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