This article was also published in the Financial Times.
An on-going email exchange with a reader in Menlo Park, California, about which wild fish can still be enjoyed with equanimity by those concerned about the world's dwindling stocks of this exceptional ingredient, prompted him to kindly send me the menu from the Oceanic Dinners recently held at Oliveto restaurant in Oakland.
Each fish on the menu was cross-referenced to 29 sources and harvest methods at the bottom, from Boston mackerel, caught by traps off Rhode Island, to tai snapper, caught by hook and line in New Zealand.
I sent this on to Charles Clover, whose book The end of the line (recently made into an excellent film) first highlighted this crisis and who has exposed many leading chefs' indifference to this issue. His response was illuminating. 'A menu from the future, information wise. Shame about the halibut and swordfish.' Atlantic halibut, he continued, is an endangered species while swordfish is a top predator, whose demise therefore affects the entire fish population and is liable to overfishing.
If even the most environmentally restaurant can make mistakes about the fish it serves then I began to realise that the lack of knowledge surrounding this topic must be vast indeed. So I decided to take the train down to Newhaven Harbour on the south coast of England, sixty miles south of London.
This harbour is still an important landing point for fish caught along the Channel. Seasonal, like every port, it is currently witnessing good landings of sea bass, crab, lobster, brill, turbot, mackerel, skate and lemon sole, while later in the year these landings will be replaced by plaice, Dover sole and then scallops.
My ultimate destination was the two-storey HQ of Network Seafoods and a cup of tea in an armchair next to Peter Ellis, its founder.
Ellis can be described as 'almost the Old Man of the Sea'. At 63, well-built, with weather-beaten face and arms, he climbed the stairs to his office with some difficulty as he is awaiting operations on both knees, the result, he explained, 'of a life time in the wild either fishing commercially, for pleasure or in the winter, shooting'. Like many in commercial fishing in the UK, Ellis supplements his business in the winter by selling game to the same restaurants that buy fish from him.
He began his fishing career by building a boat to catch tuna off the south-west coast of Ireland but for the last 30 years he has been a buyer, processor and distributor not just to numerous restaurants that his vans can reach once he has bought the fish every morning on the quayside but also to supermarkets and the National Health Service.
While one of his salesmen patiently told a chef on the phone that she regrettably could not fulfill his order for large sea bass, but that there were plenty of smaller ones available, Ellis explained that his business had begun by producing filleted fish enrobed with a natural white crumb, 'as my Mother used to make', he added. Today, a current best seller is a fillet of pollack, coated in sunflower oil so rich in Omega 3, being served to patients in hospitals.
Over the years his service to the restaurants has changed significantly. 'Our motto has always been "Direct from the trawler to your table" but it is now a standing joke that this is now, effectively, "Out of the sea, onto the quay, into the van and on to the pan"', Ellis explained with a smile.
'Our business used to be simply supplying to the kitchens the freshest, whole wild fish which we had simply cleaned. But as the number of the experienced sous-chefs who can fillet a fish has been cut significantly, restaurants now demand that their fish be delivered ready filleted and boxed in just the right kind of ice, neither too lumpy nor too coarse – whisky-friendly ice, I call it. And we do all that for them downstairs. We do keep the fish bones and give them away to our best customers so they can still make a proper bouillabaisse'
Coincidentally, dwindling fish stocks mean that Ellis has to supply farmed fish alongside the wild but this is a matter of principle as well as business. There was definitely a touch of determination in his voice when he explained that his company would simply not sell wild salmon any longer because he considers it an endangered species.
But scarcity and rising prices now meant that Ellis was handling farmed turbot and sea trout from the Shetland Isles and that although he could readily distinguish wild from farmed turbot by the colour of the lower half, his verdict was 'not bad at all'. At the moment, he currently prefers the farmed salmon from Norway.
But the two farmed fish which currently impress Ellis most are the sea bass he imports from Greece and Turkey and the trout which come from a farm on the river Avon in Hampshire, where the fish are forced to swim against the river's current and therefore do not develop an earthy flavour. 'I've been a fisherman all my life and Newhaven is a bass port but it is only when you open these farmed bass up that you can tell the difference between the two. Otherwise, they are beautiful, pristine and fin perfect.'
It was only when our conversation turned to cod and Ellis confessed that he found it 'absolutely galling' that his firm, like so many, now has to import farmed cod from Norway when stocks in UK waters used to be so abundant, that Ellis's frustration with the current system really showed through. 'We gave away our fishing rights in the early 1970s when we joined the EU', he explained, 'and the rules that are applied as to what can be landed here are much stricter than they are on the other side of the Channel.'
But as we parted, Ellis divulged just why the past 40 years had been so obviously rewarding. 'I'm not selling fish but seafood', he said. 'The spectrum of flavours that comes from what's in the sea, lakes and rivers is much broader than the range of meat that's available. We just have to try to price it sensibly for the next generation to enjoy.'