Last Updated on March 20, 2021
Have fun with sustainable British fish
I spent the first three decades of my life in the southern hemisphere where the fish are rather different from those that swim in the waters around the UK. I knew my way around the fish market, what to look out for and, even more importantly for a home cook, how to prepare the wonderful shellfish and fish I had grown up eating. This gave me the confidence to be creative in the kitchen. When I moved to the UK, I was confronted at the fishmongers with creatures I had never seen before, less eaten. I had no idea what to do with them although I quickly adjusted to cod, salmon, tuna and haddock. I developed a complete aversion to mackerel. Sometimes I would push the boat out (metaphorically speaking) and prepare sea bass, sole or bream, monkfish on special occasions; this is pretty much where my repertoire has become stuck.
I admit I never gave much thought to the UK fish industry until it became embroiled with the Brexit debate. Since the UK leaving the EU has coincided with the Covid pandemic and the resulting closure of restaurants, this industry is facing a double whammy that could threaten its existence. While in Devon last summer I loved watching the fishing boats returning to harbour with their catch. It reminded me of my childhood when I would go to the harbour with my father and buy fish off the boats. But this romantic picture is a far cry from the challenges that our fishermen face not only from the perils of the sea – only recently a boat sank in UK waters and two of the crew drowned – but also from the vagaries of the price fishermen receive for their catch. Putting politics and economics aside, these are personal stories of people trying to put food on our tables and deserving a decent living from their trade.
Step in Pesky Fish, a company which was established in December 2017 by two entrepreneurs who want to enable fishermen to sell directly to their customers. Cutting out several stages of middle merchants in the supply chain, the fishermen and producers receive a fairer price for their catch, up to five times more for abundant, sustainable species. The customer receives a fresher product. It is a win-win. As one would expect from a young company with young people at the helm, Pesky Fish is social media savvy and has a good website and great interaction with customers on Instagram.
The Pesky marketplace enables consumers to source fish directly from British inshore boats and producers. Pesky Fish works with a group of skippers in Devon and Northumberland and every fish one buys comes with a flyer explaining which boat the fish was landed by and the name of the fisherman or woman. This is 100% traceability. What is available varies according to what the boats have been able to land on any particular day, but there are also products regularly available including salmon, smoked salmon, and rope grown mussels. Regulars will get to know which boats land which species, the name of the man who dives for the scallops and might even develop a keen sense of which way the wind is blowing. Fish merchants, fishmongers and restaurants also buy fish from Pesky Fish. For the commercial sector, there is a 5-day fish forecast so that some planning can be done.
An excellent article in The Guardian a few weeks ago, as well as other press interest, has broadened the appeal of Pesky Fish and now I need to have my finger on the buzzer if the fish is going to be delivered to my door. A daily email with available fish and shellfish pops into my inbox as the market opens and then the buying begins. I failed to order quickly enough on my first few nights – the fish and shellfish fly out the market – but eventually, I got there. The customer service is excellent so I was encouraged to keep trying on the nightly market where the public can access the fish that have only just been landed. Open from 8 pm until the next morning, shoppers can order online and the fish arrives at your door within 48 hours of being landed.
Pesky Fish has a mission which is ‘to build a better and more sustainable seafood industry for fish, fishermen and consumers across the world’. My mission is to push myself out of my piscine comfort zone by ordering fish with which I am unfamiliar and having some fun in the kitchen.
As there is free delivery for orders over £35, I ordered as much as I thought I could cook while not having to freeze any. This resulted in us eating fish every day for 5 days, sometimes for lunch and dinner. I was reminded of a great fish market I bought from in the summer in Kingsbridge, Devon, where the rather large amount I selected needed to last a week. The expert fishmonger advised me what to cook that night and the order in which to cook the fish thereafter. Brilliant advice came back to me when I opened the delivery box in which the Pesky Fish lay beautifully packed.
I began with the Teign River mussels – it is the first time I have bought a kilogram of mussels and been able to use every single one. I have cooked heaps of mussels in my time, so this really impressed me. None had broken shells and they all passed the tap test. Usually, on holiday I make cauldrons full of moules marinière as they are such a crowd-pleaser. This time I felt like a change and recalled eating a wonderful mussel dish in France some years ago where the mussels were lightly curried. This took me in a spicy direction and since I had lime, chilli and coconut milk available I ended up with a Thai inspired meal. Influenced by a marvellous series I am watching called Midnight Diner which showcases simple Japanese dishes, I rummaged through my cupboard to locate half a packet of egg noodles. Now I had the makings of a different type of mussel dish to the Mediterranean one which I usually mop up with endless hunks of baguette. Soon we were sitting down to a fragrant dish, the mussels steamed open in a broth coloured with turmeric, sweetened with coconut, with the soft heat of chopped red chilli, a burst of lime juice and served over a bed of egg noodles which I seasoned with a few drops of soy sauce.
Then it was time to face the fish. I started off on familiar territory with two lemon soles. These were far and away the most beautiful lemon soles I have ever cooked. They were so fresh as to be almost winking at me. I had ordered them gutted so I had no prep to do except for a quick trim of the frill which I managed with my kitchen scissors. I thought about sautéing them in lemon butter but decided on grilling as a healthier option. By the time I had added the herb butter sauce, I am not sure it was any better for my cholesterol. I had a bunch of tarragon in the fridge that needed using so I chopped it up along with a small bunch of flat-leaf parsley and added it to some melted lemon butter. This is all the adornment one needs for such a delicacy as a sole. It was so quick to prepare that I cooked and ate in my lunch hour which is one of the joys of working from home. Who needs a cold sandwich at one’s desk when there is a fridge full of fish? The lemon soles were perfectly grilled within minutes and the flesh was sweet and utterly delicious.
Gurnard certainly took me into deeper waters. I had ordered them whole but not gutted so set about doing so the day before I cooked them. These are not great looking fish although their rather pensive expression did start to grow on me. In order to gut them, I followed a YouTube video where an Australian chef helped put me through my paces. It was actually surprisingly easy. I spent some time searching for a recipe amongst the fish section of my cookbook collection. I was going to pan-fry, then I was going to roast, and on it went until I paged through a cookbook called Brindisa – from the wonderful Monika Linton – which I haven’t looked at in a while. There I found a recipe for a Spanish Fish Stew made with whole gurnard. Oh happy days! What I liked about this recipe is that it uses the whole fish – the heads flavour the broth and are removed later when the stew is ready for the fish to be lightly cooked. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with the spines of the gurnards and tried to cut them out before we ended up with spikes in our tongues.
The stew was redolent with olive oil and garlic, herbs gave colour and extra flavour. I added a few mussels I had kept back to add to the stew. But it was the gurnard that sang. I wasn’t expecting such a tasty fish. Many of the fish that are widely popular in the UK seem to be rather lacking in taste – needing some pepping up in the cooking process. Gurnard has a distinct flavour which we enjoyed. While it is bony – although the flesh did pull away easily from the bones – cooking on the bone gives more flavour. I must admit to feeling a little proud of myself for giving gurnard a chance. It is also very economical.
The next day I tried plaice. I’ve struggled in the past to rave about plaice – it has always seemed a little thin. But, in the spirit of this review, I determined to give it another chance . I wanted to pair it with cider – I thought this would be a lovely combination of ingredients from the South West as I had a bottle of cider from Sandford Orchards. I looked for a recipe in The Fishmonger’s Cookbook by Mitch Tonks – I have used this book so often on holidays that the pages fly out when I open it – and there it was, plaice poached in cider and onions. I served it with a side of samphire – I love the emerald colour and the salty freshness of this sea vegetable – and, following Tonks’ advice, haricot beans dressed with thyme and olive oil (use your best olive oil here I would suggest). What a great combination. The plaice fillets poached within minutes and were given heft from the onion sauce. The meaty beans and the salty samphire added extra texture, colour and flavour. You could add some new potatoes if you like.
That left me floundering around with the last fish I purchased. I have never eaten flounder so had to resort to my cookbooks for help. I had ordered my flounder filleted so that narrowed the field. I toyed with baking the fillets in a coat of breadcrumbs and parmesan which I may well do the next time I order. In the end, I opted for a simple preparation. I was reading through a new cookbook called Recipes For Heroes in which chef Chris Golding has a recipe for a stewed aubergine dish that is served alongside smoked new potatoes and sea bream. I substituted the sea bream with my flounder fillets and they were popped into a hot oven for 8 minutes. They emerged perfectly cooked and I simply squeezed over some lemon juice. The taste was subtle and mildly sweet – it reminded me of sole.
It is years since I have had such fun with fish. I liked everything about the Pesky Fish experience – except perhaps the competition from like-minded customers. I appreciated the freshness, the variety, the friendly and responsive customer service. Mostly, I like the fact that the fishermen who have brought the fish to my table are better compensated for their efforts. There is no fishy smell here, just good taste. If you’d like to order for yourself, register online with the Pesky Fish marketplace, wait for it to open (usually around 8 pm each day with whatever has landed!) and get your finger set!
Meanwhile, here’s the Mitch Tonks recipe for Plaice with Cider and Onions that,together with some excellent fresh fish, has converted me to a Plaice fan.
A quick and tasty fish dinner
- 25 grams butter
- olive oil
- 1 large onion thinly sliced
- 2 cloves garlic crushed
- 500 ml cider I used a cider from Sandford Orchards
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 sprigs thyme
- 2 fillets plaice
- 1 handful parsley finely chopped
- salt and ground pepper
Melt butter in a saucepan and add a glug of olive oil.
Add the sliced onions and allow to cook slowly until brown but not crispy. Allow 10 - 15 minutes.
Add crushed garlic, cider, bay leaves and thyme sprigs and simmer for 5 minutes.
Gently add the plaice fillets and poach for 6 -7 minutes with the liquid barely simmering.
Remove the plaice and keep warm.
Add the chopped parsley to the pan, increase the heat and reduce the liquid by a third. Season
I served the dish with steamed samphire and a tin of haricot beans warmed with thyme leaves and a good quality extra virgin olive oil.