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Fishing for new tastes: Brexit and the politics of seafood

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Could Brexit encourage us to be a bit more European when it comes to the fish we eat?

It was little over a year ago that Nigel Farage led his Alan Partridge-esque fishing flotilla up the Thames, horns a-hooting. It was a savvy marketing stunt: most fishermen are less than buoyed by EU quotas. Still, I doubt very much that Farage had ever been to the fishing ports of Scotland or the West Country before he sighted a camera opportunity in the offing.

It’s Brexiteers in fishing regions that I understand more than anyone. They endure all of Europe’s intervention, but the affluence it supposedly affords, and the stability it definitely does, aren’t always apparent.

Whatever the micro politics of it all, the wider implications are now before us. What lies ahead for our fishing industry, which employs more than 12,000 people, is perilously uncertain, and so, too, is the nature of the seafood that we will consume in the future. The links between these two ends of the same industry – catching and consumption – are often fantastically obscured and complicated. But Brexit looks like it will bring them to the fore.

Fishing consultant Nathan de Rozarieux, who also fishes locally from St Ives, Cornwall, gets straight to the heart of those complex paradoxes at the heart of the industry: ‘We import what we eat, and export what we catch.’ The picture is an intricate one – the subtleties of which were never going to be captured by Farage and his crew.

Fishing has always been international – as have the waters from which much of the catch comes – yet seafood has long been peculiarly national. Around Europe, countries have historic affinities with various species. The Spanish love hake and the Portuguese their sardines; the French and Italians adore langoustines; Hamburgers in Germany, along with the Dutch and Belgians, enjoy salt herring – best popped in floury baps with onions and pickled gherkins.

None are particular favourites of the British, yet our boats land an abundance of them. So trade with our neighbours in them is good. Meanwhile, the UK imports thousands of tonnes of our own favourites – cod, salmon, tuna and haddock – to supplement what is caught by our own fleets.

Such an exchange has, for some years, satisfied all tastes, even if it has raised some environmental concerns and placed strains on many fishing communities. How it will operate following the advent of Brexit – and the very real possibility of tariffs – remains to be seen.

One option would be to adapt our tastes, do as our neighbours do, and become a little more adventurous in what we eat. ‘We import so much of the salmon, cod, haddock, tuna, and warm water prawns in the UK to supplement consumer habits, but there’s so much more we could be eating,’ de Rozarieux says. ‘It’s about education – but telling the rest of the country about all the fine fish we have, and how to cook it, takes time.’

De Rozarieux notes that British tastes are changing, but says we have a way to go before we’re on a par with the likes of France, Spain, Italy. How many of us cook with langoustines? We caught more than 25,000 tonnes in 2015, according to Government figures. Nearly 40,000 tonnes of herring came in the same year. Yet neither are common on our menus.

Up until a decade ago 90% of our hake went to Spain. Much of our megrim still goes the same way. There’s been some success in illuminating fish like hake – just as there was years ago rebranding pilchards as ‘Cornish sardines’ – but look for the likes of huss, ling, whiting, gurnard, coley and grey mullet in your local supermarket and you’ll probably only find pollack. It’s not that those fish aren’t caught here, they just go for export.

Chef Mark Hix says: ‘We’ve got so much great fish, and so much of it is sustainable. People love British providence, but there’s more to be done. Most people are still unaware of most varieties of fish. We’ve got skate, ray, hokey – so much choice.

‘The general public do still largely go for cod, salmon, tuna. That’s what’s been available and had the marketing. But if we do want to support our industries and our fishermen, we should be eating a wider range. Things like cuttlefish. A lot of it goes to Spain and so on. But it’s far cheaper than squid, and much sweeter. It’s perfect fried, or in a risotto. It’s great in salads.’

In Newyln, Cornwall, de Rozarieux says cuttlefish is sometimes as little as £3 per kilo. Cornish crawfish, meanwhile, is practically unsellable, but lapped up in Spain.

The reasons behind our relatively cautious approach to seafood might tell us much about the national psyche of the UK. For David Gray, from the UK industry body Seafish, it reflects a wider approach to food. ‘It could be said that consumers in some parts of Asia and continental Europe have traditionally had a closer affinity to enjoying good quality food,’ he says. ‘We are still a nation with a more limited and simple palate, and too often look at price before quality.

‘When it comes to seafood, we still have a preference for simple whitefish species (often breaded or battered) as opposed to shellfish and other less known fish species. This is also why we import so much cod to meet domestic demand, and why we export the vast bulk of species that we do catch such as langoustine.’

Recent efforts to encourage the British to experiment a little more when it comes to seafood have been driven by concerns over sustainability, a buzzword in the industry of late.

‘It is estimated that there is in excess of 100 different species of fish and shellfish available to purchase in this country,’ adds Gray. ‘In order to lessen the demand on more traditional types of seafood, we hope that our rather limited tastes will indeed broaden in the coming years.’

Fisherman Alan Dwan has seen first hand the success the sector can have, with concerted effort. Dwan – another Newlyn fisherman – was one of the key drivers behind recent improvements in hake sales in the UK, and he thinks other fish can follow suit.

‘People are starting to buy more fish. As a country, we might have limited palettes. But hake has worked. Twenty years ago I imagine most people hadn’t heard of it. I don’t want to get too deep into the politics of it. I know what I think, and I think fishermen here are treated unfairly. We can’t fish for haddock but French trawlers are 12 miles off our coastline bringing them in. There are problems.

‘The point is, we have so much more. We have all these brilliant, affordable, easy to cook white fish that we should be making better use of. So why don’t we? And fishermen want to keep things sustainable. To bleed seas dry would be detrimental to everyone.’

Elsewhere in the supply chain there are similar frustration about fashions for fish. Chelsea fishmonger Rex Goldsmith sees first hand the buying habits of consumers. He isn’t complaining about the business he gets – but he does concede that it is narrow in taste.

‘I sell a lot of sea bass, turbot, halibut, cod,’ Goldsmith explains. ‘There are just some fish you can’t get rid of. I can’t sell megrim. I’ve tried.

‘We have shoppers who go to farmers’ markets with their hessian bags. They might buy local, seasonal, artisan produce on a Saturday, but they’re still buying and eating the same stuff in the week. And that’s probably not fish a lot of the time.

‘I know exporting is a big business, and that’s positive. There’s nothing wrong with selling lobsters and scallops and sea bass. But we should make sure we make use of everything, which is good for everyone, and good for the environment. Chefs like James Martin, Jamie Oliver, and Nathan Outlaw do a good job of promoting what we have. Why do we eat so much farmed salmon when we could be eating wild trout?’

Britain, right now, is a fish pie. We’re all slopping around in sauce underneath a blanket of mashed potato. Who knows what’s inside, frankly. But let’s hope it’s a little more flavourful and diverse than the usual cod, salmon, and prawns.

Josh Barrie writes for Mirror Online, among others. Follow him on Twitter @joshbythesea

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