“There we were three of us…” begins Jerome K. Jerome
…Not three in our case, but four. Four of us in a boat off the coast of Anglesey in Wales – hungry and slightly anxious, having resolved to eat only what we could catch or forage for the weekend.
Though supplemented by vegetables from my friend’s allotment, it would be experimental.
In the end we caught two decent mackerel, one tub gurnard (a spiny little bastard to gut), a sand eel (an inedible bait fish), two lobsters (out of ten, eight being too small to take in, along with all the crabs), blackberries and rose hips, both in season all over the headlands – not a huge haul, but thankfully enough for two days.
Wild rose hips were a child’s vitamin C source in the Second World War, but today they’re unjustifiably snubbed. They’re sweet but unusual tasting, something like a sherbet lemon, and you have to mind the artichoke-like hairs inside. We made them into a gorgeous chutney, by reducing them with onions (red ones might be even better), a little chilli, honey, pepper, a clove and vinegar.
The blackberries became a coulis for tomorrow’s porridge (no, we didn’t grind our own oats, sorry).
We filleted the fresh mackerel (which I pulled in, I’ll add) and made a South American seviche, marinating them in lemon and lime juice, chilli, coriander and red onions. After a few hours it leaves the fish somewhere between sashimi and baked, and with enough citrus zing to make your hair recede.
Mains was deep-fried. First homemade chips, then the lug gurnard (also me, just saying), preparing it with a flour, salt and pepper rub, lowering it gently in for five or ten minutes. Gurnards get chefs at loggerheads, some claiming they lack flavour, which others gush about their delicate flesh, fantastic appearance and uniquely sweet taste. I fall firmly within the latter camp. We served it all with thymey homegrown carrots and the rosehip chutney, which, as it turned out went with everything.
Lobster potting was essential, which means standing on the edge of a wobbly 4-man dinghy pulling in 15 kilo metal cages in the blind hope that there are tasty crustaceans inside. It’s about luck and local knowledge.
We tried steaming half-lobsters in various things – salt water is normal, while a lashing of cognac worked a treat. Old Speckled Hen was dubious, but the decadence was palpable.
York being somewhat less maritime, you have to know where to look. Start with Jane Grigson’s 1973 classic Fish Cookery (sold for a pittance on Amazon), and keep her advice in mind wherever you go: “If you see a fish in the fishmongers that is strange to you, buy it.”
Cod and haddock stocks are both threatened, while taxation on industrial fishing means trawlers catch even more to make up their profits (meaning more by-catch too).
The answer is to diversify – supply and demand works such that buying lesser-known species is both good for stocks and for your bank account.
Head down to the Waitrose fish counter at 6.30-7.00pm, and ask if there’s anything that needs to be sold by the end of the day – I picked up four dab (an underrated flatfish like plaice) fillets for under £1.50. The fishmonger should be able to advise you on cooking, but for simplicity, crunch and flavour, nothing beats a pan-fry.
Rub your fillet with flour, salt, pepper and rosemary, add a little oil to a frying pan, and cook for 2-3 minutes each side on medium heat. Serve with a lemon wedge, creamy mash (that’s with butter, milk, and a sturdy forearm) and fried kale.