In Search of Fresh Fish on this Large Island I Live On
One of the great joys of travelling to France is that I can always find fresh fish and lots of varieties. A good number of these fruits of the sea have been caught in ‘home’ (UK) waters. Any medium sized super market in France will have a large display of fresh fish and if you are near the coast it is generally possible to buy direct from a boat or harbour market. One of the best markets is in Vannes, Brittany, where they have a dedicated fish hall with a large centre island full of traders and more around the walls - astonishing amounts of fish and seafood and so busy with buyers. It is not the same in the UK.
I am reminded of this because of a stay in North Devon this week. Now Devon has a large coastline and plenty of harbours and on the face of it lots of fishing boats. These fishing boats are depicted on endless amount of artworks for sale in the trendy boutiques. So naturally I was hoping to do some lovely fish cookery this week, it is not an unreasonable expectation. Sadly, there is no fish for sale - none. No fishmongers and nothing available on the coast. There are some fish wholesalers but they are mainly exporting any catch they receive. We went to the one fishmonger we could find in one of the larger coastal towns but disgracefully the fish on offer was well past any sign of freshness and we made our excuses as politely as we could and left. Why do we have this state of affairs when we are surrounded by water and fishing grounds.
Many years ago the English seafood chef Rick Stein outlined this very theme and spent a career in attempting to change this situation. He enthralled me with his enthusiasm and was basically the inspiration for me to get serious about cooking, especially fish and seafood. He undoubtedly has been the cause of a vast improvement in the standard of Fish and seafood cooking in restaurants, that is infinitely better than 30 years ago. Sadly, obtaining the product is if anything even worse. I live by the sea with a glorious sea view in one of the larger towns in the south west. There is no fishmonger in town - not one! Stein always returned to making the point that most of the UK catch is exported and nothing has changed.
At the end of our week we found a pannier market in South Molton and joy of joys there was a tiny stall where a man was selling fresh fish - a small variety and limited quantity but very fresh - sushi fresh. He had little left when I arrived and I happily bought four different types of fish. His fish was from Appledore along the coast and he asurred me that fish could be bought from the boat there. So a tiny flicker of light still burns but unless we make the demands and eat our produce rather than exporting it we will be left with fish fingers only - what a dreadful thought.