Traditionally popular fish in the UK, such as cod and haddock, are inshort supply, but what's wrong with megrim, coley and gurnard? Antony Adshead checks out the underutilised species and fish-farm alternatives
Think of endangered species and the likes of tigers and pandas usually come to mind. But in reality, many of the most familiar fish in our culture are practically endangered as a source of food.
Cod, for example, is integral to the British idea of the fish supper, but many once-prolific cod fisheries are shadows of their former selves. According to the Marine Conservation Society, 70% of the world's fish stocks are heavily fished, and many of our best-known fish, including cod, haddock, halibut and skate, are threatened species.
Of course there are alternatives. If you must have cod or haddock, these are available from sustainable stocks in areas such as the Faroes or Iceland, and good fish suppliers - most of which now sell only sustainable fish - will tell you their origin. There is also farmed fish, which is inherently sustainable, offering a massive range of species from cod and sea bass through to exotics such as barramundi.
Then there are the so-called underutilised species. These are species which are plentiful because we in the UK have never gained a taste for them, though they are sought-after in other parts of Europe. An example of this is megrim - a sole-like fish, of which the bulk of the catch goes to France and Spain.
Graham Aimson is head chef at the Bird in Hand Inn, at Witney in Oxfordshire. "We don't use any unsustainable species," says Aimson. "We regularly have sea bream, skate wings, scallops, Cornish crab and Atlantic prawns on the menu, but it's all from sustainable fisheries. A lot of customers recognise the threat to fisheries and respect your stand."
A lot of the fish served by Ed Bains, chef-patron at Randall & Aubin in London's Soho, comes from sustainable stocks of underutilised species, or is farmed. "We have no problem finding sustainable fish that suit our establishment - farmed halibut, bass and oysters, for example," he says. His suppliers include 3G Food Service & Seafood Solutions, whose range includes Greek farmed sea bass.
Driven by sustainability concerns, fish farming is taking off, and an incredible array of species is available. Mike Berthet, purchasing director with fish supplier M&J Seafood, says: "With so many of the world's fisheries at or over capacity, the only way to bridge the gap is through farming. There's been quite a shift towards it, which you just wouldn't have seen five or 10 years ago."
Species that are being farmed include gilthead bream, sea bass, halibut, turbot, barramundi, tilapia, cobia - a trevally-type fish - and pangasius or basa, which is farmed in Vietnam.
Fish suppliers are particularly excited about the prospects of basa - a large catfish farmed using natural feeds (it's a vegetarian) - and expect its versatility to make it as popular as once-denigrated species such as monkfish.
"It's very versatile, and there are all sorts of ways to use it," says Edward Whittle, supply chain manager with Whitby Seafoods. "It's firm, neutral-tasting and boneless and can be prepared as goujons, steamed, coated or battered."
But while it is possible to source fish from sustainable stocks and farmed supplies, there are also the underutilised species. Often these are available cheaply, given their relative unpopularity, but are as good or better than the species the British public has grown accustomed to.
Bains makes a point of looking out for underutilised species that become available. "Because of the type of restaurant we are, we can serve things to a more adventurous clientele and make use of things that are in good supply, such as razor clams," he says.
While stocks of cod and haddock are perilously close to collapse, other species of the same family are ignored. There seems little sense in this, as fish such as coley (or saithe), pollack and ling are equally good to eat. "Coley has a great taste but is greyer than cod, which is obviously not good for the appearance of the dish, so pan-fry it with chorizo and spices to brighten it up," says Bains.
Berthet says: "Underutilised fish give better profit opportunities, and there are thousands of ways they can be used instead of familiar species."
Some of these species are very popular, but not in the UK. Gurnard is a prime example. It has a large head and spines and in the UK it has largely been used as bait in crab pots. It is, however, plentiful in UK waters and is a well-flavoured fish that is highly regarded on the Continent. Once prepped, the fillet is just like a monkfish tail and is very versatile, lending itself well to sautéing with butter and herbs.
Mackerel also suffers from an image problem. During the Second World War, and just after, it was a common staple, but those associations and a reputation as a cheap fish have damaged it. But mackerel is another fish that is massively plentiful in British waters and is extremely flavoursome - it holds it own quickly grilled or slow-baked in soy sauce and wasabi - and, with growing awareness of its qualities as an oily fish, is growing in popularity.
Scampi, too, has suffered from past associations, and despite the UK having one of the most productive scampi fisheries in Europe, we ship most of it to France, Italy and Spain. "It's possibly the most important fishery to the UK now, supporting thousands of fishermen," says Whittle. "Scampi is very sustainable - the female burrows one metre underground to give birth, so they are rarely caught by trawling. You can get them fresher than ever in the UK, and they fill the plate well."
A key challenge with underutilised species is to tempt customers to try them. This is becoming easier as diners become more adventurous, but there are still some useful tips you can try, such as pairing a lesser-known fish such as gurnard with cod, for example. That way you can see if customers like it and raise awareness among your clientele before placing it on the menu in its own right.
The key thing is education of the customer, says Jim Cowie, chef and proprietor of the Captain's Galley in Scrabster, Caithness. Cowie, the Seafish Authority's current Seafood Chef of the Year, is passionate about sustainability.
"I suggest trying just one lesser-known species on the menu and make sure your waiting staff know all about it and can pass it on to the customer," he says.
Cowie serves only fish landed locally that is mature and has bred, and he never serves farmed fish. He believes the areas fished by Scrabster boats - as far as Rockall, Iceland and Norway - can provide fish the equal of any in the world.
"I've travelled a lot and take dishes from around the world and adapt them to fish we have here. In Florida, for example, we had blackened grouper, but what's the point of flying a fish halfway round the world? We set out to try different species to discover what would work well with the same treatment, and we use coley in this way now," says Cowie.
The Captain's Galley has underutilised species on the menu every night and they never end up in the bin, says Cowie. As well as coley he uses tusk, another cod family member, which he says is a good equivalent to monkfish and pollack, which is like cod but with a firmer flesh and more defined flake.
Cowie may be fortunate in operating in a fishing port, where people know their species, but his approach makes sense anywhere. As he says, "Why catch the last cod when there are fantastic eating species out there that we are hardly using?"
- Brakes 0845 606 9090 www.brake.co.uk
- Chef Direct 01275 474707 www.chefclubdirect.co.uk
- 3G Food Service & Seafood Solutions 0870 850 5213 www.3gfoodservice.co.uk
- Lyons Seafoods 01985 224300 www.lyons-seafoods.com
- M&J Seafood 01296 333848 www.mjseafoods.com
- No Catch www.nocatch.co.uk
- Seafish Industry Authority 0131-524 8658 www.seafish.org
- Whitby Seafoods 0800 731 6596 www.whitby-seafoods.com
- Young's Seafood 0800 132096 www.youngscaterer.co.uk