IT’S man versus fish. Jamie Laing has laid down his razor sharp knife, gritted his teeth, and is now grappling with a stubborn Dover sole, tugging away at the surprisingly rough, sandpaper skin until eventually it yields, unveiling perfect white flesh beneath.
He slaps the discarded brown skin down on the stainless steel counter. Naked, the sole is about to be trimmed, spiky fins snipped off with a pair of kitchen scissors, precision cut along the spine and a tiny pocket created in its meaty flesh, a perfect hiding place for a knob of flavoured butter.
Jamie’s audience is suitably impressed, if a little nervous. Drawn from various Sainsbury’s stores, they have come to Murrayfield where the supermarket runs its staff food college, to learn more about how best to prepare and present a growing variety of fish – some less familiar than others – to an increasingly demanding and adventurous customer.
Now it’s their turn to wrestle with a lifeless Dover sole of their own, a process they may soon be performing in front of customers’ eyes back at the shop. It’s part of the supermarket chain’s drive to help staff learn more about the fish they sell so, in turn, they can encourage shoppers to explore different tastes and, more importantly, different products.
And it’s particularly timely: for as European fishery ministers battle over fish quotas and stocks of mackerel dwindle – the fish was recently labelled no longer a sustainable choice because of overfishing – the dish of the day could soon be some odd-looking creature from the deep we didn’t even know existed.
Part of the problem has been fuelled by healthy eating messages encouraging us to embrace the benefits of fish, so while Britons now consume a staggering 4.4 billion portions every year, most of it comes from just five varieties – haddock, cod, salmon, tuna and prawns.
The result is tight quotas to ensure wild fish stocks survive, while other species thrive but just aren’t in demand. Concern over the way we consume fish and how they are caught led one US university study to suggest that if we carry on as we are there will be no seafood left for sustainable harvest by 2048.
All of which is why Jamie, 21, from Dalkeith, a field trainer for Sainsbury’s, is busy showing his group of five shop staff their way around a Dover sole.
“We are trying to get away from the top five of just cod, haddock, salmon, tuna and prawns and get people to try a bit of lemon sole with a little bit of butter. Or if they are used to mackerel, maybe swap it for sardines, which are sourced around the UK coast when they’re in season and lovely when put in some flour and then shallow fried or rolled in oatmeal and fried in olive oil.”
Jamie, who grew up in Drylaw and worked for Sainsbury’s part-time while at college, clearly knows his way around a fish counter. He recently showed Prime Minister David Cameron how to skin a Dover sole during a demonstration at Downing Street. So impressed was the PM that, as Jamie cleared up and got ready to leave, he sidled over and asked politely if he’d leave behind the newly skinned fish as he fancied it for tea.
He’s even given that other Jamie a lesson in fish skills. “Jamie Oliver came to our food college in London when we were running a campaign to encourage people to try different fish,” he explains. “He did a training session and I showed him a few things which he said he’d try out himself.”
With top-tier backing behind him, there are just the five members of Sainsbury’s shop-floor staff left to impress. Jamie’s already let them stroke their fingers along the strangely rough skin of the Dover sole, now he takes a sharp knife, slices into a section just above the tail and creates a flap. With some tugging and pulling, the skin eventually rips off, accompanied by popping eyes.
Alison Bradie, 57, works in the Livingston branch of the supermarket where curious customers recently viewed with high suspicion an unusual red gurnard – precisely the kind of fish normally thrown back into the water dead because of lack of demand.
Customers, she says, tend to stick with what they know they’ll like. “People quite often don’t like to see fish with the eyes staring at them,” she says.
“We had the red gurnard on the counter, hoping customers would try it out. It had a big face and was a pinky colour. It’s supposed to taste like shellfish because it feeds on prawns but no-one bought it. It’s really hard to get people to try something new.”
According to Sainsbury’s, by 2030 over half of all fish products sold will be outside of the UK’s most popular big five species. But Jamie agrees that our “haddock and chips” fixation is a tough one to break. So he whips out the nation’s favourite haddock and sets about explaining how to skin it, before slicing it into chunky loin cuts, leaving the boneless tail to be made into child friendly goujons – fish fingers to the rest of us.
“Things like Dover sole are more expensive but it’s a very under- utilised fish,” he adds. “It’s not rare but a lot of fishermen don’t actually go out to catch them. They’re fishing for something else and this ends up in the net.
“And take prawns. They’re in the top five fish we eat but are always imported. But mussels are farmed on the north-west coast of Scotland, they are fully sustainable and not affecting any wildlife cycles.
“They are fantastic cooked in a nice cider and apple sauce and served with crusty bread. So why don’t more people try them?”
There was a time, of course, when coastal communities revolved around the fishing industry. In years gone by, Newhaven was a bustling fishing port. Today, all that remains is the market – the boats and fishwives are gone.
Once there were more than 30,000 herring boats, but now the number has dwindled to around 30 while the demersel fleet has gone from 800 vessels to less than 400. Some fishing boats remain along the east coast, however they trawl the coastal waters for prawn, lobsters and scallops often destined for abroad.
Independent fishmongers like Eddie Kwok of Eddie’s Seafood Market in Roseneath Street, and Gaven Borthwick of Armstrong’s in Stockbridge, buy their fish from Newhaven market. And both say customers are interested in unusual varieties of fish – usually inspired by TV cookery shows.
FISH supper on the menu tonight? Television chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall launched his national Fish Fight last January, arguing that huge numbers of fish caught accidentally by trawlers trying to net haddock, cod and whiting, were simply being thrown back into the sea.
Last week, MEPs backed reforms aimed at curbing the practice, amid concerns that 47 per cent of Atlantic stocks and 80 per cent of Mediterranean stocks are overfished. So what fish might we have as an alternative?
WOLFFISH: Looks like it sounds, scary with huge teeth which it uses to feed on lobsters and prawns. A bycatch of trawlers targeting cod and haddock, it is a popular choice with European chefs who use it as an alternative to Dover sole and prize it for its mild, sweet flavour.
COLEY: From the same family as cod and haddock. Raw flesh has grey appearance which turns white with cooking. Popular in fish pies and fish cakes, also eaten salted and smoked.
POUTING (BIB): Common in British inshore waters and popular in France where it is steamed with butter or poached and sautéed.
TILAPIA: Regarded as a cheaper, sustainable alternative to cod. Several tilapia fish farms have been developed in the south of England, opening up the fish which is normally found in Asia and the Caribbean, to a new UK market.
DAB: Stocks are thriving but dab is usually only caught accidentally by boats seeking out fish which are in higher demand. A small, flat fish similar to lemon sole but cheaper.
FLOUNDER: A flat fish which is a good alternative to the highly overfished plaice.
RIVER COBBLER (Basa): A freshwater catfish which is produced in farms. Makes a reasonable and cheaper alternative to haddock and cod.
RED GURNARD: With a long skinny body, sharp fins and large yellow eye, it often creates a stir on the fish counter. A bony fish with a light flavour, buy it with fins and skin removed. Often discarded by fishermen due to lack of demand.
ARCTIC CHAR: An oily fish which could work as an alternative to salmon or trout, Arctic Char is often organically farmed.
POLLOCK: A member of the cod family, it’s fished less intensively than cod but it makes a good alternative when deep fried in batter. Fillets are meaty and the tail is largely boneless.
HAKE is a member of the cod family, with a slightly milder taste and a firm, meaty flesh when cooked. Here Jason Wright, head chef at Steak Edinburgh in Picardy Place, uses it to create a creamy supper dish.
Smoked hake with creamed leeks, peas and bacon
2 rashers of smoked bacon, thinly diced
1/2 a leek, thinly sliced
Handful of peas
50ml of double cream
120g smoked hake fillet
Lightly fry bacon in a pan with a little butter until it gains colour, then throw in the leeks.
Cook until slightly soft, add the peas and cream. Let the cream reduce until it coats all the ingredients and season to taste.
In a separate hot pan place the hake skin side down and cook for three minutes until crisp and golden in colour. Transfer to an oven which has been preheated to 180 degrees to cook for a further four minutes.
Assemble on the plate with your creamed leeks, bacon and peas and the hake skin side up, on top.
Sainsbury’s has this suggestion for a simple and light lemon sole dish.
Grilled lemon sole with caper and parsley sauce
4 whole lemon sole
1 tbsp vegetable oil
2 unwaxed lemons, halved
20g pack parsley sauce mix
300ml semi-skimmed milk
2 tbsp capers, drained and rinsed
Half a 28g pack fresh flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
Preheat the grill to medium/high. Put the fish on a lightly greased baking tray and cut four slashes on each fish. Drizzle over the oil and squeeze over the lemons. Add the squeezed lemons to the tray.
Grill for 10-15 mins, turning once, until the fish is cooked and the skin is crispy.
Meanwhile, make the parsley sauce to pack instructions, using the milk. When ready, stir in the capers and half the parsley.
Pour the sauce over the fish, stir the rest of the parsley through the mash and serve both with the kale.