Monday, 5 October 2009

The English Channel Vs. The South West - Might be Sole Destroying

I find myself discussing the Dover Sole with my customer’s on a daily basis. Those who know me are only too aware I can talk about fish all day, not the cooking or the selling, but the biology and capture. This is what really floats my boat so when I am questioned as to “why the Dover Sole are £6 per kilo cheaper in the fishmongers in South Kensington” or “£8 per kilo cheaper at the local farmers market” a response is required. Unfortunately those that ask such questions are not usually in the market for an answer, let alone a Dover, so my structured scientific responses generally fall on deaf ears. However, if you are interested read on.

A couple of years ago we tried selling Dover Sole caught from the English channel opposed to our usual South West supply. Why? They were offered to us cheaper through a Billingsgate trader. How strange it was when our regulars starting coming back saying the Dover Sole were not right, tasted odd, strange texture, odd flavour. Never again have we sold them, but me being me i wasn’t happy not knowing so I started my investigations. My own taste tests and comparisons of texture and flavour confirmed a distinct difference. By no means were the channel Dovers (CD) bad and if you had never tried the alternative there would be no need to change, but the South West Dovers (SWD) certainly had the superior taste and texture. But why so different when they are the same species? Well feeding grounds are the key. Dover Sole are a species of flatfish and flatfish spend the majority of their life as benthic (bottom) dwellers and have made it their niche to feed from these areas. We also know flatfish adapt to the substrate they live on which in the case of the SWD and CD is very different. The layman’s eye could not spot the difference between the external appearances or the flesh differences of channel Bass and Cornish Bass; however, the visual differences between the Dovers are so striking it takes little expertise to distinguish between them.

These pictures show the skin on and skin off difference between SWD and CD. In all the pictures the SWD appear at the top. With the skin on a difference is quite apparent. The CD is a much darker fish opposed to the lighter sandy colour of the SWD. Sometimes the CD can appear almost black in colour. This difference is a direct result of the substrate the respective fish reside on. One of the key defence mechanisms of the flatfish is camouflage with pigments in their skin changing colour to suit their environment. The very dark almost black colour suggests a muddy substrate; the English Channel is the busiest shipping lane in the world, maybe the deposits from these vessels may have some influence? When skinned the SWD yields a slight pinky or whitish pink flesh whereas the CD offers a light grey coloured veiny flesh. In most cases the SWD flesh also appears firmer to the touch. Unlike the outer skin the flesh colour is directly correlated to the chosen feed and level of gamete production. Neither of the photographed fish was in spawn so we can discount the latter as being influential in this example. Additionally, as fish flesh ages it looses its colour. In my experience a very high number of CD yield a grey flesh no matter the time scale of capture.

So is it just me that believes there is a difference? I believe not. The wholesale price of south west Dovers can be up to 78% higher than channel Dovers on the same given day. So when I am told there is no discernible difference between the products why the huge difference in price? Conversely, why doesn’t the majority of London’s top restaurants use channel Dovers? Why do they persist on paying a premium for a product they can get cheaper elsewhere? The answer, well, it is not the same product. The farmers' market trader will be selling his CD cheaper than I am buying my SWD but this I have to suffer as I will never again change my buying policies to turn a cheeky profit.


  1. The beamer boys will be impressed with this appraisal of their catch Mat!

  2. Interesting. In the South East there is not the same sale process i.e. no auction which creates competition for good quality fish. So most fish are more expensive if sourced from the West Country. However, continuity of supply and quality are important postives for the West Country.