Cod, haddock, tuna, salmon and prawns – the so-called big five account for an estimated two-thirds of the seafood eaten in the UK. The British seafood palate is long overdue a makeover, for the sake of diners’ taste buds and the dwindling numbers left in our waters.
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, a third of global fisheries are overfished and an additional two thirds are fished at maximum capacity.
To meet the increased demand for protein and to counteract the pressures on wild stocks, aquaculture has grown almost exponentially over the last 30 years or so. More than half of the seafood we enjoy now comes from fish farms.
This, however, has also come at a price.
Recent TV documentaries and newspaper investigations have revealed problems in this sector, damage to wild stocks being among the most serious of these. Many chefs are so disillusioned with the aquaculture industry they are loathe to put any farmed fish on the menu. Merlin Labron-Johnson and Michael Caines are good examples.
But it is possible to find examples of good aquaculture practice as well as restaurants creating innovative farmed fish dishes and others ensuring that the wild species that they’re plating up are being sustainably sourced and inventively used.
Rakesh Ravindran Nair, group development chef at Cinnamon Collection, is eager to ensure the fish his customers order is sustainable, being aware of the challenges of keeping on top of the turbulent waters of sustainable seafood.
“It is not easy,” says Nair. “For example, mackerel went from being one of the most sustainable fish to unsustainable in a very short time, a few years ago. We try and follow the latest MCS Good Fish Guide when deciding to use a fish on the menu.”
While exploring new options with his supplier, Nair discovered Open Blue Cobia. This pelagic fish is farmed eight miles offshore in the Caribbean, raised in its natural environment in water depths of over 100ft. It’s also certified by ASC and BAP.
“I liked it immediately because of both the flavour and texture and also because of the health benefits and sustainable farming methods used,” continues Nair.
“We decided to use it on our menu and had good feedback from customers. We used it in different ways but the most interesting was a spice crusted cobia with black korma sauce and coriander rice. We also cooked it in the tandoor oven like a kebab and served with carambola pickle.”
Time for trout
When it comes to certification, the leading operator is Lussmanns Sustainable Fish & Grill whose entire wild fish menu is certified by the Marine Stewardship Council. Customers at any of the five Hertfordshire restaurants became the first to enjoy MSC certified ling and monkfish this year.
Wild salmon is a bit of a no-no now in terms of sustainability, and its farmed cousin comes with some serious health warnings too. That has opened the door to trout. This freshwater fish had largely disappeared off menus, but farmed rainbow trout is making a comeback, specifically smoked or cured, thanks to businesses like Chalk Stream in Hampshire who use fully segregated systems which have minimal impact on the river environment.
Ottolenghi restaurants are passionate proponents, with a recent dish being the Chalk Stream trout with pickled broccoli stems, dulse and horseradish.
Restaurants like Rovi are also championing sustainable farmed prawns – from a field in Lincolnshire. Forget about the usual issues attached to prawns like mangrove destruction, human trafficking and modern slavery, as FloGro uses a closed-loop aquaculture system using renewable energy, with their Pacific white leg prawns reaching the restaurant within 24 hours. Keen to spread the word, Rovi namechecks this supplier on its menu too.
Meat from the bone
Every year, only 43% of the 900,000 tonnes of the fish and shellfish landed in the UK ends up on the plate. So, in addition to ensuring they’ve sourced well, chefs owe it to the oceans to use as much of their catch as possible.
Ollie Hunter at The Wheatsheaf in Chilton Foliat, recently named Business of the Year at the Food Made Good Awards, values every last scrap.
“We bought some salmon and the bones about two years ago and realised that there was still so much fish left on the bones,” says Hunter.
“Ever since we have been asking for salmon bones so we can strip the meat off them to use on pizzas and other dishes and then use the remainder for stock in our Bouillabaisse. I bank on about 300g per carcase.”
Summer customers at the Wiltshire pub also get to enjoy a locally sourced delicacy which is a far cry from being a threatened species.
“We take American crayfish from a nearby river where they have been killing the native species,” explains Hunter. “We roast them in our wood fired oven and serve as a starter.”
This fin to gill approach is also practised back at Rovi where fish head curry is a favourite, the lobster shells are also used to make lobster oil and one of the most popular mussel dishes uses fish trimmings and salmon skin.
For restaurants like these, it’s also essential to communicate what they’re doing so that customers increase their understanding of what they should and shouldn’t be eating.
Good examples of this come from operators both large and small. Young’s Pubs introduced its Sustainable Fishing Education Programme this year to inspire its teams to build greater focus on sustainable fish on its menus and empowered them to deliver this message to customers.
Providing them with the name of the day boat and its captain that landed the fish is just one of the ways in which they’re encouraging staff and customers to think more about their seafood selections.
At the other end of the scale, Harissa Kitchen in Newcastle launched a Seafood Supper Club. Using less cooked species like brill, clams, whiting and langoustine, the restaurant has introduced customers to new flavours and changed their outlook on fish, breaking down resistance to these lesser known varieties, increasing demand for them while taking the pressure off cod and the rest of the ‘big five’.