Sunday, 19 December 2010

Gravlax Just In Time For Christmas

Gravlax derives from Scandinavia and is a very simple process of dry-curing by marinading in salt, sugar, pepper and Dill. The result is a delicious dark, firm dill salmon perfect for Christmas or Boxing Day starter.

Firstly your salmon needs to be fresh as it could be up to twelve days old when finally consumed. When buying salmon from your fish monger look for bright and visually appealing fillets. Avoid fillets that show signs of:

Gapping – The flakes of fish appearing to be open. Commonly seen along the line of pin boning or on the fattier sections of the belly flap. Gapping is a sign of old fish.

Soft texture – Old or badly handled salmon will be soft to the touch. If you can press your finger onto the skin and the indentation remains or retracts slowly the fish is to be avoided. Bare in mind if the fish has been scalled the fish will feel slightly softer to the touch so a little leeway should be given.

Patching or lightening of colour – If the salmon has lighter colour patches on the flesh this is probably due to ice burn or water absorption. This is usually a result of poor handling. Although this has probably not affected the freshness and it would cook fine it is not ideal to use for gravlax.

Gravlax requires two matching pieces of salmon fillet with identical thicknesses. This is not the easiest to obtain unless you are great friends with you fishmonger, therefore I would suggest ordering the whole fish (a 4kg head on gutted salmon will yield two skin on sides of approximately 1kg each) then have your fishmonger scale and fillet it for you. When at home you can cut and match your own size. Don’t forget to take the bones as you can scrape enough meat from the frame to make wonderful fishcakes.

For every 1 kg of salmon cured you will need the following ingredients;

1 medium/large bunch of dill chopped
65grms coarse sea salt
50grms white sugar
1 ½ tablespoons of crushed white peppercorns

1. mix all of the above ingredients together
2. lay one of the salmon fillets skin side down on a large piece of cling film
3. cover the upwards facing flesh evenly with the mixed ingredients
4. place the second fillet flesh down on top of the first
5. wrap tightly three or four times with cling film

In the past I have experienced a problem when the marinade (the marinade is produced when the salt draws the water from the fish which then mixes with the other ingredients) leaks from the wrap. Recently I have found better success just wrapping tightly in a food bag. Once wrapped place on a tray and put into the fridge turning every twelve hours. You can place a weighted plate directly on top which helps by forcing the fillets together. The salmon can be cured in the fridge for up to seven days, but I usually do around five. Once cured it has a further shelf life of five days.

When cured the salmon calves easily due to its now firm nature. Try to cut thinly, however not as this as regular smoked salmon. There are some great ready made dill sauces than can be served as an accompaniment but I tend to use creamy sauces such as horseradish and mustard as it balances nicely against the dill marinade.

So there you have it one of the easiest, yet most striking fish starters you can make. Once you have mastered the simple version you can move onto varying the cures to suit your own taste.

Beetroot Cured Salmon

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Hi All,

Apologies for a lack of content recently but unfortunately my current job doesn't really offer me the correct information to blog about. I now work for Australia's largest seafood company and spend most of my time in supermarkets offering seafood specialist support to improve standards; Would actually make wonderful reading. Whilst in Australia I had hoped to spend a lot of time fishing, catching, preparing, cooking and blogging the outcome, however, Queensland is in its wettest and stormiest spell for 10 years so that has put pay to that. So all i had was the cricket, but that went pear shaped at the WACCA yesterday. Anyhow i will endeavor to find subject matter whilst i am here in Australia or alternatively when i return.

I have a twitter paper running daily which collects and publishes all the most recent news in the industry so it well worth a look.

The Fish & Seafood Daily

Mat :-)

Saturday, 9 October 2010


I will always argue that fish from North East Atlantic have the finest of flavours and that cold water fish provide the best eating. However, since moving to the Southern Hemisphere I have had the opportunity to sample some beautiful fish including a fine range of snappers. When involved with wet fish in London I was only aware of the Red snapper which was generally the only species available at any level of quality. Here in Queensland there are a number of snappers available including what seems the most popular species of crimson snapper and frypan snapper (or frypan bream). Unlike the Red Snapper (usually imported from the Seychelles) that is commonly found in UK and has a soft texture when cooked the Australian species are much meatier with some that compare to eating steak soft steak. There texture is unlike any fish I have tried before and due to the firmness holds up well to more aggressive cooking techniques. Currently the Golden Snapper, Saddletail Snapper and Goldband Snapper are my three favorites, but I still have a number to try. When buying your fillets compare to the pictures below as they are a great guide to quality.

Golden Snapper Fillets

Gold band Snapper Cutlets

Saddletail Snapper Fillets

Brioche Crusted GoldBand Snapper

Barbecued Goldband Snapper Fillets in Vine Leaves with Warm Lentil Salad

Goldband Snapper with lemon

Baked Snapper

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Spotted Mackerel with a Cream Prawn Sauce

Moving to Queensland from London meant I had a whole new set of fish to learn about. Some are similar like the dory and members of the cod family while others I saw on the counters in London such as barracuda, salmon and snapper. In general though most of them can be compared to fish I am already used to in terms of texture and taste.

This is the first time I have cooked with Spotted mackerel which is a beautiful fish caught from the east coast of Australia. The flesh is similar to the Atlantic mackerel, but has very little dark meat, it is less fishy to the palate and as the fish grows larger so it allows nice square portion sizes to be cut. Visually the two fish are different as the Atlantic mackerel has the amazing dark blue/green external flashes on its flanks whereas the Spotted mackerel is a stunning silver sided beast. The monger at Aussie Seafood House, Lawton produced some beautiful fillets from the fish that was about 1.25 kg (my knives are still on a container ship heading our way so he had to do it for me).

This is a simple way to serve fish and can be used with any species although it may favour white fish slightly more. I decided to cook the fish in my favourite way by seasoning well then cooking skin down in a hot pan with olive oil for 2-3 minutes then finishing off in a hot oven for a further 8 minutes. I just feel this method gives a more even cook than on the hob. This method is also wonderful for such species as dover and lemon sole, whole place and other smaller flatfish.

I decided to serve the fish with a prawn sauce although the wife wanted an oyster sauce from a bottle - yikes! I removed the shells from the prawns which I then sautéed in olive oil with some chopped shallot and a little garlic. After a couple of minutes I flambéed with some brandy, added a little chopped fennel, enough weak chicken stock to cover the shells and reduced by half. Once reduced I strained into another saucepan and reduced by half again, seasoned, and added a little cream. It is such a simple sauce and if you find yourself buying prawns and don’t need the shells just pop them in the freezer for a sauce next time. I have found dill instead of fennel works well especially if you are not partial to aniseed. I served blanched pak choi with the dish.

If I were directly comparing to the Atlantic mackerel I would have to say the Aussie fish wins this time. The texture was so beautifully soft and flavoursome and the ability to serve even shaped size portions allow a better consistently in cooking.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Potting for Crabs and Lobsters

We all love our shellfish from crab and lobster to whelks and prawns. It must be remembered that these, unlike the harvested bivalve species mussels, clams and oysters, have to be caught by trapping or potting methods. This type of fishing can be hugely rewarding but also very dangerous. The short blog post gives a simple explanations into the procedure of catching our favorite seafood.

Traditionally there are two main types of pot in the UK. The creel is constructed from a wooden frame consisting of a rectangular batten base surmounted with ‘D’ shaped hoops or bows and then netted. The entrance or entrances are side mounted and are known as soft eyes together with a stretched band across the pot used for baiting. The inkwell was originally made entirely from wickerwork with a circular base and a neck in the top. These were baited using wooden skewers pushed into the inside of the neck.

There are a large number of shapes and designs both on the near continent and worldwide that have been created to do similar jobs. The standard theory for these differences is the availability of local materials. Today the two major shapes are constructed from metal or plastic frames covered with netting. This netting is usually 3mm black polypropylene with a 75mm mesh but could vary depending on target species. Other designs of various materials are produced, some commercially and some by fisherman, and provided they obey the basic rules they will fish perfectly well. Even if a good pot has been selected many other factors could determine whether a good catch is made.
  • Species not located – The target species may not be present in the area, or not hungry. Other possibilities include mating, moulting, predators in the area, sea conditions or weather conditions.
  • Bait – The bait could be of an incorrect type it could be incorrectly positioned or it may have been dislodged as the pot enters the water. Edible Crabs (Cancer pagurus) and spider crabs (Maja squinado) have a preference for very fresh bait compared to the lobster (Homarus gammarus) that has a liking for stale oily bait.
  • Pots badly positioned on the seabed – This could be due to incorrect weighting. Problems can arise if rocks or other debris block the entrance.
  • Dislodged pots – Could be carried away by sea conditions, tides or towed away by trawlers.
  • Scavengers – The bait could attract scavenger species such as sea lice or conger eels before the shellfish have located the pots.
  • The ropes disturb target species – Due to tide movement.
  • Pot disturbs shellfish – It is common for shellfish to put off pots that are moving with the tide. This is usually down to the weight of the pot.
  • Shellfish feeds on the bait from the outside of the pot – This will be down to poor baiting arrangements or practices.
  • Other shellfish in the pot preventing entry for others – The lobster does not like a large number of spider crabs so may not enter, or the entrance may be blocked by a large spider crab.
  • Shellfish enters and is eaten by other shellfish – The lobster and brown crabs are cannibalistic and will turn on each other.
  • Shellfish eats the bait and then escapes – The spider crab rarely escapes and the brown crab will successfully escape but they are slow to do so. The lobster will enter and leave un-trapped pots at will.
The lobster seems to be happier in dark pots with plenty of room. The pot can be adapted to be darker by double netting, but this will add cost and tide drag to the gear. An increase in pot size would also up the cost as well as adding weight to the pot. Stowage and handling problems could also be created and as ever the final decision will have to be a compromise.

Once a shellfish has entered the pot it can be retained by fitting some form of trap in the pot to prevent escape. In the case of a creel this is done by the use of a parlour. A parlour is a separate compartment at one end of the creel, which is entered via a net funnel with a taught deck and a roof, which closes after entry. This method is highly efficient and have made it possible for some boats to double or treble the number of pots used as they only need to be worked every two or three days. This has had a major effect on some shellfish stocks.

It is not possible to fit a parlour to an inkwell pot. The answer has been a trap across the neck, which prevents exit, or a rubber skirt, which discourages exit.

The majority of pots are usually rigged with a bridle and spinner. The spinner is designed to permit the pot to spin in bad conditions without twisting the back rope. This is a convenient way of attaching or removing the pot from the string.

Pots may be shot singly by very small inshore boats but more commonly they are shot in strings or fleets. These strings may be of up to 80 pots in the case of large offshore super-crabbers. The strings will depend on the size of the boat, the number of crew and the ground being worked. The spinner is attached to the ground rope (back rope) by a short snood (1 – 5 fathom length) with a figure of eight knot at the spinner and then spliced into the back rope. The pots are spaced along the back rope at intervals of between 10 and 15 fathoms. At either end of the back rope there may be an anchor or weight. Either this weight or the last pot is attached to the head rope, which are between 2 and 3 times the depth of the water with some sort of buff, float or dhan flag combination.

The rope is usually hard lay split film polypropylene, though it can be monofilament which is more expensive. Smaller boats will commonly use 10mm rope and larger deep-water boats will use up to 14mm. There is also a tendency for some boats to use leaded ropes for a variety of reasons.
  • There is less drag on the gear as the ground rope is on the bottom.
  • There is less chafe on the ground rope as there is less movement.
  • There is less rope on the surface at slack water, which is important in areas of heavy boat traffic.
  • Disadvantages include cost and strength, as it is weaker for given diameter of rope.
When the gear is hauled it is done by a slave line hauler. This may be mounted either on a ‘P’ bracket or inboard with the rope coming aboard through a snatch block suspended from a davit.

Once hauled the pots need to be cleaned. This entails the removal of shellfish and by-catch to be retained and the removal of undersized shellfish and unwanted by-catch to be returned. The pots are then re-baited and stacked back ready to be shot. When they have all been stacked aboard the pots can be re-shot on the same ground if the catch warrants it or they can be moved elsewhere. It is good practice to use the same man shooting as stacking back because shooting the pots in the wrong order can be very dangerous.

Below are pictures of the target catch: Brown Crab (top), Spider Crab (middle),Native Lobster (Bottom)

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Methods to Prevent Fish Spoilage

Ever wondered about the procedures undertaken to preserve the highest quality seafood that ends up onto your plate? Or have you ever considered how it is possible to buy good quality fish from other continents? Much research time and money is spent on finding the best way to preserve food especially fish being as it is the fastest degrading of them all. Various methods of preservation can reduce the spoilage processes of freshly caught fish and shellfish. The initial stages of processing are highly important when trying to maintain important qualities such as freshness, taste, aesthetic values, and edibility of fish. The lowering of quality in any of these areas will cause degradation amounting to the de-valuing of the product when offered to markets or for public consumption.

The two main causes of spoilage in fish are from the self-digestion of tissues, created by enzymes and the bacterial breakdown of the flesh. Immediately after death the fish will start to experience the stiffening of body muscles, this is known as rigor mortis, and if handled incorrectly when being processed the tearing of muscles can occur. The speed of onset is dictated by storing temperatures and glucose contents of the red muscle. This condition can last between one and five days before it starts to wear off.

The micro organisms that can be found on fish will undoubtedly effect the eating quality and the abundance will vary with their chosen environment, the biological state, impacts of nutrition and the effect of the actual catching the fish and these factors are commonly found to be species specific. The biological cycle and nutritional status significantly affect the lipid content and enzyme activity in fishes. Small sized species such as sprat, caplin, and anchovies have a high abundance of hydrolytic enzymes if they have been feeding well. This results in the rapid quality degradation caused by autolysis, resulting in the bursting of the belly.

Although these processes reduce the quality of the fish, the main cause of spoilage is the bacterial load. The presence of bacteria in the muscle areas and bodily fluids of a freshly caught fish is minimal, but areas such as the gut, gills, and slime do contain larger quantities. The regulatory mechanisms that prevent bacteria from invading the tissues cease to function immediately after death. The bacteria will then attack the fishes flesh, travelling from the gills and kidney using the vascular system as their main route. The main groups of bacteria located include Pseudomanas, Achromobacters, and Flavobactors. It has been found that trawled fish contain between 10-100 times more of these due to the dragging through the seabed substrate that contains large amounts of bacteria. High temperatures coincide with peak bacterial quantities; seasonal variations also have a role as some species of plankton have antibiotic effects on the populations of bacteria.

Initial preservation techniques

Washing and gutting
Washing with clean water is thought to reduce the bacterial content of a freshly killed fish by 80 to 90%. Fish pick up large amounts of bacteria when coming into contact with decks and holds plus the time spent in the sun whilst waiting for processing to commence. Sometimes these actions are unavoidable; therefore, the exposure times to the fish must be reduced to the lowest possible levels. Some experts suggest that the gutting of fish does not reduce the bacterial decomposition, but does slow the digestion of the body cavity walls. The gut area contains large amounts of bacteria therefore fish coming into contact with any removed innards will increase their own overall bacterial loads.

Whilst fish are being stored residues of blood contained in the fillets may undergo oxidation to brown methemoglobin and can catalyse lipid oxidation. Therefore, to preserve the ideal colour of white flesh before chilling, effective bleeding techniques should take place.

After the discussed processes have taken place, the fish can then be stored on ice. The quality preserving effect of ice on fish is due to the reducing in speeds of undesirable biochemical and chemical reactions, plus the retardation of the spoilage activity of micro-organisms. The temperature and distribution of the ice and the size of the fish are the determining factors of chilling speeds; therefore, ice can have a high cooling capacity if distributed efficiently. Increased storage life gained from chilling varies dramatically with the species of fish. Small fatty fish have an increased life of 5-8 days, lean white fish caught in cold waters can be stored for up to 14 days and species such as mullet and breams from tropical fisheries last for 30 days. Shovels used for the moving of crushed ice tend to transfer bacteria due to initial exposure to the fish. Regular changing of ice and cleaning of holds along with the use of clean shovels are important to reduce this effect. One benefit of icing fish is the added washing capabilities it creates when melting, therefore areas storing the iced fish must have adequate drainage as resting water holds large quantities of bacteria. Common ratios of ice to fish are 1kg to 3kg respectively, with an increase of ice for longer storage periods. Various types of ice are in use with flake ice being the most popular. This type is around 1-2 cm in length and 0.5cm in thickness and has a very intermit contact with the fish. This is important as damage will decrease the value of the product and increase the spoilage rate.

Refrigerated water
Some vessels, especially those working in the pelagic industry, will use refrigerated water as a fish storage method as this causes less damage to the product and cleans them in the process. The bacteria will stay in the water so there is a need for regular change to avoid contamination. The spoilage rate is initially lower than iced fish but after 4-5 days it starts to accelerate then begins to spoil faster. It is not viable to keep all species in water as some absorb salts via osmosis or to much water and liquefy. The temperature of the water needs to be close to freezing, as spoilage rates are much lower at –2oc than they are at 0oc.

Many boats have the capability to freeze fish aboard, and this can increase the shelf life of fish by up to 18 months. The modern fishing trade apply frozen storage temperatures of around –30oc to as low as –60oc, and as the most resistant micro-organisms become inactive at –12oc these temperatures are efficient at controlling the rate of spoilage. As bacterial growth stops at commercial freezing temperatures it is suggested that the quality of frozen stored fish depend on the following factors:
  • Temperature and time of storage
  • Rates of freezing
  • Initial quality of seafood, sometimes determined by species.
  • Preparation before freezing leading to freshness.
  • Reliability of protection against desiccation and oxidation.
  • Effectiveness of the protection against detrimental protein changes.

After the consideration of these factors the most efficient method of freezing can now be selected. The three commonly used methods include the blowing of cold air, direct contact between a refrigerated surface and the fish or the immersion or spraying of a refrigerated liquid.

The use of air
Convection or air blast freezers are the most common methods found in the fishing industry. These systems use fans to force a convection of air around a chamber where the fish are standing. The flow rate of the air needs to be reasonably high with a constant uniform stream at all times, therefore a compromise between this and slow freezing rates need to be applied. Approximately 5m/s is close to the compromise required. A major advantage with air blast freezers is the versatility of being able to store fish of various shapes and sizes, although uneven freezing can be common and sometimes a dry product is the result.

Contact freezing
Another frequently used method is contact or plate freezing. These systems do not have the same versatility as air blast freezers because they only have the capability to freeze regular shaped blocks or packages. Horizontal and vertical variations are in use; both constructed from aluminium alloy plates and driven by hydraulics systems.

Horizontal plates
Horizontal plate freezers have two main uses:

The freezing of pre-packed boxes of fish or related products.
Forming consistent rectangular blocks, commonly known as laminated blocks, for the preparation of fish portions. The thickness of the block should fall between 32mm and 100mm, but the machine will only function correctly if the top and bottom surfaces make good contact.

Vertical plates
The main advantage with vertical plate freezers is that the extra packaging or arrangement of trays is unnecessary therefore bulk freezing can be employed with blocks approximately 1070mm x 535mm in size. The weight of the block is the only point restricting large scale freezing, as the physical capability of the user to remove it becomes too large. The majority of species will produce their own compact block; therefore, they can be loaded between the plates without the need of water. Some soft fatty fish do require the addition of water to fill the unwanted holes; the benefits of adding water include:

Strengthening of the block.
Protection of the fish during handling.
Can reduce the effect of dehydration and oxidation.

Salt solution
The uses of sodium chloride or calcium chloride brine solutions allow temperatures to decrease to –15oc before freezing starts. This creates a fast freeze resulting in a good quality, natural looking product although water drawn from the fish via osmosis can cause weight loss and a very salty flavour. It is usual for only large tough skinned species such as tuna, which end up canned (salt added in process), being frozen with this method. The system is cheap to set up but the maintenance can be costly due to the corrosive nature of salt.

Liquid gas
Liquid gas is the most recent form of refrigerant tried, but due to the costs, it is only viable to freeze high value species. Gases such as freon, carbon dioxide or nitrogen can be used all providing extremely fast freezing times, essential for gaining a good final product. There are many advantages to liquid gas freezing, which include: -
  • Quick and efficient freezing
  • Low maintenance
  • No need for compressors, condensers or coolers
  • Size of the unit is relatively small
  • Power required for operation is low
The main disadvantage of this method is expense, as it can be up to four times more costly than air blast freezers. Figure five shows the simple set up of a liquid nitrogen freezer, capable of working to temperatures as low as –196oc.

Drying and salting
The drying of fish by means of the sun was probably the first method used for preserving seafood. The risk of microbial spoilage is reduced at high rates of drying due to the decrease in water activity by the removal of water. The level of humidity in the atmosphere dictates the spoilage rate of dried fish and a level of less than 10-14% seems adequate for good preservation
The application of salt before drying helps to accelerate the water removing process. The lighter the salting, the less preservation is given to the product, as water contents will still be high. The types of salt used are very important as large quantities of trace elements can cause detrimental effects to the aesthetic value and taste. Better quality fish products are usually white in colour; therefore, large amounts of copper in the salt will lead to an unwanted brown or grey coloration. Although calcium and magnesium produce a white product the levels of these elements cannot exceed 0.5% as a bitter taste and brittle product will be the outcome. Bleeding of the fish is essential, as any residues of blood left in the fillet will cause discolouring to the final product. The grain size also needs consideration as fine grades have a tendency to block the drainage holes in the salting vats, causing a build up of bacteria. Over several months, at room temperature, the shelf life of dried salty products can be affected by the following factors: -
  • Humidity and temperature of the environment
  • Salt concentration
  • Presence of preservatives
  • Water quality
  • Infestation of insects and vermin
All of these factors create spoilage problems, but insects cause the majority of losses in dried fish, during storage. The oily species of fish do not preserve well in this fashion, as the oil tends to go rancid. Pickle curing is the chosen method and the fish can be treated whole, gutted, either with or without the head. If the guts of the fish are removed, the pyloric caeca is left as the enzymes it contains give the mature flavouring. The fish are salted in the same way as lean white fish, but they remain in a brine solution instead of being dried. The life span of this product, depending on contact with air, is around one year

Marinating is a form of preserving by the use of both salt and acetic acid. The shelf life of the product is limited by the concentration of acid, but high levels need to be avoided due to the ability of stomaching by humans. Herring and anchovy are preferred species and bivalve molluscs are also common, but these are cooked before being they are treated.

The fish are filleted then washed in a 5-10% salt solution before treatment, this removes blood and scales as well as adding flavour and drawing water from the flesh. The concentrations of acid and salt are affected by the simple use of a lid. An open vat contains approximately 4% acid and 10% salt increasing to 7% and 14% respectively if the vat is sealed. If the concentration is high, fish tend to float giving uneven absorption and unneeded spoilage. Sugar can be added to reduce the bitter taste of the acid. The absorption rate is temperature dependent, but commonly the fish stay in the vat for approximately three weeks at 3oc. After this period the fish are removed and jarred, with the addition of a weaker brine solution around 1-2: 1. Additives such as peppers or peppercorns are included to increase the appeal.

As discussed there are many preserving and processing methods available to control the spoilage rates of fresh fish. The methods vary from high cost liquid cryogenic freezers to cheap and effective greenhouse dryers, thus allowing the whole world the opportunity to enjoy many variations of fish products. With the increased technology of freezing methods it is possible that the consumers will move away from flavoured, preserved, chemically contaminated fish back to the initial product removed from the sea.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Apologies for the Silence

Many of you will know that I moved from London to Australia at the end of April this year. I left my lovely boys in Chelsea and moved 12000 miles across the world with my wife for, well, for some reason or another. Anyhow my situation has left me nothing really to blog about at this point in time. I hope soon to be back involved with fish in some capacity and then I can unveil the diversity of the Australian seafood phenomenon. Funnily enough I did have an interview today with one of Australia’s top seafood wholesalers, but true to form the interviewer never showed up. A re-schedule was requested for tomorrow, however I will be setting pots in the creek to catch mud crabs for dinner so I declined. Why interview someone with 20 years experience in fish and seafood? How could they offer anything to your business? More importantly if we catch some mud crabs I have a blog post to write.

Thanks for bearing with me and I will be back.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Octopus - No more excuses

Fresh octopus is not the most common sight in the UK and when spotted it can be a little daunting spread across the ice of the fishmonger’s slab. The countries surrounding the Mediterranean swear by baby octopuses, but such an item is not available at quality to us Brits. However do not fear as the good old South West has a large number of fisheries that yield excellent octopus.

When you purchase your octopus it may need a rigorous clean. Your fishmonger might gut it for you and skin it if you’re lucky, but the ink will also needs washing from the suckers on each of the legs. Make sure the beak is also removed. At this stage you can bag and freeze your cleaned octopus for up to two weeks which will help to tenderise it.

Pickled Octopus
1kg of Octopus
Approx 150ml olive oil
Approx 150ml red wine Vinegar
4 cloves garlic
salt and pepper
fresh thyme

Place the body and tentacles in a pan with 8 tablespoons of water. Cover and simmer for 1 hour on a very low heat. Drain off excess liquid. When cooled cut into pieces and pack loosely into a screw top jar with some sprigs of fresh thyme.

Mix the oil, vinegar and garlic together, season, an then pour into the jar until the octopus is completely immersed. Now the hard part – the wait. Seal the jar and leave for five days turning occasionally. Before use give the jar a number of rotations as the vinegar would have settled to the bottom with the majority of the octopus.

Commonly picked octopus is eaten cold in a salad, but one of my favorite ways is adding it to a tomato based pasta dish. Add plenty of fresh time and crushed garlic to the olive oil whilst softening a number of fresh cherry tomatoes. Drain the octopus before adding to the pasta as too much vinager makes the dish very sharp, almost too sharp. And here you have it:

Thursday, 15 April 2010

That painting on the wall

Last night i visited a restaurant in Soho, a restaurant that held a special connection with me. The purpose of my visit was not really the food, but to see a painting. For a number of months a very nice lady by the name of Haidee Becker was coming to the shop in search for fish to paint. I spent much time with her trying to find interesting subjects that would make her paintings special. After a while she explained that the pictures were for the wall off her son and chef Jacob Kenedy's restaurant Bocca di lupo (mouth of the wolf). Such fish as the greater weaver fish, silver dory and a painted ray were featured in the painting along with more common species like lobster, squid and mackerel. I was delighted to see the picture and managed to take some snaps before dinner. Whilst searching my photos i found pictures of the actual ray and silver dory used by Haidee in the painting.

I feel i should also mention the dining experience. We started with a raw fish starter which incorporated a langoustine tail, that was very tasty, two small prawns, a slice of bream and a slither of scallop. We also had a Roman starter of Tripe with guanciale, chilli and tomato which had a great texture an some rich flavors. Our mains were a simple clams with cannellini beans, tomato and basil with a side of Agretti - monksbeard with butter and lemon and my pal had roast suckling pig and cicoria. We washed all this down with two half litres of cheerful Pinot Grigio.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Fillet a Sole the Mongers Way

It can be very rewarding to buy your fish, take it home, then prepare it yourself. The majority of home and professional chefs are taught to fillet flat fish such as Turbot, Sole and Plaice into quarters. This is the easiest and quickest way to produce fillets, however, it will only ever yield quarter fillets. On many occasions the whole fillet, which does look more impressive, is needed for certain dishes especially those that require rolled finishes. I used whole plaice when self teaching myself to fillet flatfish and would suggest this species as a great option as it is generally the cheapest available. The example below is with a lemon sole which is as easy to fillet as a plaice. Personally i would say Dover Sole are the most difficult of the flats to work with as they have the softest of bones.

After removing the head place the fish white skin down on your chopping board. The topside of a flat fish is thicker than the underside and as they are not square by nature this means it will lay flatter on your board. Insert the point of your knife above the bone and gently insert.

With your spare thumb lift the fillet to expose the bone which will allow you to see where you are cutting and then continue to caress the knife all the way along the skeleton until the point appears by the tail.

Now the hard bit that isn't required if quarter filleting. Gently roll the point over the raised centre bone at either head or tail end, which ever you feel comfortable with, then run the knife from one end to the other.

Remove the knife, turn it in your hand so it will run flat to the bone, then in one sweep run your blade over the skeleton.

So we have a Lemon Sole with the top side fillet removed. You can now see the ridge that runs down the centre.

The fish is then turned over and the same process is followed on the B-side. Do take care as the underside is up to a third thinner so requires a little more care when rolling over the centre ridge.

So there you have two clean fillets of Lemon Sole. These can be trimmed tighter to the flesh and/or skinned quite easily with a flexible blade. This fish had a little roe so the trimming was minimal.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Pasta & Prawn Parcels

With only a couple of weeks left working as a fishmonger in London I thought I would move away from my usual ranting and offer some blog posts of direct interest to fish eaters. Over the past five years i have probably sold something in the region of 2.7 metric tonnes of large black tiger prawns. These derive from Africa as a wild product or sometimes as farmed. As with all warm water prawns they are caught/harvested and then frozen before being transported. They are very impressive visually and are commonly used as the wow item at a dinner party or peeled and put into a curry. However, I have never eaten them as neither of the aforementioned methods really grabbed me so I searched around for a simple but tasty recipe.

Pasta & Prawn Parcels

225grm dried pasta preferably fettuccine or linguine
75ml green pesto (decided to use homemade)
2tsp extra virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove, crushed
75ml dry white wine
salt and pepper

I started by making some green pesto by grinding basil leaves and garlic into a paste. Adding some crushed toasted pine nuts, parmigiano, olive oil and beating in butter my pesto was ready. After fully peeling and deveining I was left with eight succulent juicy prawns.

Gently boil the pasta for 4 minutes then drain and set aside. When the pasta has cooled mix with half of the pesto. Add I tsp of olive oil to the centre of each 12" square greaseproof sheets then divide the pasta evenly on the top. Lay on the prawns and then spoon on the remaining pesto and the crushed garlic. Season, sprinkle the wine over, seal the parcels and bake for 10-15 minutes on 200c/Gas Mark 6.

Such a simple dish but hugely tasty and maybe I've proved to myself that prawns are more than just for chucking of the bar-be and these large prawns do have an excellent taste and texture if not overcooked.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Is sustainable and ethical ever achievable? Fishing for answers.

Sustainable – Capable of being maintained at a steady level without exhausting natural resources or causing severe ecological damage (Collins English Dictionary)

Ethical – In accordance with principles of conduct that are considered correct. (Collins English Dictionary)

You look from the window and watch your neighbor put three black bags of rubbish out and you wonder where his recycling is. You arrive at work on the bus at the same time a colleague pulls up in his brand new gas guzzling Range Rover. You over hear the man in Starbucks talking about his third flight to Europe this year. The fact is not everybody cares so why the hell should you? Our individual influence is tiny, the decision we make only fits into the small picture, but we can only do the best we can. When hearing about fish you will commonly be subjected to three opinions. The environmentalists will lobby hard using shock tactics to sway the public; the fisherman will use economic arguments to sway public opinion; the governments will use any tactics to sway the public to re-elect them. However there is a fourth opinion, one that is rarely heard, one that holds little value to these three groups – ours, the public opinion. I fit into this fourth group, but with a slight twist; I am a qualified fisheries scientist and also rely on selling fish for my income.

Many readers of my blog are aware of my views about the use of the word sustainability. In my opinion it is an overused term thrown around and generally applied in the wrong context by misled or ill educated users. ‘Is your cod sustainable?’ a customer asks. What answer would you be happy with? Generally ‘yes’ is good enough for most customers with them being happy that their purchase is ethical. But how many fishmongers would just say ‘yes’ to avoid the subject or make a sale? And how many customers would accept ‘yes’ for an answer as any further discussion would lead them way out of their depth? The answer is most if not all. It is a strange and confusing subject not helped by shockumentrys like ‘the End of The Line’. Immediately after its airing I was berated by a regular customer who had just seen this film. She was angry that we were selling, a fish she had been buying from us for over 4 years. Tuna was seen on the counter and instantly we were judged as 'unethical' fishmongers. The fish in question was a Cornish line caught tagged Albacore Tuna from a Marine stewardship council’s accredited fishery. The problem is that the press, as with many subjects, just confuse readers by bad, lazy or incorrect reporting. The key importance about a natural resource such as fish compared to the likes of oil and coal is that with careful management and monitoring it will continue to replenish itself over time and never become exhausted; so returning to cod, an excellent example of a fish currently in resurgence, there are now many safe areas this species can be taken from. We no longer have to search for Icelandic line caught or frozen pacific cod to feel easy about our homemade fish and chips. The fact that the scientists who are the most sceptical and ridiculed members of the stock status management system have suggest increases in cod quotas in many areas of the North east Atlantic says it all – correct management techniques work.

So if the press can be somewhat misleading and the some fishmongers know less than an 11 year old about the subject how are you ever going to make the correct ethical choice? Unfortunately there is no easy answer to this question. Certain websites such as those offered by the Marine Stewardship Council and The Red List give threat levels of many high risk species. But these species are not really of concern to the general public of the UK as they are not available for us to buy. 90% of us have never eaten Blufin tuna and anyone under the age of 40 has probably never eaten true skate yet these are the fish we are told to avoid. In stark contrast our neighbors across Europe continue to eat baby octopus and squid, slip sole (dover sole the size of your finger), juvenile rays, small whole cod and haddock, immature mackerel, sea bass, red mullet – the list goes on - and we also continue to discard perfectly good fish as prosecution for fishermen will result if they are land them. We do need to be realistic as if we all ate only 100% ethically sourced fish we would soon turn to meat. The few species that fall into this category are there for a reason because they are generally tasteless and it doesn’t matter how many times Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall tells us to eat organically farmed carp or dabs, Tom Aiken tells us how amazing Pollock is and how our favorite fish chef Rick Stein goes on about gurnard they will never replace real tasty fish. Troubling me is when the ethical benefits of such a fish as Pollock, and I believe now to more of an extent gurnard, are continually rammed down our throats increasing thus the demand and this coupled with no management or quota system in place two key issues will arise. Firstly the price will climb as fish are affected by supply and demand much like everything else and more concerning the stocks will become under increasing pressure. Ultimately the Pollock will become the new cod, but not for the reasons many are led to believe. I fully understand the benefits of switching our focus away from over-fished species to those that have succeeded to maintain their own stock status, however, few understand the implications of targeting these species to detrimental effect; pollack already falls into this category. It is not all doom and gloom and fear not as we can eat many species we are told to avoid such as dover sole, turbot or sea bass without feeling unfairly pressured by uneducated environmental groups we just need to know where, when and why.

Now you thought had found the perfect sourced fish, however, the capture method of your chosen fish, a fish that may tick all the boxes ethically, may actually have detrimental effect on other species. There does seem an awful lot to consider.

To me the fishing method is one of the most important issues:

Capture techniques

The 10 key capture techniques applied off the British Isles are as follows.

Beam Trawling
Of the net techniques this is by far the harshest. This method can have a tendency to gauge the sea bed removing everything in its path. It has huge implications for many marine species from corals to bi-valves and offers no selectivity of catch. Recently some fisherman have started using solid square mesh nets that allows a larger numbers of juvenile fish to escape but this is far from generic across the fleet. The catch from this method can also be of lesser quality and to be avoided if possible.

Otter Trawling
This is a mid-water trawl that uses two fixings, known as otter boards, to keep the net door open. Although not harsh like the beam trawl it is still unselective and can catch unwanted species. Due to its smaller size than the beam trawl this method can be used by day boats which do offer a higher quality catch.

Pair Otter Trawling
An adaptation to the otter trawl where two vessels tow a huge net in tandem. Can be known to catch huge amounts of fish and can be hugely unselective.

Purse seining
This method uses two vessels, a small one that lays a net circulating the fish shoal and a large on that retrieves the net. It is commonly used for catching tuna although its application around the British Isles is in the capture of sardines, herrings and anchovies.

Long Lining
Not often used to catch species offered in the UK but can be used to catch Atlantic Halibut.

Hook and Line
Currently the most fashionable fish are caught by this method. A highly selective capture technique that yields the highest quality of fish. Used mainly to catch Albacore, bass, pollock and mackerel.

Tangle nets
This method is usually used to catch crab. As the net is pulled onto the boat the body is pulled from the claws that are tangled in the net and returned to the water alive leaving it defenseless. If you like crab claws this is generally how they are collected.

Pots and Creels
A selective method used to catch lobster, crab and langoustine.

This is the main collection method for scallops. It sounds a very harsh method, which it is, but the scallop fisheries are rotated regularly and successful signs of recovery are show year on year.

Diver Caught
This method is generally used to collect scallops and is as close to a 100% ethical fishery as possible. The problem that occurs is the availability and cost can tend to put consumers off.

A Case Study – "I tell everybody I eat only 100% ethically sourced fish"

Pollock and gurnard are very fashionable and are deemed as an ethical choice, pacific cod is another example and coley, ling, dabs and whiting also fit into this category, but are they truly the ethical answer? Well that answer is not really. They are certainly abundant species and generally believed to have strong stock levels, but they are all caught with non-selective capture methods (note there are a few pole caught pollack fisheries). This means that within the 4 tonnes of landed ling there could be, for all we know, 1 tonne of a threatened species that is then returned to the sea dead. It is impossible for the fisherman to determine exactly what their nets will catch. The majority of fish you see for sale, especially in supermarkets, are caught by unselective capture techniques. So if the species deemed sustainable are not ethically caught maybe you have to consider fish that are line caught if I wish to be branded 100% ethical. Well unfortunately another problem then arises. Hook and line caught is very different to pole and line caught but both are commonly branded as line caught. Pole and line is very selective and is used in many well managed fisheries. It is, however, also used in some of the tuna fisheries that are most under threat. With regards to the UK we have excellent Bass, Mackerel and Pollock fisheries that employ pole and line methods. The alternative method mentioned is the long line fishery which can be very unselective in its catch and has been shown to be hugely detrimental to some avian species such as the well documented albatross. It can also cause long term problems when fishing gear is lost – the term used for lost gear that continues to fish is ‘ghost netting’.

So our main course is decided and it is line caught Cornish mackerel, well that is what I’ve have been told!

I now need a starter so how about shellfish; crab starter must be ethical as its crab and nobody has mentioned they are threatened. Well maybe so but did you know many fisheries discard the bodies and keep the claws for picking or for sale intact. Last time you picked at those sweet little crab claws at a friend’s house did you pause to consider what happened to the body? So how about a prawn starter instead, but has the production of the bought crustacean resulted in the destruction of important mangrove swamps. It’s all two hard so let’s just serve organically farmed salmon as that is perfect unless of course escapees from that site have infiltrated the local wild salmon stocks.

I may have contrived to confuse the reader, but maybe this is way, maybe this is the goal. It is a hugely complex area that requires a lot more consideration than just not eating cod and only eating Pollock or sticking to line caught fish. Our biggest problem is overcoming the reams of misinformation thrown at us by governments, environmentalists, supermarkets and fishmongers. Whether purposeful or accidental many are convinced by these outlets that they are buying their dinner from a shop that sources their fish ethically. For me Waitrose is a great example as it leads the way by ‘sourcing all their fish from sustainable and well-managed fisheries’ and we must give them credit as they do try. However, recently I saw Ray wings weighing less than 230grms each on one of their counters. Granted, this specific species of short nose skate isn’t under threat and fits into their buying remit, however, is selling juveniles from a slow growing low yielding fish species ethical and will it not result in the long term collapse of the fishery?? I personally believe it is wrong and is very short sighted. Additionally a well known south London fishmonger recently commended by certain food writers for sourcing everything ethically also sells the same line and size of ray and worst still such species as swordfish.

I guess you have been waiting for me to tell you what you can and what you cannot eat. To do that would brand me alongside the ill informed environmentalists; however I can give you some useful guidance. Obviously avoid those well documented species that are critically endangered such as Blufin tuna and common skate and also other exotics like swordfish and marlin. Avoid slow growing and low producing species such as skates, rays and all shark species (the one you are familiar with is dogfish or huss). Try to avoid species caught by destructive capture methods like the beam trawl which may include Dover sole, rays and turbot. That area becomes a little confusing as these species can also be caught by otter trawl. Try to buy line caught fish if your budget allows. If it does not then avoid buying the alternative such as trawled mackerel and bass as buying these deems the achievements of the pole and line caught fisheries somewhat worthless. The majority of species caught off of the British isles are subject to a quota and/or minimum size limits. Some supermarkets disregard scientific quotas as not a true indication of stock status, however these are calculated on best scientific advice and are monitored and adjusted yearly. Although retrospective this is our best management tool and if the species was deemed critically endangered then the fishery would be closed. Waitrose, the leading supermarket in ethical fish sourcing, contradicts itself by first stating “For a fish to be termed "sustainable" in Waitrose it must meet the following criteria: Be caught from a well managed fishery with scientifically based quotas” then follows this up by saying “Waitrose does not take the existence of a legal quotas as evidence of sustainability”. This is as nonsensical as it sounds. If the fish is landed into a UK port and is for sale on the counter of a reputable fishmonger it is pretty safe to say it has been legally caught within a quota system. As long as the fish is not out of season (this is generally their spawning time) I see no concerns eating it. Some species also have minimum landing sizes but this does not mean the final product is ethical. For example monkfish have a very wide head so specially designed square shaped net mesh that is supposed to allow juvenile fish through is ineffective in the case of this species. Due to this the size limit has been set exceptionally low, 500grm whole, so when you consider the huge wastage of 65% plus this would yield a tail something in the region of 100grm (the size of your finger). Although this is the case it does not make it illegal to sell. I would certainly suggest avoiding all juvenile fish. There is no need to buy them just because the Italian cook book suggests tiny red mullet taste better; the is nothing sustainable and certainly nothing ethical about purchasing a fish product that is prefixed with BABY.

After consideration of the above I would also suggest always buying fish that are in season and try to vary your purchases. Maybe choose lemon sole occasionally over dover sole and brill over turbot. And do not forget that buying local fish will substantially reduce that carbon footprint. But maybe as important is try and be friend your fishmonger. You will soon know if he or she has any idea about what or from where the product he is selling is from, how it was caught and how old it is. My guess is he will be a little tongue tied.

My Previous Blog posts relating to this subject:

Monday, 22 February 2010

Try worming your way out of this one?

Have you ever taken a piece of fish home from a fishmonger and found a thin black worm in the flesh? If you have it has most certainly put you off that type of fish for life, not unsurprisingly. If you haven’t seen one you may have had a friend that has told you of such an occurrence. This scenario is quite common at this time of year (although there are incidences throughout the year) as fish gorge themselves on food from which the energy they gain is then applied into the production of gametes (eggs and milt). The majority of the bony flat and round fish go through the process of spawning between January and April. So what are these worms and where do they come from? They are parasitic round worms from the species Phocanema and follow the very simple life cycle of most marine parasites. Large marine mammals, generally grey seals, harbour the adult Phocanema who eggs are laid in the stomach of the seal. These eggs are released into the water, hatch, and are then eaten by crustaceans, which are in turn eaten by fish. The worm will then make its way into the flesh of the fish before the fish is eaten by a mammal which completes this very simple cycle. Commonly referred to as Cod worms many species can be affected and some to a huge extent. Cod, Monkfish and John Dory are probably the least affected and easiest to deal with as these three species have nice white flesh making Phocanema easier to spot. Both Hake and Gurnard, more so Tub than Red, can be inundated with Phocanema generally in the stomach and a little in the flesh. Sea Bass can also show signs of Phocanema to some extent at this time of year. I have never seen an incidence in Dover Sole and only once in Lemon sole. Pelagic midwater feeders such as mackerel and herring rarely come into contact with Phocanema.

Most importantly these worms are harmless to humans and die immediately if cooked. Additionally they will die when frozen – probably the reason why worms are never found in many supermarket fish.

So what should you do if you are sold fish with Phocanema in? Firstly, I hope no fishmonger would purposely sell fish inundated with Phocanema, however, if you are buying a whole fish, especially Gurnard, the fishmonger my be unaware of any Phocanema in the flesh. Additionally, if you are buying a very thick piece of cod or Monkfish it could be impossible to see that Phocanema is present. Other than those two scenarios there is no excuse apart from laziness of profiteering to sell a piece of fish with Phocanema in it. If you do see Phocanema in your fish or fillet just put the point of a small knife into the flesh and underneath and lift which will remove the subject. If it is inundated you should consider returning to the fishmonger and asking for a replacement. Be aware the shop is not legally obliged to replace or refund your money, however, I see no reason as why they wouldn’t if they are reputable.

Monday, 8 February 2010

Japanese (Con)fusion at Fujisan

I have never blogged about a meal after attending an eatery or dining establishment; many others provide this service to a very high standard. However, anger has led me to write a review, if it can be described as that, about my local Japanese restaurant. Fortunately for ‘Fujisan’ it does not have an over elaborate description of its restaurant, food or dining experience on its website. Maybe somebody has asked them to remove it in the past?

Now, I have actually eaten at Fujisan twice before. The first time was a disaster with poor service and sub standard food. The second visit was much more successful thus dismissing the first trip as a one off. Oh dear, what a mistake to make. In fact the second visit was the one off, the hole in one, the surprise 21st birthday present whereas visits 1 & 3 were the missed penalty, the getting caught cheating with your team mates bird, the breaking down in tears when being interviewed.

After a very busy Friday at the fishmongers and a restful drink in a local bar my wife and I decided to wander over to Fujisan for some dinner. The restaurant was about half full and we were seated immediately. After 15 minutes of inactivity around our table we were finally asked if we were ok? This was a strange question as the two tables that were seated after us were already on their starters – of course I wasn’t ok, I was exceptionally hungry. Drink and food orders taken (and the worst decision of the evening of not to get up and leave made) we sat and waited and waited and waited – for Edamame (Steamed soybean pods marinated in ginger and spring onions). Were they growing them? Stupidly I asked for a drink whilst waiting for the illusive pods. A tin of Sapporo – you beauty – this will calm me. Suddenly the fearful thought crossed my mind ‘Would they need to brew it first?’ Yes! This never came so I asked again and then again and when it finally arrived the waiter was extremely confused as I poured and toasted its arrival out loud. Sarcastic fool that I am this was the highlight of my evening. With pods, and to be fair a decent portion of Glazed pork ribs consumed, we waited and waited and waited. Even the tables that were seated after us had finished and were at home in bed. 1 hour and 20 minutes after being seated we decided egg on toast at home would suffice. Leaving a restaurant before your main course arrives can cause confusion in the ranks, however, this was unique. Shouting and arguing between the owner, the front of house and the waitress prevailed. The waitress was marched into the kitchen for a bollocking which was a little unlucky as she hadn’t even taken our order. Then they made their worst decision of the night to charge us for what we had consumed. On asking for a receipt I was told there wasn’t one. The owner told me the waitress was confused due to the language barrier. A barrier that hadn’t existed when taking our money. Laughing out load and stating openly my opinions of their restaurant we left only to be followed down the road by the owner shouting ‘I have you receipt, I have you receipt’. I wonder if he did stick it where I told him too?

326 Balham High Road, Tooting, SW17 7AA
(Price £10 ahead but may increase if you receive a main course)

Liver little and try something unique

Every now and then a treat turns up on our fish counter. This time it was monkfish liver. A unique delicacy, and important to me I can deem it ethical; it is a by product that is usually cast back overboard. You see most unusual delicacies fit into the unique groups of endangered or critically endangered – Dodo eggs for example are covered by one of these.  Anyhow, whilst the South-West fisherman attempt to gain accreditation from the marine stewardship council (MSC) for the sustainable status of their (I use 'their' loosely as we technically all own these fish) sole and monkfish grounds we can comfortably assume that levels of monkfish off our Cornish peninsula are sound. Of course I am aware stock levels of monkfish in other catch areas, the Bay of Biscay for example, are in a severe or even a critical status, however, I am not sourcing my products from these fisheries.

I have a simple recipe for monkfish liver that was given to me by a customer a couple of years ago. However, I decided to search through my large selection of fish cookery books to find Rick Stein or Keith Floyd’s recommendations on preparation and serving. Hang on nothing, not a mention. Has Rick Stein never heard of it? Did Keith Floyd leave his in a bag on the fish counter whilst in a rush to catch the Offie before it closed? Searching the internet also offered little helpful information apart from its application in Japanese cuisine. 


The simple but effective recipe:

Season the liver well then dust in flour.
Pan fry in butter until crispy on each side.
When done add a squeeze of lemon or drop of vinegar to the pan.
Roll onto a warmed plate and serve with crusty brown bread.

Alternative recipe

Monkfish Liver, bacon and pea shoot salad with a poached hen's egg

It is very rich and has a creamy texture and maybe a small amount, 100grms per person, is needed. To my surprise it didn’t sell that well, but I put that down to receiving it on the wrong day of the week. I will try again so many of you can taste this delight.

Monday, 18 January 2010

Nets and Fish - The old fashioned way

In my recent past I was lucky enough to be part of a successful fisheries consultancy firm. We undertook the dirty work behind the scenes whilst the larger contractors and engineering firms took the glory on the back  of their press conferences. However, our work was by far the most enjoyable. Although a little dated I thought I would share this piece from my old, and fairly static website, With a View to Fisheries. I thought it would be of interest to those who are interested in fish and those many London follows that would have driven past this reservoir on numerous occasions.

Seine netting contracts are commonly undertaken in conjunction with a full or partly drained water body. However, certain situations require further, more complex measures. Occasionally reservoirs are almost completely drained for one of three reasons. Designated filler reservoirs are commonly seen to have extremely low water levels come the end of the summer. Whether for drinking water purposes or feeding canals and rivers these water bodies lose water, however, the levels are controlled and observed daily which minimises the risk to fish stocks. More commonly the stock levels are calculated with water loss in mind thus problems are rare.

The second reason for dewatering directly relates to fisheries. The easiest way to crop or catch fish or a designated species is to remove their medium, water. Reservoirs are commonly used as stock ponds, therefore they are periodically drained. Again little problems are envisaged with this procedure as the water is usually well known by the contractors or owners and the knowledge and equipment is already in place. Conversely, islands or reed beds may need adding or altering thus water levels have to be dropped. The final, and most relevant, reason behind water removal regards large-scale engineering works. Dams leak, sluices block, silt deposits accrual and weed becomes out of hand. These all require plant and machinery which indicates access to difficult areas. Water needs to be removed to carry out these jobs - some times all of it!!

So why do fishery consultants become involved with large-scale drain downs? More emphasis is put onto the environmental issues than ever before and as one can imagine a large-scale fish loss is totally unacceptable. Fish that derive from the drained water body are usually dealt with in one of two ways. They can be stored in designated areas, ponds or lakes, or they can be removed from the site, sold and then replaced when the reservoir is re-filled. The reservoir owners or their designated fishery manager takes this decision. In December 2001 MEM Fisheries Ltd undertook one of the aforementioned drain downs which has offered me a case study to explain such procedures.

Site Description
Brent Reservoir (also known as the Welsh harp) is situated at the foot of the M1 motorway in the London Borough of Brent. This disused filler reservoir is approximately 110 acres in size and is used for many water activities - ironically angling is not undertaken on the reservoir. The reservoir is owned by British Waterways with John Ellis, Fisheries and Environmental manager, BW South East over seeing the fish removal. The image below shows the immense scale of the reservoir  and an early morning sunset.


On the bottom of the aerial view the reservoir dam can be seen. Just to the right of centre is the sluice tower and this is where all of the following photographs have been taken from. The reservoir is gravity drained, a more efficient and cost effective method than pumping. It was drained very slowly as the reservoir has high silt levels thus increased water flow would cause this substrate to be sent down the river. The water is deposited into the River Brent via an advanced mechanically controlled sluice system. This sluice was the area of concern and the cause of the reservoir drain down. A section needed replacing and as it was situated at the bottom of the deepest area of the reservoir all of the water was needed to be removed.

The biggest concern with any drain down is knowing quite where the water is going to end up. Now, in theory the water will always drain to the deepest end, this is true for all sites. Unfortunately many lakes and reservoirs have uneven beds that tend to leave many pools of water scattered across the area. Deep silt deposits make retrieving fish from these hold ups very difficult and very time consuming. In general the contours of the lake bed should be assessed to allow the proper planning of large scale jobs; this is easiest done with an echo sounder. Fortunately, Brent Reservoir was drained 8 years ago for similar engineering reasons thus it was known exactly where the fish would be in the final stages. Commonly though, larger waters, when drained, are being done for the first time, therefore prior knowledge is unavailable. Bad planning will result is fish loss, a totally unacceptable and unnecessary scenario.

Job Preparation
It had been decided, in collaboration with English Nature and The Environment Agency, that the fish were to be stored in two secure canal pounds situated at Hanwell on the Grand Union Canal. These pounds would be closed to boat traffic use and were alongside British Waterway's offices for extra security. The stock densities of short canal pounds are commonly low, therefore a small-scale netting and electrofishing operation was undertaken to remove the original stock. These fish were allocated to the canal above and below the secure pounds; migration is common in canals thus fish would soon return to the holding pounds when the Brent Reservoir project was completed. After this small exercise was accomplished the drain down could commence.

The Netting



At low water level the access to the dam section was difficult. A small boat was the only option as it needed pulling across the silt to the remaining water. Seine netting was the only option available to catch the fish safely and quickly. Due to the silt levels and unknown quantities of fish a relatively small 180-metre seine net was used. Large quantities of juvenile fish combined with thick gill blocking silt would spell disaster. Although the activity of the larger fish in a landed seine net will clear large quantities of silt smaller fish tend to perish, therefore it was imperative not to over catch in any one single net.

The three pictures above outline the process of laying the seine net. The net was loaded onto the boat and then laid in a semi circular shape. The sluice tower is shown in the image on the right; the majority of the netting took place to the left of this tower. These images were taken about 6 days into the operation; there was approximately a further 7 acres of water at the start of netting. The net was reasonably heavy to land and required 4 men to achieve this task. The two main problems were silt levels and the deep sump hole in front of the tower. The silt in the net had a tendency to slide down the sump causing strain and pain to those left pulling the net.

With such a steep dam coupled with large quantities of silt the net was extremely heavy when it was time for the leads to be pulled in. On occasions three people were needed to hold up the corks to stop them from being towed underneath the water surface. A benefit was the solid concrete dam that allowed excellent grip under foot. It is common to be waist deep in silt at the net landing stage. The image above shows the leads being pulled in whilst the net and cork line is eased up the shelf. This is the most important stage of any netting as one false move would result in total loss of fish.

The Catch
As previously mentioned Brent Reservoir was drained 8 years prior to this fish rescue. The reservoir bed was exposed to the air for 3 months with the addition of many heavy frosts. This allows the break down of silt deposits and an overall increase of fertility with regards to promotion of fauna and flora. The benefits of this were directly shown in the current yield of fish. Even with high cormorant populations the total stock level had increased by 70% to that of 7 years before. Year classes of all fish were present compared to just roach the previous time. Only small numbers of carp and tench between 8oz and 1lb 8oz were caught. These were severely damaged by cormorants, therefore the levels of these species lower year classes could have been much higher. However, the carp and tench had spawned and achieved a mild success rate. All year classes of roach were present and healthy, bream and perch were also present alongside various gold fish and ornamentals, obviously stocked by the public. There were pike into double figures and carp to over twenty pounds. The three pictures below show the fish in all their glory. Top and Bottom are the vast quantities of silver fish yielded by the reservoir. The centre image shows one of the ornamentals, in this case a white Koi carp.

The Fish Movement
Although catching the fish was a fairly straightforward process the removal and loading was far from easy. The small obstacle of a concrete dam wall stood in the way of easy loading. The only efficient way to get fish from the water to the tanks at the top of the dam was through sheer hard work. Slings of fish, approximately 20 lbs in weight, were loaded and then carried to the base of the wall. A rope was attached to the sling and then it was manually hauled to the top where the fish could be released into the tank. The period of the drain down saw over 1000 slings of fish pulled to the top of the dam. The relatively poor water quality, mainly caused by the silt, meant that the fish needed to be removed and loaded into clean, oxygenated water as quickly as possible.

As small fish tend to reside at the surface of the net, thus easily caught, a tank was designated for 0-2+ silver fish. This would remove the additional stress caused by larger fish charging around inside a tank. Carp and larger fish traveled separately as their lower dissolved oxygen requirements meant higher quantities can be moved together. The very low water temperatures allowed up to 900lbs of fish to be transported in one tank at any one time. Providing the water is clean, the temperature is low and the correct level of oxygen coupled with the correct diffusers are used there is no reason why 1200lbs of carp (850lbs of roach) cannot be successfully transported in one tank. The fish were loaded and taken to Hanwell where they were stocked into their temporary home.

With regards to water drainage Brent Reservoir is very efficient. Although silt levels are high and access is relatively poor the water does drain to one point on the dam. No pools of any note are left, therefore all of the fish can be successfully caught with nets. Once the water had been drained to a small pool approximately 7 square metres in size only one carp was left to rescue. The continued dragging of a seine net had resulted in the successful removal of all the fish resident in the reservoir. Overall a comparatively easy drain down to complete.

Re-capturing and returning Brent's stock
The re-capture of the fish required a very different process. Small nets, 50 metres in length, were dragged along the canal where they met strategically positioned stop nets. These stop nets are used to break up a length of canal into easily manageable sections. The net is then closed to the bank and landed. This process can be seen in the photographs below. The biggest problem encountered with netting urban canals is the multitude of items thrown in by the public. Bicycles, lawn mowers umbrellas etc all need removing before successful nets can be landed. The only way to find these items is by dragging the nets, therefore continued de-snagging was required.

The pictures below show some of the fish being returned to a brim full Brent Reservoir. On the top is one of the very large carp and the right is our friend, the white Koi, returning home. Our very own Professor Parr is holding both of the fish. The centre picture illustrates one of many nets of roach and silver fish being released. Although the natural stocks require a large return of small fish many resident fish eating birds also welcomed the re-stocking of such species.

The drain down, fish removal and engineering works on Brent reservoir in 2001/02 were a resounding success. Many thousands of fish were safely stored whilst large scale works were carried out. However, the picture below shows a frozen Brent Reservoir on Christmas Eve proving Mother Nature will always intervene if every thing is going to plan. This weather caused a cessation in work for over two weeks. It is highly unlikely Brent will be drained again in the foreseeable future, however, if the stock continues to thrive in a similar fashion to 8 years ago Brent Reservoir will once again become a successful haven for a diverse selection of fish species and fish eating birds.