Fish is an exceptionally good food, but increasingly a worrying one. The main purpose of this chapter is to make sure that the fish you eat always tastes delicious. But before we get to that, I think it’s vital to consider briefly the worrying aspects of choosing to make fish a regular part of our diet.
The demand for fish is unprecedented, as are the technologies and resources being applied to extract it from our oceans. At least a quarter of humanity – coastal dwellers around the globe – relies on it as its primary source of protein. Meanwhile, another quarter – the wealthy West – rates it so highly that it is prepared to spend almost without limit to see it brought to the table. The result of this pressure on fish stocks is as predictable as it is depressing: all over the globe, the most sought-after species are on the brink of collapse.
As it happens, the last book I wrote before this one was The River Cottage Fish Book, co-authored with my friend, Nick Fisher. In it we considered in some depth the complex issues of how our fisheries are run and the implications for various species both in the UK and across the world. Of course, I’d love you to get a copy, if you haven’t already, and to bone up on the rather alarming story of what’s happening to our fish and what you can do about it. But I realise that not everyone can become a fully informed fish conservationist in their spare time. Nevertheless, with a bit of steer on how to shop for fish responsibly, everyone who wants to enjoy fish can do so in the knowledge that their net contribution is to the solution rather than the problem.
So let us cut to the chase: the overarching question for the conscientious fish buyer is surely, ‘What fish should I avoid at all costs?’ My answer to that would be, firstly, don’t buy any species that are known to be in ecological crisis and, secondly, try to avoid fish of any species caught using methods that harm the marine environment. There is a big overlap between these two considerations, but they are not quite the same thing. There is sustainably fished line-caught sea bass, for example, and unsustainably fished trawled sea bass. For this reason, lists of ‘fish to avoid’ will inevitably contain the odd qualification. But I think such lists are worthwhile, and I’m happy to offer my current ‘blacklist’ (see below). I apply it when buying fish to eat at home, and we apply it also to the fish we serve at River Cottage.
Now when it comes to lists, clearly it’s a boon to fish lovers to have a few ticks as well as a bunch of black crosses. So I’ve also given a list of UK-landed fish that it’s generally reckoned we could eat more of, in order to help alleviate some of the pressure on threatened species.
And if you’re on the look-out for guilt-free seafood, shellfish is often a better bet than fin-fish, provided the method of catching/gathering is not damaging to the marine or shore environment – or, if the shellfish is farmed, it’s being done in a sustainable way. Below is a list of some to feel good about.
Incidentally, prawns, delicious as they may be, are increasingly hard to find from a sustainable source. Since many people can’t resist them, it’s perhaps worth mentioning that coldwater prawns caught in the North Atlantic (the standard ‘shell-on’ cooked prawn sold by many fishmongers) are certainly less environmentally heinous than trawled or farmed tropical prawns, commonly known as tiger prawns.
The good news is that you should be able to find most of the ‘eatmore- of’ and sustainable species without too much trouble. The only caveat is that the assessment of what is and isn’t sustainable is under constant review – so that if you’re reading this a year or more after the time of writing, the list of ‘fish to eat more of’ is likely to look rather different. The best way to keep up with the latest scientific and environmental thinking on fish stocks is to log on to www.fishonline.org, a website run by the Marine Conservation Society (MCS). It’s very easy to use, as you just type in the name of the fish species in question for a brief assessment of its ecological status, plus a 1–5 rating, where 1 is the most sustainable and 5 gives the gravest cause for concern.
Besides favouring sustainable species over blacklisted fish, it’s also helpful to know the method by which a fish has been caught. The most destructive fishing techniques are generally the least selective, and the ones that do permanent damage to the sea floor. Worst of the lot are beam trawling and dredging: both drag heavy gear along the bottom of the sea, which disturbs and destroys the soft corals and invertebrates that are the foundation of life on the seabed. ‘Static bottom nets’ are better because they are lowered and raised to and from the bottom without having much physical impact on the sea floor itself.
Line fishing is generally regarded as the most sustainable means of commercial fishing for two key reasons: firstly, the fish are usually alive when they reach the boat, meaning that untargeted species and undersized fish can be returned unharmed to the sea. Secondly, the hooks, lines and weights are generally fished clear of the bottom. Although there is some snagging, it is the hooks and lines that are inclined to break, rather than the marine features to which they have become attached.
So where should you go in search of top-quality sustainable fish? A well-stocked and busy fishmonger’s shop is certainly a good place to find the best quality, but as far as sustainability goes you are likely to encounter a mixed bag. Very few fishmongers, if any, restrict themselves to the sale of sustainable species. However, some are more committed than others, and the best will always be prepared to tell you where a fish comes from and how it was caught (if he or she can answer neither of these questions, then I would suggest you go elsewhere).
If you are a regular customer, you can undoubtedly cultivate a somewhat privileged relationship with your fishmonger – and you shouldn’t be in the least bit shy of doing so. Assuming you are in every week and he or she knows what you like – a nice whole gurnard or grey mullet, or some fat fillets of line-caught pollack or coley – then you’ll be looked after. When you’re on the hunt for something really special, a phone call a couple of days in advance will stand you in good stead when the fishmonger places his or her order or goes to market.
Things tend to be very different in supermarkets, where those serving at the wet-fish counter are rarely experts on the fish they are selling. On the other hand, some supermarkets are taking the issue of sustainability very seriously and have even banned certain species or rejected certain fishing methods. A few are also working closely with organisations like the Marine Stewardship Council to get major product lines such as fish fingers, smoked mackerel and tinned tuna certified as sustainable, or at least ‘dolphin friendly’. I would urge you to look hard for signs of genuine commitment in the way fish is presented and labelled in supermarkets, and reward meaningful initiatives with a purchase – provided, of course, the fish in question is in tiptop condition.
And that brings me to the most important factor in choosing fish, at least from the point of view of your own pleasure: it should be spanking fresh. A really fresh fish has an aura about it that simply shouts, ‘Buy me!’ It is shiny and plump, in head as well as body. It looks as if, were you to drop it accidentally into the sea, it might just perk up and swim away. Its eye is bright and seems to be looking at you; its scales are glistening and sparkle with the light.
Ideally two further operations will confirm your suspicions that a fish either is or isn’t in perfect nick. Ask to have a look at the gills: the pinker they are, the better. A little sticky red blood is not a bad sign, but a slimy, gummy, grey-brown mucus suggests time has marched on since the fish met its end – and you should march on too. Finally if you are allowed to handle the fish on the slab, prod the thickest part of the flesh gently. It should be firm – if super-fresh, almost rock hard. If it gives to your finger and you leave a little dent behind, then walk on by…
Remember that your mission is to find the best possible fish available for the money you are prepared to spend. In fact, many of the fish on the fish-to-eat list are very good value, and definitely at the cheaper end of the fish spectrum. So don’t get hung up on species. In the recipes that follow, there’s plenty of flexibility. Even where a specific fish is named in the recipe title, alternatives are always given, and further alternatives could be found too.
Now, I know that cooking fish makes some otherwise highly competent home cooks just a little bit jumpy – particularly as they are nervous of committing the perceived arch-crime of fish cuisine – overcooking it. So the best general tip I have for you is this: a piece of fish is cooked as soon as it is hot – technically about 55°C. If the heat has reached the middle of the fish, or fillet, so that the outside is just too hot to touch, it’s done, and you should cook it no longer. Furthermore, if the fish is hot, it will have changed colour – usually from some more or less translucent shade of white, buff or red/brown to an opaque version of the same. And it will ‘flake’, so that it comes away from both the next flake and the bone.
The various tests for doneness are based on these straightforward, dependable, observable events. You can take the temperature in the middle of your fish by inserting the tip of a knife, then touching it to your fingertip or lip: if it’s hot, the fish is cooked. Similarly, slip a thin blade into the thickest part of the fillet/fish and check whether it is opaque/flaky in the middle/next to the bone.
Finally, here is one sure-fire therapy for anyone who is, for whatever reason, just not quite getting along with fish in their kitchen. Go fishing. Cook what you catch. Eat it with friends. You’ll never look back, I promise.
My fish-to-avoid list
1 Cod (unless certified by the Marine Conservation Society)
3 Bass (unless line caught and tagged as such)
5 All sharks and huss (except dogfish)
6 Skates and rays
7 Bluefin tuna (and frankly, most other fresh tuna, though some tinned tuna is certified as sustainable)
8 Wild salmon
9 Wild halibut
My fish-to eat-moreof list
1 Mackerel (particularly line caught)
2 Pollack and coley/ saithe (particularly line caught)
3 Black bream (especially from the Southwest and Wales)
4 Cornish sardines
5 Gurnard (except when beam trawled)
6 Megrim and witch (two flatfish, members of the sole family)
7 Red and grey mullet
9 Organically farmed salmon and trout
My sustainable shellfish list
1 Brown crabs (also velvet and spider crabs)
3 Mussels (especially rope grown)
4 Scallops (but only hand dived, not dredged)
5 Oysters (UK farmed)
6 Squid (especially British, jig caught)