Rising at the crack of dawn to fish for lobster which will be sold less than 24 hours later just a stone’s throw from the water, this is Wes and Maria Lewis’ love story with the sea and street food.
Picture this; a stunning sunrise glittering across the calm sea, the sound of waves splashing against the side of the boat, and dolphins jumping just ahead of you, each one trying to outdo the next soaring through the air.
That was my morning when I hopped on board Wes Lewis’ small commercial fishing boat, the Even Less, for an early start to his busy fishing day.
Taking us to sea for a few hours, he showed us how he catches the lobster, crab and mackerel his wife Maria sells at their street food business, The Seafood Bothy, which specialises in seafood and is based on The Pier at Stonehaven.
His plethora of creels are scattered up and down the coastline which hugs Stonehaven Harbour, with some ideally located in front of the idyllic Dunnottar Castle. A view from the sea I won’t forget.
On shore, his wife Maria begins setting up for a busy day at their street food horsebox where, in a few hours time, she will serve up a range of dishes to hundreds of people, incorporating Wes’s fresh catch from the night before, to hungry customers.
The renovated horsebox is based at the very end of The Pier at Stonehaven which is in operation from Friday to Sunday throughout April to October.
And for those looking for fresh seafood, you best be quick as it’s not unusual for lines of people to congregate (socially distanced of course) within an hour of opening.
Avid sailing fans, it was their love for the sea which drove Wes and Maria to relocate from Hill Head, Hampshire, to Stonehaven to semi-retire, having holidayed in the area for around 30 years.
Maria said: “Wes and I have been living by the sea all of our lives. He’s been a fisherman since he was a nipper and I’ve always been into food. I’m not a chef, but I’ve owned cafes down south (Hill Head) and I’ve learnt as I’ve gone along from things like YouTube on how to cook seafood. We decided to do something in Aberdeenshire when we moved up from Hampshire.
“We’ve owned a cottage here for around 30 years which is why we’re affiliated to Stonehaven and love it. Three years ago we moved to semi-retire. We used to own a 47ft bavaria yacht which we kept on the Gamble River on the south coast where the temperature is a lot warmer than up here, and now have a fishing boat which isn’t really designed to take friends and family out for a day.”
From sea to plate
Pairing Wes’s love of fishing and being at sea, it wasn’t until the couple paid a visit to a local food festival that they were inspired to turn his fishing business into a joint street food venture which would bring forth their sea to plate concept.
“We started off with Wes’s fishing boat and it wasn’t until when we went to the Deeside Local Food Festival and saw horseboxes selling street food that we thought of the idea. Wes said to me, ‘why can’t we do that sort of thing with my catch?’, which is mainly crab, lobster and mackerel. We went 100mph after that and purchased an old horsebox and renovated it. We were based in Stonehaven with the fishing boat so it seemed like the perfect place to have the bothy near the boat so the story could be from sea to plate.
“I wanted to incorporate the seafood he was catching which was so amazing and because I knew about cooking we decided to put the two together. A year after moving up here we had this idea and we’ve been working on it ever since.”
Although Maria can’t cook on-site at the horsebox, she can prepare the range of dishes she serves up including seafood platters, crab quiche, lobster and prawn and crab claw salads, and seafood wraps the night before when Wes lands the haul.
Fresh is best
But it’s not just a case of ploughing his boat out to sea and steamrolling back into the harbour with his day’s catch. There are regulations in place Wes must follow when it comes to harvesting crab and lobster, with the middle of the lobster having to be 87cm long, and the brown crab’s body being 150cm across.
While not very popular in the UK, velvet crabs, which Wes says are abundant in the North Sea, are in high demand in France and Spain and is something he will sell exclusively at market.
“The produce has to come home to our house so I can prep and cook it. If you look at the size of the horsebox and we’re getting 100 crabs a week and 50 lobsters, it’s not possible to do everything in a place that size. I cook everything at home and transport it down the next morning. The seafood is less than 24 hours old by the time customers eat it,” said Maria.
“We converted the horsebox in the winter – it’s a seasonal business so we operate from April to October and usually spend time away focusing on our hobbies. We bought it off the internet and it arrived on the back of a lorry. We put time into it to modernise it and to ensure it would pass all the regulations to have it stationed on the pier. People are a little bit cautious sometimes when it comes to seafood, so we make sure it’s made in a very clean environment.
“Most of the seafood that is taken from the sea here, from what I’m aware, goes abroad. Very few people eat it here and we’ve got some of the best in the world. Some of the big boats are out all year and other than this year, which is an unusual year, most of it usually goes to France, Italy, Spain and China. Some of it goes straight to the airport and is flown to China live. Very little of it stays here. What I’ve done is put it into a menu where it is exhibited in wraps, burritos and you don’t have to crack it or bang it yourself – I do all of that for you. Customers can just enjoy it.”
While her menu is dictated slightly by Wes’s catch, Maria has tried and tested enough dishes with her local clientele to know what’s in demand. However, she did take inspiration from some of London’s leading street food markets initially to get a feel for how the seafood could be presented.
She said: “Before we started, we did our homework. Our daughter lives in London and that’s the best place to find out about international and local food – the likes of Borough Market where all the horseboxes are serving their different food. I took inspiration and ideas from it with the wraps and that sort of thing, adding my seafood into the mix.
“The crab and lobster are definitely my favourites. People will ask what I’d recommend and I would say to try them out as when it runs out, it’s gone. They will both fly out the door. If tourists ask what to try I will sometimes recommend the seafood platter because that will introduce lots of Scottish seafood. I have five different things in the one platter – that’s a nice way for someone who doesn’t live locally to try it all out. ”
Supporting other businesses
While self-sustaining, it is not just their own produce Wes and Maria will use. Maria also sources fresh langoustines from another local fisherman to complement the mackerel crab and lobster Wes will bring in.
As well as catching mackerel for The Seafood Bothy, Wes also uses some of his catch as bait for the lobster and crabs, refilling his creels with bait as he dunks them back into the water once checking for produce.
“The langoustines come from my good friend Ian Balgowan who is also based in the Stonehaven harbour. He’ll phone me if he has langoustines but he could go out and come back without anything. He’ll call me on his way back in and give me a time to pick them up. The smoked food options I have available come from Gourdon, a fishing village just down the coast, so I’ll get all of that from there. ”
Supplying a range of local eateries, too, Wes is kept busy feeding the demand of The Seafood Bothy, as well as selling to a few independent restaurants and directly to the fishing market.
Maria said: “I’ll take what I need first as our priority is to feed the horsebox as that is our business, but when the amount he is catching is too much for me he will go to a local wholesaler where they will be shipped nationally and internationally.
“He’ll also supply some very localised businesses and restaurants like Quayside Gourdon who do a fantastic lobster and chips special on their menu. It’s nice for us to go down and get some food ourselves and see our produce on their menu.”
Keeping up with demand
But it’s not just Wes who is busy, with queues stretching the length of The Pier most Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays the business is open, with peak lunch hours being the most hectic.
Maria added: “I don’t look up from the counter at all – I actually spend most of my time with my back to the queues. It’s my front of house member of staff Paula who deals with them. All I ask her to do is tell me when it’s calming down. Sometimes it’s so busy we can’t stop and get a break. The queues can stretch beyond The Pier. Everyone is so nice and patient. We’re used to queuing just now and people don’t mind because we’re out in the open and by the time they get to us they are so excited.
“Within three days we can serve up to 1,000 to 1,500 people from a little horsebox. People are shocked at what I can knock out from in there. The menu has been cleverly designed so that it is fast street food. All the prep is done behind the scenes and at home.”
Seeing double in the future
While 2020 hasn’t been the year the pair envisioned, Maria and Wes are looking forward to being able to participate in Scottish food events across the country, in the hope of getting more people eating seafood.
Investing in a second horsebox and getting access to a small grant, the duo are eager to see how the business will change when events begin to book up again.
She said: “The double horsebox was originally here on The Pier. Horsebox number two is the permanent one we now have based at The Pier instead. We were helped by a Scottish Marine company and were given a small grant to help us get the second one so we could have one on The Pier and the other for local Scottish events showcasing what we do. We had the likes of Portsoy’s Scottish Traditional Boat Festival and Banchory Beer Festival lined-up and people were coming to us asking us to go to their events, but obviously this year we couldn’t do it.
“Next year all will hopefully be back on track and that’s when the second one will come into its own. The ladies that work with me are great and we’ll be able to work with two of us at The Pier, and two of us remotely. When I opened earlier this year I did offer home delivery but I ended up going 20 to 30 miles travelling to deliver food. I realised I could open the bothy as it was outside in open air and there was plenty of space for social distancing. Loads of people have supported me and as lockdown has eased I’ve seen more and more people coming back.”
But what is next for this young company? They’re taking to the sea again in the hope of offering a unique experience in the north-east to locals and tourists alike.
She added: “We have got another project we’re working on but I can’t say much about it just now. We’re looking at some Government funding for it but it will be a link on. It won’t be land-based, it will be sea-based.
“To have people coming back and saying how good the food is, or to hear how far people have travelled to come and try us out is amazing. The comments from the public, and the support from them that has got us to where we are.”