‘You’ve got to let the fish know who’s in charge,’ says our respected chef and teacher, Roger Williams, holding the codling firmly and snapping its fins off decisively.
Ten of us are gathered around his filleting table, hair-netted, beard-snooded and craning our necks to get a better view. We are here to learn – not just how to get from a gleaming whole fish to a golden crisp fishcake – but also about why we, as an island, a country, and indeed a world, need to have a greater respect for our fishing industries.
The day has been organised by the Anglesey and Gwynedd Fisheries Local Action Group (FLAG), as part of their effort to support the fishing industry and associated communities, by raising awareness, both about how versatile, delicious and nutritious fish is, but also to be aware of, and care about, sustainability issues.
It’s part of a three-fold plan in Anglesey and Gwynedd. The first two parts involve school visits to get kids engaged with seafood in their area from an early age, and distributing vouchers for free local sea fare. The third part is where today comes in. Everyone in here (including Alison from Halen Môn) been selected to be ‘Seafood Ambassadors’ for North Wales – their job will be to take what they learn and share it with friends and family, by hosting a seafood supper, cooking interesting recipes, and bringing the topic of local seafood into community conversation. (I have come along to photograph the day.)
The morning begins with a talk from esteemed local marine biologist, Dr Dylan Evans. He begins by asking why we are happy to ask for ‘fish and chips’ in a restaurant, when we would never consider asking for something as generic as ‘meat and chips.’ There are many species of edible fish off the coast of Anglesey, he says, and it is time we started to reconnect with our seas and learn the differences between some of them.
Dylan then stresses our need to diversify from what society has deemed the ‘normal’ fish to eat. Many of today’s modern fishing methods throw away thousands of tonnes of dead fish if they do not match the target species of the voyage. (For more info on this, it is worth watching the highly acclaimed Hugh’s Fish Fight series, which offers an extremely comprehensive look at some of the world’s current fishing methods) Dylan emphasises the need for us to start thinking about this by-catch as food and not waste.
He talks about mussels as a sustainable, protein-rich and delicious food from our local shores, and mentions that the constant movement of water through the Menai Strait makes our mussels some of the cleanest around.
After an extremely interesting hour from Dylan, we don bright blue aprons and overshoes and head for the kitchen.
Our chefs Roger and Denise take us through the catch they have brought with them, from codling to seabass, lobster to scallops, all fished locally, bar the plaice which is more difficult to get hold of on the island. Roger starts with the basics, giving us five signs to look for to ensure your fish is fresh:
- A hint of ‘marine’ smell – certainly not a strong fishy one
- A covering of natural slime
- A pair of protruding eyes (not sunken)
- If you pull the fins back then they should spring back into place
- The body should be rigid
He shows us his impressive knife skills with a few different species and then lets us have a go, first at filleting and then de-skinning, both harder than he makes it look.
- Use a flexible bladed knife
- Have salt nearby to dip your fingers into – it helps to get a grip on the fish
- Bones from flat fish always make a better stock
- To prevent the skin curling up, score the skin-side going against the grain and bang with the flat of the knife
- Wash your hands in cold water – this will prevent the pores opening up and the fishy smell seeping in
By the time we’ve filleted our codling, we’re getting hungry, and it’s on to the cooking. Roger hands us over to Denise. We start with a beautiful mussel dish – where the local shellfish are cooked with chorizo, leeks and cider for a delicious and sustaining meal.
We snack on the cooked mussels while Denise takes us through the simple steps of making a Peruvian supper, a seabass ceviche. The bass fillets are not cooked here, only sliced thinly and cured with plenty of lime juice, and finished with coriander, chilli and a pinch of Halen Mon.
Denise demonstrates pan-frying some scallops, and Roger cooks a live lobster and then we feast on the shellfish and the ceviche, with local homemade bread.
After lunch we head back to the kitchen to learn how to pan fry some glossy seabass fillets. Denise gives us some tips for fail safe cooking:
- Use a neutral oil – you do not want to overpower the delicate fish flavour
- Always use really hot oil – it should be smoking
- For a crisp skin always dry the skin first with paper towel, this also helps prevent sticking
- Do not handle or turn the fish too much as this is how the fillet will fall apart
- Don’t crowd the pan with too much at once, it’s far easier to do one at a time and get it right
Our penultimate dish is a light fishcake, made with oats and egg white instead of breadcrumbs and yolk. Denise explains that you can use lots of different fish for these, making it a versatile dish.
We finish by stuffing trout with fresh fennel and orange, wrapping it in tinfoil ready to steam in the oven at home later.
At the end of the day we are full and are waved off with plenty of seafood to take home to our loved ones for dinner. We are also taking though some straightforward advice on what we can do to play our part in FLAGs actions:
- Buy local – from fishermen you know or sources you trust. Eat something that hasn’t travelled thousands of miles and taste the difference, whilst supporting your local economy. Don’t buy fish without provenance.
- Broaden your horizons – don’t be afraid to try less common fish if you find somewhere it is on offer. Experiment with different dishes and enjoy new flavours
- Check sustainability – Online resources can be really helpful for this – http://www.fishonline.org/ for example has a search engine where you can input a fish species and it will tell you whether or not you should be consuming it
Perhaps it is best to end how we began – with Dylan’s talk. In it he spoke of sustainability as a social responsibility. In Wales, our economy is heavily reliant on our environment and natural resources, so it is everyone’s job to look after them.
If you want to get involved and become one of the next group of Seafood Ambassadors email [email protected]
Article & photographs: Jess Lea-Wilson
Recipes will be posted in the next month or so.