual, for every incoming visitor there was an outgoing local – with a one way ticket. Cromer crabs bound for Billingsgate and the restaurants of Europe were transformed from a local product into a £2m per year delicacy, with an international reputation.
Small but perfectly formed
Theoretically Cromer crabs are the same brown crabs that are caught all around the coast of Britain. In practice everyone knows they are unique.
Crab fisherman David Chalmers explains why: ‘our crabs are bursting with flavour. They live in shallow water on chalk beds - there’s something unique about the environment around here. It’s incredibly productive. Other crabs don’t have as much meat and they doesn’t taste so sweet.’
The special nature of a Cromer crab isn’t a matter of opinion, it’s recognised in law. The minimum legal shell span of Cromer crab (115mm) is smaller than any other UK crab – Cromer crabs really are little bombs of flavour.
Crab crash at Cromer
When, in 2011, Youngs Seafood closed its crab and fish processing plant in Cromer causing 230 redundancies, there was a public outcry. But not even local hero Stephen Fry, the King of Q.I., could hold back the tide of economic reality. Cromer lost the work and the future of the crab fishing industry looked bleak.
Competition or cooperation
Let’s get one thing straight – you don’t become a crab fisherman if you fancy yourself in a suit, don’t mind getting stuck on clogged motorways and can think of no better place to pass the time than the water cooler, talking office politics. David Chambers’ son, Jim, who has a just taken over as skipper on a new boat explains as he stores pots: ‘it’s hard work, all weathers, all times, a lot of people try it, they last a couple of months and can’t stick it. I’ve known it catch on with newcomers,’ he adds with a chuckle, ‘but it helps if you’re born to it. You have to take the knocks and carry on.’
In response to the processing plant’s closure a proposal was put to 51 crab fishermen who work in the Cromer area in 2012 – one that might provide secure work and build the brand. Wouldn’t it be great if the name Cromer Crab was protected under the European regulations designed to protect geographic indications, authenticating great food products – like Parma ham? The answer didn’t exactly fizz with enthusiasm.
Fishermen don’t like red tape, they see more of it than most of us. The idea of actually volunteering for more struck many as lunacy. After all, wasn’t the success of Cromer’s crabs based on their own dedication, knowledge, hard work and that of their forefathers – not a bureaucracy? The fishermen rejected the proposal by a whopping majority of 49 votes to 6. One of those 6 was David Chambers.
Crab fishermen are twice as smart most of us because they must understand two species: people and crabs. For consumers, supermarkets and restaurateurs all over Europe, a sign identifying a little brown crab as belonging to the unique tribe that splashes around off the coast of Cromer would strike a chord.
‘If we can guarantee a crab is caught, landed and processed in this area I believe we’ll secure the fishery for ever,’ says David Chambers.
‘Cromer Crab is a premium product and we need the public to believe in it. Firstly, we’ve got to define exactly what a Cromer Crab is. Secondly, we need to ensure that all crabs sold under that name are caught, landed and prepared here. That’s what the public expect.’ Two years after the first rejection, he’s ready to try again.
Persuading the fisherman of North Norfolk to define and protect their product won’t be easy. The debate as to how farmers, fishermen and groups of manufactures throughout the regions of the UK can best cooperate over their shared assets is fierce and frequent. Britain is under-represented in the charts of protected designation of origin (PDO), protected geographical indication (PGI), and traditional specialities guaranteed (TSG). A home grown solution for the Cromer Crabbers is also available. For UK wide protection the crab fishermen could seek to register a Collective or Certificate mark.