Posted:1st June 2021
I have had occasion to observe, and in print too, that fish is subject to great snobbery. Certain fish have always been grand: Dover sole and fly-fished salmon might be cases in point – true-born Englishmen would never have turned their noses up at these; other fish, however, have grandezza thrust upon them. They become fashionable for a time but often fall from grace. Trout is a spectacular example. It used to be a very posh fish when it was still caught from limpid streams. Now it is mostly distinctly cheap and farmed, and often tastes distressingly muddy.
Sometimes (not always), the snobbery is justified; at others it is not. When I wrote about this subject thirty years ago, the upstart was sea bass. Suddenly it had been discovered and restaurant-haunting Britons couldn’t get enough of it. These days it is largely farmed, and three perfectly acceptable small bass (or even better farmed sea bream) may be had for £9 or £10. Not all farmed fish is cheap, mind you. Good farmed salmon, for example, sells for over £25 per kg. I wonder if this price will be maintained. Were the salmon farmers tilting at foreign markets? If they were it might prove curtains? My old friend Lance Forman has discovered this to his dismay.
In the past, television cooks could cause price fluctuations too. I was annoyed when some sleb cook appeared on the box brandishing a brill. That meant the end of my supplies of cheap brill, one of the best of the flatfish. The price went up overnight.
At the moment, with the exception of the farmed fish sold by Billingsgate, virtually all fresh fish is overpriced in Britain. When I question them about this, fishmongers blame the fishermen, who, they say, won’t go out any more as a result of the post-Brexit trade deal. The fact that restaurants were closed as a result of Covid was another contributory factor, apparently, but that didn’t make much sense: if they couldn’t sell their fish to restaurants, they should have offloaded it on the general public who had none to go to? Most superior fish are caught by small boats from the southern ports. The successors to Peter Grimes who ply the North Sea tend to freeze their catches. Other fish – namely cod – now need to be imported as they are not so often caught in our diminished waters. Suddenly the humble codfish becomes a smart fish and you need to reckon with a bigger bill.
When I had a decent (250g) slab of line-caught cod at the Seashell last month it was £18 a portion: not exactly cheap.
It may be that now pubs and restaurants have reopened again (at least for a while) that the fishermen might be induced to go out to sea? I understand that a great many of them were not British and that they may have left the country, but the truth is that the current treaty will mean that some fish are lost to us, and that we are left with an abundance of mackerel and Dublin Bay prawns, but relatively small amounts of everything else. That will mean more recherché fish will be caught by small vessels or by rod-and-line, and most of the time that will mean higher prices.
There are fortunately exceptions and they could actually halve the price of fish in your shopping basket. In our exploration of local fish shops we have found two relatively cheap sources for fresh fish. You need to take care. There are fish shops that sell an abundance of farmed or frozen fish, chiefly to ethnic communities, to which I generally give a wide berth, but these two seem to be kosher, and everything is properly labelled ‘fresh’, ‘wild’, ‘farmed’ etc. They are not exactly the closest shops to our door, and I generally take a bus, but who’s complaining?
I am not talking about turbot or halibut, but some of the poor, downtrodden fish that are rarely the stars of cooking shows on the gogglebox. I draw the line (sic) at coley, ling or whiting for the time being, but I am sure they would be matter for a fish curry, for example. On the other hand I am quite happy to buy fresh gurnard, grey mullet or dogfish. There is a way to bring out the best in any fish, but sometimes it takes time to discover how.
I had been watching my new place for a while. On Saturdays there are queues of stout African ladies who buy prodigious quantities of fish. I tend to go on Tuesdays when the place is less busy. The grand fishmongers around here are happy to do fancy things for you, they will lift fillets etc, but I don’t mind doing that myself. The new fishmonger does offer. My first purchase from him was a couple of octopus. In a way I wished I had let him gut them. I had to find a little film on the Internet, but it wasn’t so hard. I felt slightly aggrieved that I had to throw out so much from the body of the beasts, but the tentacles and the heads made a really lovely arroz with paella rice.
Another time I bought monkfish at about half the price of fresh ‘monk’ around here, and cooked it with ginger and soya bean sauce – a recipe I learned from a Korean friend in Provence. She uses conger, but they didn’t have any. On another occasion my wife brought back a huge skate wing from her discovery, which is a bit closer to home, and I cooked that traditionally, serving it with black butter and capers.
Twice we’ve had grey mullet – a much scorned fish, but one that has the advantage of size. A good mullet can weigh well over a kilo and feed four. I tend to stuff it with sorrel (which grows like a weed on the kitchen roof) and butter, but it likes a drop of wine too.
Chiefly I was excited to find some dogfish at last. This is actually a little shark that I used to see washed up on the south coast as a boy. It was mostly used as ‘rock’ salmon for fish and chips. Like conger or monk it is firm and you can use it on skewers or fry it without it coming to grief. I first realised the value of dog in the Alentejo when I was writing about Portuguese wine. They love it, and cook it with fresh coriander and a liberal sprinkling of vinegar. A simple pleasure and quite delicious, and it was a timely reminder of a lost world.