RED SNAPPERS SNAPPIN'...
KEEP OUT! THE MONKFISH IS A FISH BEST NOT SERVED AT ALL
Red snappers snappin'
Clam shells clappin'
- the B52s, "Rock lobster"
I have written surprisingly little on this blog about food, and have blasted TV chefs and cookery columnists for their pretentious obsession with lifestyle and their presumptious snobbery. The intensely bourgeois attitudes with which food literature is constituted in the media could lead one to believe that good eating is a pursuit reserved for the upper classes.
Good food is not a lifestyle choice, and nor is it governed by fashion. Just because monkfish is popular with the TV chefs (and is therefore expensive) does not mean that it must be a superior food to pollack, a fish nobody is bothered about and which sells for peanuts. Only a few years ago, the hideous-looking monkfish was thrown back into the sea by fishermen who were more concerned about landing a more aesthetic catch. Suddenly, Keith Floyd began cooking with them, and their price went through the roof. In other words, if you ignore trends and fads, you can eat excellent food fairly cheaply.
I got Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s latest book for Christmas. He is the best, and most campaigning, of the current crop of TV foodies, and The River Cottage Fish Book is a beast – 605 pages of hardbound authority on fish. Providing context to some awesome-looking recipes and tips, the back third of the book gives all the detail you could ever need on which fish are caught sustainability, which we should buy with care, and which we should avoid altogether. I described the horrendous malpractice in tropical prawn farming recently, and such gluttonous commercial behaviour is not abnormal. You will find that many of your favourite fish are so endangered today, that it is difficult to justify buying them. Thankfully, there are alternatives out there – many of which will taste better, and most of which will be much cheaper.
Here is a summary of what’s hot and what’s not according to the Marine and Conservation Society. If you're in any doubt, go to a fishmonger and ask where s/he got his or her fish. If you're met with a wall of silence, you might think about taking your trade elsewhere. In my opinion, you really should not buy fish in the final section unless your life depends on it. And be prepared: January 2008 could be Homo Ludens’s fishiest month yet.
Mackerel (avoid fish caught in the North Sea)
Dogfish (effectively the only member of the shark family not threatened with extinction in British waters. And it doesn’t have any bones)
Flounders and dabs (the dab in particular is far superior to and sweeter than the plaice, and it's cheaper too – grill it briefly with a light dressing of lemon juice and garlic, and you’ll have a small feast).
Organically farmed salmon
Bivalves (mussels, scallops, oysters, cockles and clams are as sustainable as it gets)
Herrings, kippers and bloaters (we have fished the herring to near-extinction in the past. The fact it is still thriving owes more to its stubbornness than our moderation.)
Sardines and pilchards (more victims of over-exploitation in the twentieth century, the British coast has seen a renaissance in catches of sardina pilchardus)
Sprats (eat plenty, but avoid in the summer months)
Haddock (be very cautious. North Sea stocks have barely recovered from our hearty appetites, and the more lurid smoked haddocks usually contain more dyes than actual smoke)
Turbot and brill (the upper-crusters of the flatfish world are often fished from trawlers that erode ecosystems found at the sea-floor. Avoid the depleted North Sea stocks altogether)
Plaice (the only European source which is definitely sustainable for plaice is the Irish Sea. If it spent its last hours anyway else, it’s best to avoid it)
Dover and lemon sole (two more fish caught by destructive beam-trawlers – find out how and from where they were caught first)
Sea bass (bass really is a great fish, especially in Asian cooking, but it has grown too popular for its own good, and both wild and farmed varieties are under threat. Bream is a better bet)
Red mullet (the Mediterranean varieties have been overfished, but those caught off the coast of the UK are sustainable)
John Dory (sharing its Latin name with my preferred chain of antiquarian booksellers, eating the zeus faber is fine so long as the fish is pretty big, otherwise it won’t have spawned)
Trout (the Marine and Conservation Society say that all trouts are fine to eat as long as they are organically farmed. I have read reports of hundreds of trout being stuffed into small containers of water and, even if I’ve been mislead, I’m put off for life. My advice: err on the side of caution)
Perch (British perch are fine, but rarely sold in the UK; the stuff we buy usually comes from Egypt, while our own stuff is exported to the EU. Maybe try catching your own?)
Langoustines, lobsters and crabs (some langoustines are beam-trawled, but most – and all of their larger cousins, lobsters – are caught in creels or pots, which do little or no ecological damage. They may be the tastiest beasties on this list, so should be sampled in moderation. And you ever find a blue velvet swimmer crab on a slab, try one of them too)
Molluscs (winkles are fine as long as they’re not mechanically harvested, and in South Korea whelks are said to have aphrodisiac qualities. Plus, you can dig them up at the seaside, pop a load in your bucket, and hey presto – you’ve turned into a mollusc fisherman)
Cephalopods (cuttlefish abound in our shores, but there’s barely a market for it in the UK, whereas we are happy to import squid from the US and Pacific. Try and buy British in both instances, if only because this is a fish where freshness is everything)
DO NOT EAT
Tuna (avoid fresh altogether; Glenryck tinned is ok)
Bull huss / rock salmon
Any skates or rays
All eels, including conger eels
Tropical prawns (see here)
Wild and farmed salmon