The Ormer, Jersey
The Channel Islands inevitably have major differences in their cuisine compared to mainland Britain. Most of those differences are the result of history; but one part of their food culture – the ormer - dear to the hearts of many islanders and which mainlanders cannot match results from a difference of habitat: this large mollusc finds waters north of the Channel Islands too cold for comfort.
The ormer or ear-shell is not just a delicacy in Jersey etc: in California they call it the abalone; in Japan the awabi. Related to the limpet it shares that creature’s rock clinging ability.
Overfishing in the 19th and early 20th centuries led to occasional bans (1924 to 1926 for example); and in 1999 a bacterial attack on the species killed many, but they have recovered sufficiently for the authorities to permit again – subject to stringent rules – the gathering of the haliotis tuberculata (ormer sounds far more enticing). These rules include: no diving or snorkelling for them; no shucking them on the beach; size limits (they grow to maximum 12cm across at the widest part of the shell, and recently 9cm has been the threshold for gathering); no exporting without permission; and most importantly of all perhaps, they may only be collected between January 1 and April 30, on the days of the new and full moon and the two days following each. Do check before considering a foray; and really it’s right to leave it to the locals, for whom this is a tradition.
Islanders take days off to go ormering, getting a soaking and some rock-scrapes into the bargain. It is an expression of heritage. The idea is to get ‘enough for a feed’, which is probably in the form of a stew, for the flesh though delicious is when raw very tough. The ormer is cut from its shell and cleaned of grit; beaten well with a mallet to tenderise; then doused in flour and along with onions (and sometimes bacon) fried in creamy butter. Water, bay leaf and seasoning is then added, and the whole cooked gently for at least three and up to five hours, the meaty and richly gravied result eaten with plain boiled spuds and washed down with white wine or cider.