Back into Folkstone last weekend to buy fish straight off the family-owned day boats. Dover soles as big as a giant’s feet – probably 18-20 years old, around £5 each and still stiff with freshness. Uncooked crevettes, from the other side of the Channel, and £5 bought me more than enough to create sauce and garni for the grilled sole dinner. Finished the purchase with Whitstable oysters at just 30p each.
The soles were brushed with Normandy butter and cooked under a very hot grill – turning just the once. My paint brush is another kitchen essential – make sure it’s a good one otherwise it’ll shed its bristles as it ages. I’ll tell you an amazing French potato tip another day to accompany fish of this quality.
Back to Folkstone Fish Market, the shop was full to bursting with stock. Too much choice. The backroom had plenty more fish landed off the little day boats and being graded and sorted – some on its way to restaurants around Kent. The aroma of hundreds of crabs being cooked in the next door Cook House filled the chilly morning air with a most heady, aromatic umami. I went back three times to inhale. It smelt so good I am amazed it wasn’t made illegal.
So Much Choice
I stared in at the window for 20 minutes or more. I couldn’t decide to go high or low – high because I hadn’t been down for three weeks or more – and it wasn’t too expensive with Turbot at £8 p/kg and Dover soles and large whole Sea Bass at £6 p/kg. Cod, whiting, huss (dogfish to you me!), halibut, skate, mackerel and sardines were all lower priced. They even had filleted sardines which are rare to find in England and a fiddly job at best of times.
Most important was everything was fresh – fresher than you’ll ever see on a supermarket counter – and Folkstone is less than an hour from where I live in London.
Much of the population on these islands lives within an hour of the coast. Explore your area and find where the fish is landed off the day boats – forget trawlers, that’s big business and they stay out for several days so freshness is not their USP.
Of course, the EU throwing back thingie – discards - is still with us for a while longer. Fiddling at the edges hasn’t helped the fishermen. Better nets and smarter fishing would help however. Day boats have little of this problem. Why complicate a simple issue – answer: because it keeps plenty Whitehall and Brussels jobs-worths in suits employed (have they sorted straighting the cucumber, the legality of pickling onions and the future of the kipper yet? I rather lost their thread of progress for some reason. Is that ennui?)
Fishing people are territorial – that goes without saying – but I want to take a few of the Folkstone crowd across to Boulogne to meet their colleagues. There too, the tiny stalls are well supplied with wonderful fish every afternoon – all run by the wives – fishwives all they are too. Some stalls even specialise in the one species – sole, plaice, cod, skate.
The difference of talking to a supermarket buyer, a wholesale trader and a day boat fisherman is huge. My pal Toto, the fishmonger in Etretat, would out-Mastermind them all. As I wrote before, it’s day boats 1:trawlers 0.
You know, the reason why fresh fish is short in English and Scottish markets is because the Spanish buyers, in particular, will pay up-front 20-30% premiums for top quality catches. Fish is too cheap for the danger and skills employed in landing it.
In finishing, all that C4 fuss about Fish Fights – and worse still those ridiculously named ’Mack Baps’ (dumb name, dumber idea) - has done little more than fill the trousers of the already wealthy. Time for truth. Time for revolution. Time for change. Here’s what to do all you Blue Collar Gastronauts.
Adopt a Day Boat
Adopt a day boat near you – not literally, but make a friend of the skipper. Take him for a Guinness and talk fish. You’ll learn lots and eat well – and these brave little boats will survive another year or more. Most important is to learn what fresh is really about – and to find which fish you like best because the choice is by the netfull. Promise me you will.