Fish tastes much bet­ter when you’ve caught it your­self, as Stephen Bleach dis­cov­ers

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & In­dul­gence -

SEVEN­TEEN me­tres be­low the choppy sur­face of Lyme Bay, off Eng­land’s south­west coast, there is a wreck: the car­cass of the SS Bay­gi­tano, tor­pe­doed in 1918 by a Ger­man U-boat. And, lin­ger­ing a few cen­time­tres from the rusty hull, nos­ing around for tasty crus­taceans and shar­ing a joke with his fishy pals, there’s a 30cm-long sil­verysided pol­lock called Jack­son.

Or, rather, there was. But I’ve eaten him. And very de­li­cious he was, too.

I am on a Catch and Cook day or­gan­ised by tele­vi­sion chef Hugh Fearn­ley-Whit­tingstall’s Devon-based River Cot­tage HQ.

The idea is sim­ple: fish tastes best when you’ve caught it your­self, as long as you have some idea how to pre­pare and cook it. So, it’s a morn­ing out on the boats, learn­ing the rudi­ments of angling, then an af­ter­noon of cook­ery demon­stra­tions and hands-on fil­let­ing back at the cot­tage, fol­lowed by a feast.

Which brings us back to Jack­son. As Phil Hod­der, our group’s cap­tain for the morn­ing, care­fully drops an­chor away from the wreck and lets the tide sweep us over it, Fraser Chris­tian, our man from River Cot­tage, ex­plains why this is a promis­ing spot.

You’ve got to pic­ture the tide a bit like the wind on land, he tells us. Bot­tom-feed­ers will shel­ter in the lee of reefs and wrecks, just like farm an­i­mals be­hind a dry-stone wall. It means they can let the cur­rent bring their food to them. Chris­tian in­structs us in the mys­ter­ies of us­ing the rods and land­ing the fish. If you get a bite, reel in quickly and steadily: the main thing is to keep ten­sion on the line so they can’t slip the hook. We bait with mack­erel strips, let the weights take them to the bot­tom and pull up a me­tre or so. Then it all gets a bit Zen.

‘‘ For­get your eyes and ears . . . see­ing and hear­ing don’t help,’’ Chris­tian says. It’s all about touch. You’ve got to feel the fish, sense them through your line. We grasp our rods and close our eyes, like Jedi novices un­der the in­struc­tion of an angling Obi-Wan Kenobi, feel­ing the fishy force.

We wait. And wait. For a while, our group of eight nod sagely to each other, agree­ing that it’s not the catch­ing that mat­ters but the re­lax­ation, the scenery and the sheer plea­sure of be­ing out on the wa­ter.

Bunkum, of course, and af­ter a bar­ren hour rock­ing in the heavy swell, I may have achieved cos­mic bal­ance, but I am no closer to get­ting fed. And then, bam! I’m un­pre­pared for the surge of adrenalin, the heart-stop­ping thrill of a bite, that sud­den tug that tells you lunch is down there but it won’t jump on the plate by it­self.

I strike hard and reel in fast, feel­ing the fish turn and pull. It’s not smooth and it’s not pretty, but I land him some­how: a fine, sil­very pol­lock, writhing in­dig­nantly on the hook.

The next bit isn’t for the squea­mish. Chris­tian shows how to dis­patch him swiftly: a firm tug on the jaw and his back­bone is bro­ken. Then his gills are slashed, to let the blood seep out, and a knife in the anal gland starts the gloopy process of gut­ting. You may wince, but some­thing about the process feels pro­foundly right.

This isn’t just about get­ting the freshest food pos­si­ble, it’s about tak­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity for what you eat.

If you’re pre­pared to con­sume some­thing, it seems to me that you should be pre­pared to kill it. Some­body killed that fish on the su­per­mar­ket slab, too, and the fact it was done out of sight doesn’t make it any more hu­mane.

Ev­i­dently, Jack­son has started a trend. As if the bell for elevenses has been rung, fish are bit­ing all over the place: mack­erel, pout­ing, bream, dog­fish, john dory, even a con­ger eel. As we work the reels, our stom­achs rum­ble. This lot looks good enough to eat. Soon.

Back to shore and into the kitchen. First off, we’ll try it raw: mack­erel sashimi, with Chris­tian, also a trained chef, show­ing how. The flesh is firm and the flavour is sur­pris­ingly del­i­cate. Where you’d ex­pect a fishy tang (in fact, that’s a sign of de­com­po­si­tion), this is fresh and clean. In fact, it doesn’t taste of fish at all. It tastes of the sea.

Now it’s our turn. Chris­tian wielded the knife del­i­cately but de­ci­sively, lib­er­at­ing big, juicy fil­lets. But it’s trick­ier than it looks and by the time we’ve all fin­ished you’d think we’d been fish­ing with grenades.

Thank­fully, the real chefs have been labour­ing away in the kitchen and the day is topped off with a sen­sa­tional late lunch. We have a del­i­cate pol­lock tart, mains of zesty salsa-verde mack­erel and fried bream that melts in the mouth like a briny marsh­mal­low. With veg that’s just as fresh, there’s noth­ing on the plate that wasn’t grow­ing, pho­to­syn­the­sis­ing or swim­ming a few hours ago.

And, by god, you can taste it. I qui­etly toast Jack­son with a glass of rather good English wine. He may not swim again, but he did not die in vain. The Sun­day Times


River Cot­tage has places avail­able on its Catch & Cook day sched­uled for Oc­to­ber 24 this year and on Septem­ber 10, 2008. £225 ($512); www.river­cot­tage.net. There are nu­mer­ous boats op­er­at­ing reg­u­lar sea-fish­ing trips across Bri­tain; www.ukchar­ter­boats.co.uk.

Big fish to fry: Celebrity chef Hugh Fearn­ley-Whit­tingstall with one that didn’t get away; his River Cot­tage day course shows how to catch and cook

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