Seafood champion changes way we think about fish
Ella Walker spends the day with chef Simon Hulstone and visits Brixham Fish Market
We’re warned: walk into Brixham Fish Market in Devon while wearing green wellies and the likelihood is you’ll be met with farm noises. White and yellow wellies are the way forward if you want to mingle authentically in the chilly, early morning world of the fish market, a-bustle with fishermen who drink together on the weekend, but compete daily in the market.
However, we are not professionals, so instead, our guide James Mooney, from seafood wholesaler and fish supplier Kingfisher Brixham, has us decked out in plastic slip-on shoe covers, hair nets (very fetching) and white coats, as though we’re about to enter a medical lab.
We’re here with chef and seafood champion Simon Hulstone, of Michelin-starred restaurant The Elephant, which is found in his nearby hometown of Torquay.
We stalk between crates of mottled Dover sole; inky lobsters with their taped-up claws still trying to clack, huge slabs of turbot and box upon box of red mullet which shimmer crimson and fuchsia. “Chefs want the pink scales,” says Hulstone, “but they get battered when they’re caught.”
Most eerily, there are tubs containing severed, alien-like monkfish tails, which historically have been used as scampi (the deep-fried stuff you get at the pub). “The fishermen bring them in headless because the head is as big as the body,” explains Mooney — and there’s not much to be made from the heads.
Mooney and Hulstone talk fish trends (the fishermen are keen seafood trend followers); how chef Tom Kerridge’s now famous deepfried brill and chips at Kerridge’s Bar & Grill — for a whopping £32.50 — is worth every penny (“It’s brill!” yelps Hulstone), and why British restaurant-goers aren’t interested in eating ‘black gold’, aka cuttlefish, which, like a lot of crab, is bought up by other countries.
Back at The Elephant, which Roux scholarship winner Hulstone runs with his wife Katy, who manages the front of house, he demos three of his dishes, filleting halibut, hake and cod in swift succession.
Hulstone is a big supporter of Brixham but is also a major fan of — and ambassador for — sustainable seafood from Norway.
He has fewer than 10 people in his kitchen and considers himself the “conductor at the front”, while interestingly, his apprentice James, doesn’t even like eating fish.
“I don’t like the way it’s made,” James admits sheepishly, when quizzed over the carcass of a glistening halibut. Hulstone is working on him though; putting people’s indifference and dislike of fish down to the
fact “batter has blinded us”. “It’s an animal, it’s got to move, it’s got to live, it’s got to bleed — people forget that,” explains Hulstone.
That said, he’s very strict on getting rid of any “uglies” — whether you’re cooking fish at homeor being served it in a restaurant.
“Always check the inside is really nice and red, no smell,” says Hulstone, reeling off what to look for when selecting a fish, either from your supermarket or fishmonger. “The less handling the better, or it degrades.” And that icky fish slime? “That means it’s fresh.”
But don’t be put off buying frozen fish. If the label says ‘frozen at sea’ he explains, it means the fish has been filleted and frozen on the boat — so it should end up being considerably fresher than stuff that’s just been chilled and transported back to the mainland.
“People think it’s being a cowboy, freezing your fish,” he says. “It’s not, it tenderises it — it’s exactly the same, even though it can seem like a cheat.”
And if you’re anxious about filleting your own fish, ask your fishmonger to do it for you — even Hulstone still gets nervous filleting, especially when he’s faced with deftly slicing a three to four kilo sea creature into 14 identically sized and shaped portions.
Slapping a fillet of cod in a hot pan with butter sounds very much a doddle in comparison.