Chefs and foodservice providers are sitting on a domestic goldmine when it comes to fish supplies. Richard McComb reports
Will Holland is prepping lunch at his new restaurant on the Pembrokeshire coast when his mobile phone trills. The caller makes an unusual request: could the chef pop out onto the terrace and look out to sea?
Holland's new restaurant Coast looks over the beach at Saundersfoot. Gazing into Carmarthen Bay, the chef spots a small ship and the man on board is waving.
It is the same man speaking down the phone. "There's the fisherman, pulling up the lobster pots, and asking me how many I want," says Holland, formerly head chef at La Bécasse in Ludlow. "Everyone bangs on about traceability but you can't get fresher than that.
"People are demanding to know what farm their beef and pork comes from and what breed it is. Fish should not be any different. People buy prawns from the Maldives in the supermarket, so it is good to champion local produce from the sea."
Holland is under no illusion about his privileged position when it comes to reeling in glisteningly fresh fish.
However, the scenario playing out at Coast is indicative of heightened perceptions about the sourcing of fish. Sustainability is no longer a faddy buzzword; the issue has become, through political pressure and consumer demand, part of mainstream industry practice, influencing the selection of species, eating styles and preparations.
The campaign waged by celebrity chef and broadcaster Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall raised awareness about discards, the controversial policy that led to dead but edible fish being thrown back into the sea due to EU quota regulations.
The Fish Fight campaign played a significant role in reforms to the Common Fisheries Policy, including a ban on discarding pelagic fish, such as mackerel, herring and sardines (which inhabit the open waters neither near the shore nor the bottom of the sea) from 1 January 2015. Further bans on discards in species such as North Sea cod (which swim in deep water) will be introduced from 1 January 2016.
There is a sense that fish is starting to catch up with the changes experienced in the restaurant meat supply industry where provenance and breed-specific flavour have
become embedded in the dining experience. Customers want to know where their ribeye used to roam. Why should prawns be any different?
There is no doubting the size of the market. In 2012, an estimated 357,000 tonnes of seafood products worth £3b were purchased in the UK. Salmon remains the
best seller followed closely by tuna, cod, haddock, warm-water prawns and cold-water prawns. However, white fish, such as cod, haddock and pollack, are the most popular choice in foodservice, comprising more than 80% of the total spend, according to seafood industry authority Seafish.
A wider appreciation of species and their eating qualities, particularly cheaper fish varieties; the vibrancy of domestic stocks; and a greater awareness about the benefits of certification schemes suggest tangible steps are being taken.
The issue of responsible seafood sourcing is complicated by the vast range of fisheries, fish farms and fish species. However, Seafish says the term "responsible" implies "the fish is being sourced in a way which complies with minimum management or legal requirements".
Andy Gray, trade marketing manager for Seafish, says: "In general, standards in UK seafood are already high. Our fisheries management regimes are strong and many inshore areas are already managed for environmental protection. There are also high levels of compliance and engagement in responsible fisheries management by fishermen. "However, approximately 80% of the seafood consumed in the UK is imported and most major seafood companies have developed efficient processes to identify and audit what is responsible."
Seafish has a wide range of resources to point restaurateurs and chefs in the right direction while fishermen and local inshore management bodies, such as the Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authorities, have information on seasonality, fluctuations in availability and what is good value. For "absolute confidence,"
Seafish recommends buying according to formal certification schemes such as the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). The MSC, an international non-profit organisation to promote sustainable seafood, has 221 certified fisheries in its programme and a further 106 in assessment, representing 10.5% of the world's wild-capture fisheries,
according to the organisation's latest market figures, released at the Seafood Expo Global 2014 in Brussels in May.
There are more than 22,000 registered MSC products globally, from prepared seafood meals to fresh fish. There has been a steady increase in the number of fish and chip restaurants gaining MSC certification, in a sector where customer spend in the Quick Spend Fish and Chip channel was up 7.7% last year.
Frankies, an award-winning MSC certified fish and chip restaurant in Shetland, offers haddock, brown crab, local scallops and mussels. Manager John Gould says: "You can now buy a fish supper at Frankie's without worrying that it causes harm to the haddock stock in the seas off Shetland or the environment. The provenance of our seafood is of great importance to us."
In London, The Duke of Cambridge pub in Islington trumpets its MSC certification using the "blue tick" ecolabel on menus while other MSC-certified restaurants
range from Quayside in Whitby, winner of the National Fish and Chip Awards 2014, to Raymond Blanc's two-Michelinstarred Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons. Then there are multiple site restaurants like Wahaca and Feng Sushi.
Thomasina Miers, co-founder of Mexican casual dining chain Wahaca, says: "We never buy endangered species or fish in its breeding season. We work closely with our fish supplier to make the most out of our certification to ensure that as many MSC species feature in our dishes as possible and we feature newly certified species when they become available."
Wahaca gives a Mexican streetstyle take on certified cod, haddock, plaice, herring, mackerel, prawns and scallops. Herring, for example, is flaked into sour cream and chives then topped with cucumber pickle. A new, simpler MSC certification process is available via the ROC Group for smaller, independent businesses for £350.
Ruth Westcott, managing director of the ROC Group, says: "There are already over 30 restaurants and chippies MSC certified, but, with the right mechanism in place, that number could reach into the thousands."
Substituting better-known varieties for alternative species can deliver cost-savings while supporting local suppliers. Luke Taylor, head chef at the Black Bull Inn in Moulton, North Yorkshire, champions the use of cheaper, flavoursome local fish.
"Yorkshire and the surrounding areas are fantastic for fresh, local produce, and seafood is no different, with our cold North Sea waters providing us with some wonderful varieties of flat fish, white fish and shellfish," he says.
"Our menus are driven by the seasons. We take delivery of English lobster, mussels and oysters every day, and fresh haddock and bream every other day. But it's always worth discovering something new as the chances are it will be good for your budget and inspire your cooking."
Taylor's favourite flatfish is dab and he uses inexpensive megrim for stocks, broths and fish cakes. He plans to introduce spotted woof, a sweet, white North Sea fish, and is a fan of skate. He says: "Woof is not the most handsome of fish, but if you can look beyond surface appearances it has a lovely flaky, white, sweet meat with separate strands that run along the line of the bone, which makes it very easy to eat.
"Skate has been rather underused, which is great for the chef as prices remain much lower than more popular species like flounder, trout and sole, whose prices are on the rise."
Dev Biswal, chef-patron of the Ambrette restaurants in Margate and Rye, uses cuttlefish discarded by local fishermen to make South Indian-style kedgeree. The sweet,
delicate ink fish lends itself to precise, fine spicing and Biswal bemoans the fact the species is under-used. "It's a great shame as they're in plentiful supply along this stretch of the English Channel," he says.
The business case for using sustainable fish is taken up by Mike Berthet, director of fish and seafood at M&J Seafood, which supplies 13,000 UK chefs.
"With provenance, sustainability and local sourcing continuing to feature heavily on menus across the country, it is no wonder that we are seeing an increase in demand for fish sourced in and around home shores at the expense of more exotic species," says Berthet, who name-checks "delicious" local species such as gurnard, hake and dab.
"We are sitting on a veritable goldmine of fish and seafood and locally sourced fish and seafood is every bit as good and versatile as exotic items such as snapper and barramundi," he adds.
The health benefits of fish are no secret and Colin Ross, managing director of iASC Atlantic Seafood Company of Ireland, believes there are huge opportunities for foodservice providers.
Ross says: "Packed with omega-3 fatty acids and hailed as a super-food, eating more fish is said to help protect against cardiovascular disease, prostate cancer, improve cognitive and memory function, reduce agerelated vision loss and ease the signs of depression.
"Caterers can easily appeal to health-conscious customers and tap into the superfood trend by increasing their fish and seafood offering. Try enticing customers
with a seafood taster menu of tapas-sized portions of potted prawns, salmon pâté and shellfish linguini."
iASC supplies Irish Shellfish Butter, a "protein-enriched culinary butter," which is prepared using organic shellfish sourced from West Cork, Ireland. The butter comprises 88% Irish butter, 11% shellfish and 1% organic seaweed.
Randall Jennings, managing director of UK operations at seafood supplier Royal Greenland, says food businesses can increase their margins by seeking out the right ingredient for the right dish. The company conducted research with the University of Salford to investigate the cost differences of using cold water and warm water prawns for popular prawn dishes including a prawn and Marie Rose sauce sandwich.
Back in Saundersfoot, Holland takes a novel approach to his fish offering: half the menu's dishes are prepared traditionally while the other half bear testament to the
chef's quirky approach. John Dory is roasted whole on the bone and served with confit fennel and capers. The classical simplicity contrasts with a modern salad of squid with pink grapefruit.
Then there is old-meets-new courtesy of revamped fish fingers and chips: line-caught cod is cut into goujons, breaded, and served with a 'fluorescent' tartare sauce enlivened by parsley purée; podded fresh peas are crushed and combined with mint; and Halen Môn sea salt, from Anglesey, is soaked in sherry vinegar, dehydrated and sprinkled on the fried potato. "You get lovely vinegary salt - and the chips don't get soggy," says Holland.
Suppliers and contacts
Footprint Forum www.foodservicefootprint.com
iASC Atlantic Sefood Company of Ireland www.iascseafood.com
Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authorities www.association-ifca.org.uk
Marine Stewardship Council www.msc.org
M&J Seafood www.mjseafood.com
Royal Greenland www.royalgreenland.com