Sunday, 30 August 2009

Does an 'R' in the month still hold true?

September is now with us which means very soon it will be shellfish, however, throughout the summer months we are continually asked for Clams, sought after by our Italian customers, mussels by our French, and oysters by our English little interest is shown when trying to explain as to why we don’t have them – ok, but where can I buy some is the response? So is buying and eating shellfish when there is an ‘r’ in the month an issue of safety or quality or both? or if you were to read the Waitrose website neither –“ Whether it’s January or June, you can eat these plump beauties with impunity” (there article also likened Gordon Ramsey face to a craggy farmed rock oyster which I am sure he will be pleased with)

The statement that shellfish are poisonous when there is an ‘r’ in the month still rears its head and it is age old so there must be some truth somewhere. According to the American Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, a full 40% of cases occur from September through April, again dispelling the idea not to eat oysters in the months without ‘r’s in them. Red tides (poisonous algal blooms) that occur in the very hot months do affect the toxicity of the shellfish, however, these are very rare around the coast of the UK. Shellfish filter water through their two shells and feed on the algae and plankton they find in it. What they're grazing on are tiny aquatic life forms called flagellates. The toxins from unsavory flagellates and algae accumulate within the guts of the shellfish – these are responsible for shellfish poisoning.

There are four key shellfish poisoning syndromes associated with bivalves including Clams, Mussels, Oysters and scallops. Paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP), Neurologic shellfish poisoning (NSP), Diarrheal shellfish poisoning (DSP), Amnestic shellfish poisoning (ASP).

Be aware that no amount of cooking will cleanse a shellfish of it of toxins. Additionally, against popular belief, when a shellfish dies it DOES NOT suddenly become poisonous. You may have experienced a bad clam when cooking which spoils the dish, but this does not automatically mean shellfish poisoning will result. If you or a friend of yours has suffered a type of shellfish poisoning they have just been unlucky. The chef or fishmonger could have no idea that a product he was selling contained toxins. They would have been sold a cultivated or wild harvested product from a supplier that requires a licence to hold their shellfish in a quantity of circulating salt water which has been purified with the aid of ultraviolet light irradiation until the impurities have been removed from the bivalves.

How about quality issues? Our decision not to sell shellfish in the summer revolves around this. Certain shellfish, which brood their young in months without an “r” are less palatable at that time of year. Mussels and clams are empty and small and oysters appear very milky. Native oysters are illegal to harvest in months without an ‘r’. So for us it is the reason of quality – everything has a best season for reasons of taste and texture and when out of season an alternative treat will be in season.

What to look for when buying shellfish?

  • Find a reputable supplier
  • Make sure the shellfish appear damp, shiny and appealing.
  • Make sure all are closed and are not cracked or broken. Shellfish live in the sea and not on a counter therefore occasionally many may appear open or opening. Brush your hand over the top and they should close. If they don’t then avoid them.
  • Personally I would not buy shellfish from a supermarket style wet tank. Bivalves live in seawater with a concentrate of 0.5-35 parts per thousand salinity. They do not live in circulated, chlorinated tap water.
  • Storing - When you have your shellfish at home rinse, drain, put into a glass bowl and cover tightly with a damp tea towel or wet newspaper. Make sure oysters are upright.
  • Don’t store in water – they will die and don’t try and feed them oats (this is my favourite). This is a aged myth and the elderly customers look at me as if I am stupid when I tell them mussels do not eat oats in the sea!

Molto bello il pesce

Europe has some amazing fish markets with the beast of Barcelona, the pristine of Paris and the lackluster of London just to name a few. I have been to many fish markets and countless fish shops, but for me the most outstanding and memorable was my visit to the market in Venice. As with all fish markets an early start is requisite so when i told the wife she would be rising at 5am on our holiday to go and see fish i wasn't flavour of the month.

So what was so amazing about the Venice fish market?

Firstly consider the logistics. As i waited patiently with camera in hand a procession of small delivery vessels chugged quietly up and down the Grand Canal heavily loaded with water, wine, fruit & veg and even newspapers and it wasn't long before the fish started to arrive - again all by boat.

The boats were laden with some of the most amazing seafood you are lightly to see. Huge tunas and swordfish. Many bags of delicious shellfish, mussels, clams, and razers, countless boxes of squid, langoustines and prawns. Every last item needed unloading by hand, as quickly as possible, so not to hold up the next boat.
The quality of the wet fish was consistent throughout the market with some amazing John Dory, Scorpion Fish and Dover Sole. Also a large variety of extremely fresh farmed fish were also available including Dorade and small halibut and turbot.

One of the biggest spectacles were the tables laden with squid, octopus and cuttlefish. I stood cringing as one man poured ink over his octopus and then mixed it in covering each one completely - what a mess it would make over our lovely white tiles!!

This market is a must see when visiting Venice and may i also suggest walking to the Piazza San Marco before the market as sitting in the worlds most stunning square, on your own, and witnessing the emptyness is quite a feeling.

Beautifully fresh dover sole albeit quite small. the average size of seafood in the Mediterranean seems to have suffered from overfishing. these dovers are 8-12oz compared to the size sold through our London shop that would average 14-20oz.

A pile of small whole farmed Atlantic halibut. the most impressive thing about these were just how fresh they were.

Beautiful octopus lying next to one of the markets anomalies - farmed rainbow trout!!

Huge piles of cephlapods covered in ink.

From left to right. Scorpion fish, john dory, whole monkfish and farmed turbot

An excellent stall on the way from the market walking towards the Rialto Bridge.

Friday, 28 August 2009

Round Fish or Flat Fish or maybe both!!

You can see weird and wonderful fish on David Attenborough’s deep sea documentaries, but one of the most amazing groups of fish are those commonly seen on your dinner plate. Around the coast of the British Isles are many groups and species of fish, however, one of the most amazing are the Pleuronectiformes which are our very own flatfish. The commercially important species can be split into two sections – the left eye flat fish that include Turbot, Brill, Halibut and Megrim and the right eye flat fish incorporating the Dover Sole, Plaice, Lemon Dab (commonly called Lemon Sole) and Sand Sole.

Brill under cover - photo taken at the London Aquarium

But why are these fish amazing? Well they are born as round fish, in the shape of a salmon for example, then after several months of their larval development a staggering metamorphosis takes place. The gut twists 50 degrees whilst one eye migrates around the head leaving two on one side. The fish then leaves its pelagic environment, drifts to the bottom, and takes up its new demersal lifestyle. The pigment on the top skin can then adapt a colour to its surroundings to prevent detection from predators. The fish then spends the rest of its life flat. It is believed one mayor reason why these fish evolved this change was to take advantage of the sea bed, a less crowded and under utilised feeding ground niche.

A fairly simple explanation of a flatfishes lifestyle, but hopefully it may inspire all to look closely next time they are stood at their fishmongers.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Wild fish are size graded into boxes – fact.

When somebody suggests that a fishmonger is selling farmed bass as wild, because they are all a similar size, the steam starts to shoot from their ears. Unfortunately a number of celeb chefs dish out this advice in their cook books without really offering or justifying their reasons.

I will Take sea bass and sea bream as great examples as these are the most commonly sold farmed whole fish. All wild fish landed at markets such as Newlyn, Plymouth, Peterhead and Fraserburgh go to auction. This allows records to be kept of landings and without these records such management tools as TACs, Quotas and days at sea could never be policed or even justified. Different size fish command different market prices for example a 14 to 16 oz Dover sole, suitable for restaurants, will hold somewhere between 40 and 60% more value than small 10-12oz or large 20oz+. For this reason a boat owner will instruct the market to grade his fish tightly, before auction, to obtain the highest price.

Farmed bass and bream are graded in the following sizes <400grm, 4-600grms and 6-800grms. It is very unusual for larger sizes as maturity is reached thus artificial feed would be wasted on the growing of eggs or milt and not into flesh.

Farmed Gilthead Bream (Top), Wild Line Caught Bass (Below)

Wild bass are graded in the following sizes 6-800grms, 8-1kg, 1-1.5kg and >1.5kg. Wild bream have no size limits and a much lower value than bass so can be found in mixed boxes. So the problem occurs when a box of 6-800grm wild bass can be displayed next to the same sized but farmed fish. Unfortunately, unless you have an experienced eye (although directly next to each other they are very easy to distinguish from each other) you could be sold farmed as wild (A common trick of many restaurants as once cooked the originality of the fish can be easily hidden)

So what is my point? Seeing that row of fish on a slab all of a similar size does not automatically mean they are farmed. Realistically bass is your only concern. Also take what is written in the cook book with a pinch of its own salt. Spend your time in fishmongers, take time to look closely, find a friendly one and he will point out all you need to look for. If he is confident of his product he will be happy to help.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Can You Guarantee Me My Bass??

The words from a regular customer who is then shocked by the response.

The amazing fact is many people are unaware that unlike a field dwelling cow or a sheep or a pig the fish they require for next weeks dinner party has not only NOT been caught yet, but may never be caught. It certainly isn't in a pool at the rear of the shop. Worst still it may have been caught, but it is not the size suggested in the new Jamie Oliver or Risk Stein manual. People just expect the product to be on a shelf like a visit to their local Sainsburys on a Sunday morning. So many factors affect the chance of obtaining that perfect dinner party fish. Weather, seasons and market price are the main problems which will then knock on to availability and then most importantly quality. Tip – talk to your fishmonger in advance before you decide your menu, be flexible, and if your fishmonger is ‘worth his salt’ your dinner party will be a success.

Wild about Salmon

Top: Farmed Salmon Tail (left) Wild (right)

Below: Wild (top) Farmed (below)

Shock News – Fish have seasons unbeknown to supermarkets and sticking to these will always yield a tastier meal. There are certain times of the year when a real treat is in season at the moment it is the Grilse. Grilse is the name given to a wild salmon that has spent only one year at sea compared to its larger siblings that return after 3 or 4 years. The larger fish are the highly important brood stock that sustain stock levels and are listed as threatened by the Marine Conservation Society. For this reason I made a personal decision this year not to sell the larger fish through our shop.

Wild Fillet (above) Farmed Fillet (below)

So why is wild Atlantic salmon (not to be confused with the fillets of wild Alaskan salmon (travelled 3000 km) seen in super markets) better than good quality Scottish farmed salmon? I am I great fan of Scottish farmed salmon and eat it a couple of times a week, however, the wild is an altogether different product. Due to the life style of the farmed salmon it yields a much higher fat content in the flesh of the stomach compared to its very active wild brother. This is excellent for sashimi, but can be a little to much if baked or roasted. Be aware different qualities of farmed salmon will yield different levels of fat.

So how can tell if you are being sold farmed or wild salmon? The wild fish will have visible higher quality fins and rarely have a bumped or damaged nose. There should also be some net marks on the body. You may in a number of cases see fish lice on the wild fish. This is treated on the farmed variety. As mentioned the fat content will be a lot lower, but don’t be confused by the flesh colour argument as fish farms are able to produce what ever colour flesh they have preference for. A wild salmon does naturally have dark pink flesh. Farmed salmon will always come pre-gutted and finally the wild salmon will probably be anything for 3 to 6 times the price of farmed which is a difference, but defiantly worth trying when in season and does coincide with the samphire season.