For some time restaurants have faced a dilemma: can you be kind to fish and still allow guests to enjoy their light and tender texture? Or does a popular 2003 Disney Pixar animation speak truth? Do you have to decide whether fish are friends or food?
Whether for health reasons or to reduce their meat intake, more and more consumers have turned to fish. This has inevitably had an impact on stock – natural production just can’t keep up. A reduction of fish in our oceans has led to an increase in fish farming. While this was intended to help minimise the need for mass wild fishing, it has raised ethical issues. As a result, there have been calls for sustainable fishing and ethical fish farming that are impossible to ignore.
“Unlike some might think, buying farmed fish doesn’t protect wild ones,” says Dr Tracey Jones, director of food business at Compassion in World Farming. “Many farmed fish are fed largely on wild fish. To produce farmed fish such as salmon, it takes about three times the weight of wild caught fish. This is not only unsustainable, but adds to the serious welfare concerns about how wild fish are caught and slaughtered.”
As the industry becomes ever more conscious of the demand for fish and the effects it is having on both wild and farmed fish, suppliers and operators are championing lesser known species, seasonality and sustainability. After years of pressure, recent activity suggests that there might finally be something to celebrate.
Tip the scales
The most popular fish species on dining tables, such as cod, salmon, haddock and sea bass, have been dwindling in numbers in our oceans. The alarm was raised over 10 years ago when stocks came close to collapsing, forcing the industry to improve fishing standards.
“Cod stocks in the North Sea peaked at 270,000 tonnes in the 1970s, when North Sea cod was widely sold and enjoyed,” says MSC commercial manager George Clark. “However, stocks fell to just 44,000 tonnes in 2006. Since then the industry has worked with the Scottish Government and EU Fisheries Council to agree and implement a Cod Recovery Plan that would nurse the stock back to health.”
The plan involved closing large spawning areas to fishing, trialling new nets and monitoring activity with CCTV on boats. The aim was to reduce cod catches by 25% in 2009, with subsequent annual reductions of 10%. Earlier this summer, their efforts paid off with the announcement that North Sea cod caught by boats belonging to the Scottish Fisheries Sustainable Accreditation Group (SFSAG) is now MSC certified.
“This is a massive development for the catching sector and is a testament to the power of collective action,” says SFSAG chairman Mike Park. “The years of commitment to rebuilding North Sea cod has shown that fishermen are responsible and can be trusted to deliver stable and sustainable stocks. The certified restaurant can now offer their customers locally-caught cod with a clear conscience.”
There’s no doubt that restaurants played their part in the decrease of popular species of fish. For a long time, chefs relied on these because they knew they were familiar to customers and would therefore sell. In an attempt to directly play their part in rescuing fish stock, operators have been introducing and promoting other species to customers more and more.
With a focus on fish found around the British Isles, Chop House introduced a special menu into all of its London sites throughout July, featuring Cornish mussels, Scottish scallops and Isle of Gingha halibut.
“Sustainably caught British fish might not always be the cheapest option, but, given the current trend towards premiumisation, we know that consumers will pay more for something if it is of superior quality and ticks all the right boxes in terms of sustainability and provenance,” says Jason Calcutt, business development chef at M&J Seafood.
With Swedish crayfish in season throughout August and September, Nordic restaurant Aquavit has added the shellfish to the á la carte menu and created a dedicated set menu. Foley’s in Fitzrovia also updates its fish menu according to the seasons.
“The seasonality of the fish here in England [inspires my fish dishes],” says Foley’s head chef Mitz Vora. “We update the fish dishes according to the season. We started last year in the summer, hence we had dishes like tuna ceviche and octopus salad. Recently, we changed to a salmon tartare dish and changed the hake by charcoal roasting it, wrapped in a banana leaf.”
To ensure that you know what you are serving, the relationship with your supplier is incredibly important.
“We have an excellent relationship with our fish supplier J. Pieroni & Sons, a highly regarded third generation fishmonger in Ayr,” says Craft & Harbour co-owner and executive chef Jamie Smith. “They know what we expect and they are also lovers of food. They care passionately about their produce and we love being able to talk to them about where their fish has come from, whether it was sourced responsibly and different seasonal options.”
Seasonality not only encourages operators to work in sync with nature, but also offers them the opportunity to introduce new and lesser known species onto the menu. Customers that are interested in experiencing new flavours, dishes and cuisines are not only aiding the use of many fish species, but encourage chefs to experiment.
Something fishy’s going on
Just like we have restaurants specialising in steak, burgers and barbecue, there are fish-focused operators whose entire menus are dedicated to our finned friends. Therefore, chefs have to think up new ways to get customers excited about seafood and ensure they stay on brand.
“While somewhere like Atlantic Bar & Brasserie is rooted in its traditional French dishes, offering bouillabaisse and lemon sole, The Anchor Line is influenced by current trends as well as the brand’s historical significance, taking inspiration from the cruise liner’s old menus,” says The DRG social media manager Andrew Cuthbertson. “We recently updated our menu in The Anchor Line to contain a beautiful new salmon rillette served with a rich and flavourful gribiche dressing. We also added a beautiful, smoked haddock risotto which has a distinct Scandinavian flavour to it, harkening back to the Northern Tours the shipping company ran in the 1930s.”
Despite the pressure that has been on fish stocks, there are some dishes that carry across from one restaurant to another. Fish and chips, one of the most traditional dishes in the UK, is listed on many a restaurant menu, but due to the factors mentioned previously, there’s been of a twist in the tale in recent times.
“We update our specials every Wednesday,” says Smith. “This is where we really get to have fun and experiment. A recent favourite was our Mexican fish and chips for National Fish and Chips Day. Fried fish tacos and hand-torn blue masa chips might not be the most traditional approach, but they went down swimmingly.”
The flavours associated with Mexican cuisine means that, if anything, a species as subtle as cod might not do the dish justice, and something more adventurous could be desired. When it comes to fish, the flavour combinations are endless.
“Strongly flavoured varieties such as herrings, sprats and mackerel make a great filling for a soft taco or wrap where a small amount goes a long way, whilst the cheaper brown meat from crabs makes a great sauce when blitzed with mayo, tomato and herbs and added to a seafood risotto or pasta,” advises Calcutt.
Another cuisine that has been influencing restaurant fish dishes is without a doubt sushi.
“‘Raw’ is a big growth area within the fish and seafood category, with carpaccio, tartare and ceviche – all of which are essentially an extension of traditional sushi dishes – regularly featuring on menus right across the out of home sector,” says Andrew Crawford, category manager of fish and seafood at Brakes. “The other fast emerging ‘raw’ trend, certainly in London, is poké. Aside from the innovative flavour profiles often associated with these dishes, the perception that they represent a healthier, lighter menu option is key to their appeal.”
Without the addition of batter or carbohydrates that often accompanies fish dishes, raw fish options can be easier to eat on the go, ideal for lunch or for customers short on time. The recent expansion of poké brands Ahi Poké and Island Poké suggests that this Hawaiian dish is finding favour with customers.
Considering the pressures that have been on the entire industry to take better care of wild fish stocks, restaurateurs have found ways to combat the issues that may arise. While there’s good news for cod fishing, fortunately, the latest trends in global flavours and new experiences are helping alternative species take pride of plaice, too.