There are some foods you only eat at certain times of the year. Birthday cake, mince pies with butter brandy at Christmas, chocolate eggs wrapped in foil at Easter, sausages barbecued black with dollops of potato salad at summer family gatherings.
Whilst food memories are often linked to seasons and cultural holidays, they’re equally tied to places too. Everything from airport rituals (in the UK, getting a fry up and a beer even if you’re flying at 6 a.m.) to a foreign holiday (a Diet Coke in a glass bottle with a bowl of perfectly salted French fries). As a self-proclaimed foodie, food and memory are particularly intertwined; however, for me, there’s nothing like the pleasure and nostalgia of eating in a UK seaside town.
Recently, my boyfriend and I took a trip to a seaside town in Essex (an English county renowned for its “glamor,” girls and unmistakable accents), Southend on Sea, and it’s boujie-er neighbour, Leigh-on-Sea. It was a shameless nostalgia-seeking trip, as both my boyfriend and I had childhood memories we wanted to relive. Seaside towns in the UK are a bleak place out of season. Tourists have long disappeared, the sun is nowhere to be seen and you can practically see the tumbleweed rolling along the promenade. Therefore, it was a risk choosing to go to the English coast in early April. However, on the rare days when the sun does make an appearance, the atmosphere can be magical—and luckily for us, the sun was shining and the water glistening.
Our first foodie stop was a trip to a “caff” on the high street that my boyfriend used to visit with his grandad. There’s an important distinction to be made between a “caff” and a “cafe”—the former being traditionally frequented by tradesmen and the working class, whereas a caf-fay caters to a more middle-class clientele. We ordered a slap-up full English each (mine veggie) with lattes served in tall, clear glasses: faux sophistication at its finest. We finished off with a buttered tea cake, my jeans already feeling a little tighter.
We didn’t manage the ice cream sundaes and knickerbocker glories that my boyfriend remembers his grandad treating him to, but I’m sure our stomachs thanked us, as the next leg of the trip was a visit to “Adventure Island,” a small theme park on the seafront. Whilst some of the amusements, much to our disappointment, had been sanitized—the creepy, crooked house mannequins had been turned into cutesy teddy bears—thankfully, the food was exactly what we’d hoped for: dreamy puffs of pink candy floss hung from kiosks in inflated plastic bags and the best hot and sticky sugar donuts, gulped down with a black coffee for me and a milky cappuccino with too-sweet cocoa powder sprinkled on top for him.
Going into full tourist mode, we took the open-top bus to Hadleigh further along the coast. As we weaved our way through the ruins of the old castle, we stopped at an ice cream van and walked along the coastal path, licking silky Mr. Whippy ice cream drizzled with strawberry sauce and sticks of chocolate flake in wafer cones.
When we arrived in Leigh-on-Sea, the atmosphere was buzzing—revelers with red-tinged foreheads and noses from the unexpectant sun filled the pub garden that looked out over the estuary, pint glasses filled with lager. Somewhat hesitantly, we ordered cockles in a polystyrene cup and seafood cocktail in pink sauce on a buttered bread roll washed down with our own pints.
As the sun set and the air chilled, although we were stuffed full of fake sugar at this point, we still managed a trip to the pub. Fish and chips, the tang of salt and vinegar, brought a sharpness to contrast with the greasy batter.
We chose to visit the Essex coast, but there is, of course, a huge regional variety of seaside food offerings around the country. As a child in Cornwall and Devon, I remember eating hot, buttery cornish pastries filled with cheese and onion for me and my mum, beef for my Dad. I remember fresh seafood, a pint glass filled with shell-on prawns in Lyme Regis harbor, served with fluffy thick white bread lashed with butter.
On the beach, we would eat ice cream—not Mr. Whippy like we did in Hadleigh but proper clotted ice cream made with cream. Grown-up flavors like rum and raisin or coffee may be my go-to now, but as a kid, I preferred the sweeter honeycomb and chocolate, scooped into a paper tub and eaten with a neon plastic spoon.
Food like this is special because you wouldn’t want to eat it every day, but knowing this gives you the license to eat like your childhood self, hopefully with joy. We gave ourselves permission to eat all of the foods we ate as children (and some of those that may have been forbidden) without a consideration of a calorie the whole day.