Talk of extinction is just gobbledegook

Cromer crabs, Norfolk blackcurrants and floppy-eared pigs - all are said to be under threat. But these British delicacies aren't finished yet, says Sarah Brealey.

Cromer crabs, Norfolk blackcurrants and floppy-eared pigs - all are said to be under threat. But these British delicacies aren't finished yet, says Sarah Brealey.

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The news of another disastrous crab season has caused ripples beyond East Anglia. The Cromer crab is such a culinary icon that newspapers as far away as Cheshire have followed the EDP in reporting its decline.

According to one national newspaper, this is part of a wider pattern that will see some treasured regional foods disappear from our dinner tables.

But yesterday, farmers and fishermen hit out at the Indepen-dent's claims that everything from Norfolk Black turkeys to blackcurrants could be wiped out.

The paper reports that the Cromer crab is “threatened with extinction”. Although the crab industry is certainly facing hard times, this statement is much more gloomy than even the most pessimistic fisherman would suggest.

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Ivan Large, chairman of North Norfolk Fishing Society and Wells & District Inshore Fishermen's Association, said: “I don't think they are going to become extinct. It is just a bad year and that is all there is to it. Next year we could have a good year and this will all be forgotten, or we might have another bad year.”

The newspaper's melancholy list includes blackcurrants, said to be threatened by global warming. The bushes need cold weather in winter to produce fruit. But this year's cold winter provided the perfect start for them, while some scientists believe that global warming will actually cool Britain down. Meanwhile scientists are working to develop new varieties that do not need the cold, alongside strains that are disease resistant

Edward Wharton, a third-generation blackcurrant farmer in Stokesby, near Yarmouth, is not too pessimistic.

He said: “It is just something we are aware of in the future. It is an issue but it is not affecting our day-to-day decisions.”

John Atwood, from the Agricul- tural Development and Advisory Service, said: “Blackcurrants need a period of colder weather in the winter. If they don't get enough chilling, the buds don't open evenly and you don't get a nice even crop, and the crop is reduced.

“As a rough guide they need 7C (45F) but some benefit from more like freezing temperatures. A lot of research is being done on this. We are bearing in mind the possibility that winters could be warmer and so we are less keen to plant varieties that need more chilling.”

Among the animal breeds said to be threatened is the Gloucestershire Old Spot pig, which is enjoying a resurgence on small farms, including those in East Anglia.

Diane Viall, who rears Old Spots in Hindringham, near Fakenham, said: “They are definitely becoming more popular. Numbers are continuing to increase each year. They are saying that if the increase goes on in this way, it will come off the rare breeds list.

“It is a wonderful breed to work with. They survive outside very well and the meat is just wonderful. They have big spots and floppy ears, which give them an endearing look.

“Commercially they are a very hard pig to do on a large scale because they take so long to rear. There is no way they could do it. We sell direct to the public but if I sold to a butcher's shop I would find it hard to make a profit.”

As for the Norfolk Black turkey, its future is not secure yet, but it is doing a lot better than in the 1930s, when it was pushed nearly to extinction. Peele's Norfolk Turkeys celebrated 125 years at Christmas, and Frank Peele's grandson James Graham is certainly intending to see out the 150-year milestone.

He said: “There are more people with Norfolk Blacks out there but a higher percentage of birds aren't pure Norfolk Blacks.”

There are about six registered breeders across the country, and more breeders would help the bird's future.

Mr Graham said: “They are a good all-round turkey and they do have a better flavour. They are hardy and they have as good a chance against these bird diseases as anything.”

The popularity of Old Spot sausages and chops at Norfolk's growing number of farmers' markets suggests there is plenty of life in them left, while Norfolk Blacks attract a premium for their moist, flavoursome meat.

Neither the Old Spot nor the Norfolk Black lends itself to modern intensive farming, and you will never see a barn filled with thousands of them. But for a growing number of fans of real, local food, they will have a place for years to come.