What makes a food memory? A wallet-busting Michelin-starred meal with wine flight? Take-out pizza and beer with a bunch of mates in front of Netflix? Or the night your other half hid a ring in the tiramisu in the neighbourhood Italian? (You’ve forgiven them, despite chipping your crown on the rock.)
For me, it’s as much about the company I’m keeping as the food I’m eating, though not always. On a solo trip to Spain I took root in an ordinary bar on the Atlantic coast, drank chilled Manzanilla and scoffed plate after plate of tapas, while chain-smoking old men shouted at the footie on the telly. Another time, in Barcelona’s La Boqueria market, I perched with my oldest chum at a stall, and inhaled the freshest seafood I’d ever had put in front of me.
In Doncaster, it’s an overcoat colder. But I’ve made another food memory that will stay with me longer than the tyranny of the 12-course tasting menu, the first four courses of which I’ve usually forgotten as the fifth arrives. Head for the fish market and find the stall next to market trader Michael Berry’s Doncaster Seafoods, bag a high stool, grab a menu and order everything on it. Well maybe not the lot, but you get my drift.
There are about a dozen choices typed up on a sheet of brown paper, plus a couple of specials on a chalkboard. Chef Dave Booker, late of the Best Western on Bawtry Road, darts about in the middle, slapping fat prawns, pearly monkfish fillets and huge scallops on a sizzling grill. His chef de partie loads plates up with salt ’n’ pepper calamari and chipotle mayo, Carlingford Lough oysters with shallot vinegar and an epic crispy monkfish burger. Scallops are seared – four of them, the size of golf balls, and arrive with a fabulously sharp anchovy, mint, coriander and lime dressing; yours for £9.50, my friends. Another scallop dish, this one involving slow-cooked belly pork, is just being crossed off the specials board as we fetch up. Argh. Next time.
Monkfish fried in light batter that shatters at the fork is piled on crunchy slaw spiked with tamarind. Gently curried Basa is the colour of your favourite Friday night takeaway but there the similarity ends; all the spicing is present but it doesn’t bully the delicacy of the fish. A bowl of the fattest, sweetest prawns (an unbelievable £6.50) is given the Piri Piri treatment – they’re scarfed in seconds. A couple of glasses of Prosecco seem to have appeared magically and the sharp wind tearing through the open sides of the market turns into a sirocco. All we need now is music. Ah, here comes Donny Dancer, South Yorkshire’s answer to John Cooper Clarke, a vision in black denim, sporting shades, winklepickers and a flashing boom box on his shoulder belting out tinny punk rock. Perfect.
Owner and ex-miner Michael Berry moves between his stall and the restaurant keeping a weather eye on supplies while his wife Kerry Anne keeps the shop ticking over. How did such an idea take shape? “We’ve been to something like it in Lisbon, then saw Rick Stein on the TV raving about the food in a market somewhere, and thought we’d have a go. We weren’t 100 per cent sure it would work in Donny, it’s not Porto is it?” Rest easy, Michael, it’s every bit as good without the rigours of Ryanair.
The final dish arrives. The description belies the utter joy of it; “sea bass, white crab salad ’n’ brown crab mayo”. Sound a bit of a mess, right? Wrong. Two perfectly cooked pillowy fillets sit on a mound of the finest, freshest white crab meat, and something salty sweet and hot has been visited on the brown meat mayo and it sets off fireworks. A couple of chunks of avocado and discs of pickled radish add colour and crunch. It’s head-spinningly good.
I honestly can’t recall any puddings. No matter. By now we’re in danger of falling off our perches what with the swooning. Service is faultless. Katarina, the beautiful Slovenian front-of-house person, brings the bill with a smile and wonders if everything was OK. Everything was very OK thank you, including the bill, which was just shy of £50.
As food memories go, this is up there with the best. And thank you for the music, Donny Dancer.
* Clam & Cork, 2, Fish Market, Doncaster DN1 1NJ; telephone 07912 687581; opening hours, Wednesday, 8am to 4pm, Tuesday/Thursday/Friday/Saturday, 10am to 4pm, closed Sunday/Monday.