Sunday, 22 September 2013

Fish & chips at the seaside

The Fisherman's Pier fish and chip van in Tobermory, Mull. It's a pretty scene on a working port but only the scallops were caught locally. The rest of the fish has to be shipped in, as since the introduction of the quota system white fish vessels have all but died out in the Western Isles.

One of the places we're most likely to eat fish in Britain is at the seaside. This habit is partly due to tradition: fish and chips just feels right at the coast, surrounded by fishing boats, seagulls and salty air. It's also partly down to quality: the closeness of the boats acting as a visual guarantee that the fish you're eating is as fresh as it's possible to be.

But more and more often, the idea of locally caught fish and chips is turning out to be a myth. This is because a huge amount of the fish we eat - both on the coast and off it - isn't caught by British boats at all, but imported from overseas and shipped (or flown) in from places like Iceland and Norway. This is particularly the case with cod, the perennial favourite to be served battered with peas and chips.

As one local in an English seaside town put it to me: "it’s smoke and mirrors. It’s all to do with the atmosphere. You're looking across the road with your fish and chips, and a guy walks past in a smock, little boat chugs up, and you think, ooh, that could have come from him. Only if he drove the wagon from Norway it could."

So why isn't fish and chips the local food that holidaymakers and day-trippers assume it to be? It's partly due to method of preparation. Frozen cod works well for fish shops, and the majority of boats in the UK land their fish fresh. This brings us to the real issue: fresh fish wouldn't be a problem if it had a short distance to travel - as should be the case in a dockside chippy. But the UK fishing industry has been so decimated in recent years by low quota and politically-imposed 'free market' forces that often fish can't be sourced locally with any stability of supply, so it tends to be delivered by road from larger ports (such as Newlyn or Peterhead) and more often still from even further afield: Iceland, Norway, Russia or the Faroe Islands.

And it's not just fish and chip shops. Many excellent smokehouses dot the Scots and English coastline, and have been curing herring and mackerel using traditional methods for decades. But just because of their coastal location, and the boats lining the quay near the shop, do you assume the fish being cured is still caught locally? It's not always the case. In Whitby, my favourite smokehouse Fortunes often import their herring from Denmark. Even if they wanted to buy fish from Whitby fishers, it's doubtful they could: under our quota system, Whitby fishing boats (and their peers up and down the Yorkshire, Durham and Northumberland coast) only have the 'right' to catch a minuscule amount of the herring that seasonally shoal close to their shores.

These wider political and economic forces, which are largely a result of the Common Fisheries Policy (and the UK quota management that's a part of it) mean that many people are working under an illusion when they buy fish and chips on their day trip to the coast. The geography of the sea, and sense of place one gets on holiday, often rests on some assumption of connection between the environment and the food you're eating. Who doesn't want a crab when they are in Cromer, a Cornish pilchard in Padstow or an oyster in Essex? Don't we usually assume that fish eaten by the sea is local, just because it seems that it should be that way? I believe we do, and I think many people would be disappointed to know the truth about the food-miles racked up by that special supper they assume is an integral part of their coastal experience.

If you would like to eat more local fish at the seaside, there are steps you can take. First (and obviously) always ask where the fish is from before you order your meal. Not only are you more likely to get an 'authentic' local experience, but it lets owners know there is a demand for local fish. Second, don't always plump for cod - haddock, for example, still might not be local, but it's less likely to have been flown in from abroad. Perhaps the scampi or prawns are local - or, as is the case in the photo above, the scallops. Obviously if you care about locality or air miles, The increasingly common Pangasius (which is often imported from Vietnam) is a no-no. Third, celebrate fish and chip shops that do serve local, and share your knowledge on review sites such as Tripadvisor - it's useful local information that I know I'd appreciate. As consumers, we all like to be aware of what we're eating, and it's good to have the information to help us choose wisely.