As dwellers of an island with a huge coastline, we eat a pathetically small amount of fish (8kg each, annually). The Portuguese, whose ocean-facing bit is only a quarter the size of ours, gobble down 4okg, so somewhere during our evolution we’ve turned away from feeding on the scaly ones. Or did we ever really go for them in the first place? As we changed from vegetable-chomping omnivores to flesh-tearing carnivores, did we bypass the gill-sucking, fin-munching piscatorial stage pretty much altogether? All right, I know we still wade our way through tonnes of fish and chips, but there are roughly 6000 varieties of fish on sale worldwide and we tackle about 12 of them in Britain and only six on any regular basis (you do a bit of thinking and I’ll tell you what those top six are at the end of this article).
Maybe we don’t see the flesh of fish as being manly enough to eat (particularly us men, if you get my drift… net. Oh, shoot me with a harpoon). It may be all right as a starter, but for a main course it’s got to be something that can gallop, hurdle, snort or peck (wild turkey and ostrich squeeze in here). However, there are some big mothers out there — swordfish, hammerhead, barracuda — who can happily be munched on. The fin-propelled ones also provide huge amounts of lead for our hopefully ever-sharpened pencils. Vitamins A, B, D and E positively queue for the push-up stakes, jockeying for position in the trouser department with zinc, potassium, phosphorous and iodine. Not only do they bring a firm resolve to flagging muscles, but they also provide the required “brain food” to ensure that the journey towards the duck-down duvet is a witty and enticing one. Throw in the elixir of life, omega 3, the heart-strengthening fish oil, particularly prevalent in salmon, trout, mackerel, herring and sardines, and the chance of you expiring during this enhanced rumpy-pumpy is greatly reduced. And you probably won’t need any extra lubricant with all that omega 3 sloshing about.
The mere act of cooking fish is an aphrodisiac. Well, let’s be completely honest, the mere fact that a man has the vaguest comprehension of the workings of a kitchen is often a serious turn-on to the opposite sex, and the joy of serving fish is that it’s so simple to do. Indeed, the more straightforward the dish, the better it tastes. The secret is to buy good-quality gear. Not necessarily the most expensive, but the freshest. If you’re after cod, but the haddock looks more enticing, then be ever so dangerous and opt for the latter. They’re both a doddle to cook. Most fish can simply be grilled with a splash of olive oil and a grinding of black pepper. Serve with new potatoes and French beans, glistening with olive oil or melted butter, and you have an enticing plateful of really convenient food.
If the difference between a fresh fish and one that has jumped ship some oceans ago isn’t obvious to you, then ask your fishmonger (an endangered species, I know, but one that can be encouraged to thrive, if supported by us). Advice should happily be offered, as you’ll hopefully be back — and heck, they might really care about the gear they flog. Rarely do you get the expertise, care or quality of produce from a supermarket. If you feel more confident in your abilities than those of the adolescent supermarket sales assistant wearing the ill-fitting white lab coat, then exercise them. Look for bright, clear eyes (fish, not assistant), slimy, not dry skin (ditto) and a shop that doesn’t smell particularly fishy, as that whiff comes with age. Freshly caught gear actually has an aroma of newly mown lawns. The flesh inside the gills should be pink or red. If it’s brown or purple then it’s heading towards its
We still wade our way through tonnes of fish and chips, but there are roughly 6000 varieties of fish on sale worldwide, and we only eat six of them on a regular basis next birthday. Don’t celebrate with it. Traditionally, buying fish on a Monday is tricky as the wholesale markets are closed on Sundays and Mondays.
A bone of early contention is, well, a bone, as one stuck in the throat can have a similar effect on the body as getting trolleyed on Scotch: the mere smell of cooking fish can set off the heave operators. However, like most food, fish is best cooked with the bones intact, as it adds to the flavour.
Skate wings have loads, but it’s easy to part the flesh from them — in fact, there’s some primeval joy in the process (rather like tearing peeling skin from the backs of sun burnt younger brothers). I’m going to let you in on a little secret, which you can drop in at flagging dinner parties. Skate don’t have bones: it’s actually cartilage, disguised as bone, but don’t let this thought perturb you as you tuck into a wing, doused with black butter and capers. Rick Stein has this as a signature dish at his restaurant in Pad stein (sorry, Pad stow). Now, he doesn’t strike me as being a poncy chef, obviously relishing everything hauled from the brine and doing loads to support his local Cornish fishermen. If you really can’t hack mucking about with bones, though, then your friendly fishmonger will fillet the fish for you.
The lingering smell of overcooked fish is something I still associate with Fridays, when, at school, an unidentifiable white creature was served up for our delectation. This was so tasteless that the accompanying lumpy mashed potato was preferable. These unfortunate creatures were overcooked to the point that their inherent goodness had already reached the sea, courtesy of a recycling plant, having been drained off in the juices during the boiling process long before they were served to us. The smell still hung around at Monday morning assembly. It’s a sin to overcook fish, which would be better eaten raw than simmered to an unnecessary grave.
The good news is that we are actually eating more of our fishy brethren (didn’t man originally waggle his way out of the sea? I think it was a Tuesday). Our 16,000 remaining British fishermen landed 458,000 tonnes of fish and shellfish in 2000, although a remarkable 307,000 tonnes of it was then exported. The quality of our catch is sadly more appreciated overseas, where consumers are prepared to pay more for it. However, we in turn imported 490,000 tonnes, much of which was cod. Cod is still our most popular fish, and four-fifths of what we eat is imported owing to the sad lack of them in our own waters caused by over-fishing and a bemusing quota system.
So go bag a bass today and celebrate the fact that we are islanders. As promised earlier, the top-six best-selling fish in this country are: cod, salmon, haddock, mackerel, trout and plaice, and we do shell out £i.5 billion annually on seafood, so maybe were not such hardened carnivores after all. Then again, we’ve still got some considerable way to go to catch those pesky Portuguese.