Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Fishy Business

Razor Clams
Having watched the first instalment of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's "Hugh's Fish Fight" on Channel 4 last night, my timing of a visit to London's Billingsgate Fish Market this morning couldn't have been better, notwithstanding the 5:30 am start.  The campaign Fearnley-Whittingstall is backing aims to stop the scandal of half of all the fish caught in the North Sea being thrown back overboard.  The reason this is happening is twofold.  Thanks to the quotas imposed by the European Commission's Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), fishermen are forced to discard a high proportion of their catches.  But that is not the whole story.  Many more thousands of tonnes are thrown back because our fishermen cannot find a market for them.  What many of us, including me, may not have appreciated is that these fish do not live to swim another day but almost all of them are returned to the sea dead.

The policy on quotas is clearly obscene.  Fishermen advocate a better way would be to allow them to keep all of their catch but regulate them by net size, time or weight instead.  Our politicians are talking tough right now.  It remains to be seen whether their spines will remain stiff when they get to the final negotiation.   As for the problem of "no market", apparently in the UK we are so fond of cod, salmon and tuna that we are reluctant to buy much else.  The challenge is to persuade people to change their eating habits, and Fearnley-Whittingstall has proved himself very good at that.  We, in the UK, eat 25% of the Cod caught worldwide.  So I was keen to see if this was reflected in what was on sale at Billingsgate.

Whilst there was plenty of farmed salmon there was far less fresh Cod and little evidence at Billingsgate of Tuna but plenty of Trout, Carp and Tilapia, a warm water fish found in Asia and the Caribbean and now farmed in the UK.  It was hugely depressing to learn that 75% of the fish traded at Billingsgate is farmed.  Thankfully I did see quite a few traders offering Sardines, Mackerel, Monkish and Gurnard.  The traders were very friendly and knowledgeable and the common consensus was that Coley is actually preferable to cod and a lot cheaper.  One real Billingsgate character, who also broadcasts on the subject of fish, enthused about the vast variety of fish and warned of our tendency to overcook.  His secret for perfect fried squid was memorable – take a deep breath, put the squid in the hot pan and when you have to breathe again get the squid out of the pan and it will be beautiful.

There were an awful lot of traders selling frozen fish and a small number specialising in salted or smoked.  The best sight was a pitch specialising in live Crabs, Scallops and Razor Clams.  It was heartening to learn there is a training school at Billingsgate running courses for supermarket employees, schools and the public with an emphasis on sustainability.  I picked up a top tip too.  Buy your scallops from a fishmonger who displays them flat side uppermost - the scallop survives much better in this position and hence reaches your plate in prime condition.  If you get the chance to visit Billingsgate Fish Market, I recommend traders James Nash & Son Ltd who have been trading since 1858.

Apart from the opportunity to buy a whole Red Gurnard for £4, my favourite moment came at 6.00am when outside the main trading hall I glanced into the dock and saw a grey seal pleading for a fish.  He was the best-fed seal I have ever seen, and anyway I had plans for that Gurnard.

If you want to join 'The Fish Fight', you can sign the petition. 250,000 signatures will ensure that a reformed Common Fisheries Policy has the elimination of the discards policy as a primary objective.  You can also think about what you buy.