As Govenek of Ladram (PZ 51) crewman Stanley triumphantly declared, in the much acclaimed, recent Channel 4 series “The Catch”. This month sees the airing of yet more revealing and rolling adventures from the UK’s most dangerous civilian profession in the new ITV series “Trawlermen Tales” which features yet another erstwhile Newlyn fisherman and hakemeister, Alan Dwan, Skipper of the renowned netter “Ajax” (PZ 36). The cameras this time, although still occupying deck space aboard the vessel on trips to the Celtic fishing grounds west of Lands End, also spend time ashore, capturing in raw detail, the pressures and tribulations that face the families of those men preoccupied with placing fresh fish on our plates.
I spoke to Alan last summer, just as he had achieved the distinction of having their hake (Merluccius merluccius) accredited by the Marine Stewardship Council with their sustainability MSC trademark, having undergone a lengthy six year process, of data submission, trials and operational scrutiny in order to achieve an industry standard that would add assurance and hopefully a worthy premium to their already esteemed product. With Alan’s profile about to come into sharp focus once more, through this latest screening of life at sea with our fleet, I thought it would be a great opportunity to catch up on the last six months of selling under the MSC ecolabel and see if that additional assurance had indeed made a difference.
Speaking to me from a windswept and “Storm Frank”-buffeted Newlyn, I asked Alan how things had progressed since we last spoke and whether he’d seen any discernible uplift in the prices he’d achieved both at Newlyn and Brixham markets where his hake is auctioned.
“It was never going to be an overnight fix you know”, he ventures. “A lot of people thought we’d see a sudden jump in prices, which was never going to be the case. We’ve set the scene though. Although the chain of custody for the hake is not yet approved for the MSC label to be used in Brixham, we don’t think it’s far off. After all it’s the same fish caught aboard Ajax, packed in the same boxes, using the same transport, so there’s zero difference”
In fact I learn that the Brixham hake price can sometimes top the Newlyn figures, as a relative few boxes are landed there compared to the Cornish auction.
Alan reveals that taking recent uplifts into account (9% last year), currently there is quota enough to sustain the increasing demand for this flavoursome and increasingly popular white fish alternative for consumers.
“We’re seeing plenty of hake on the grounds” he confidently tells me. “Good recruitment of juveniles and healthy numbers of different class sizes ensures that our Celtic sea hake fishery promises a sustainable and viable future, just as long as policy is managed correctly”
The same rings true in more Northerly waters too, where the Scottish fleet now see abundant stocks on grounds unfished for hake up until only relatively recently.
“There’s an awful lot of hake in the North Sea” he confides,”we just need the extra quota now, especially as it’s becoming ever more popular.”
Another Skipper, Davie Milne of the Fraserburgh trawler “Adorne” (FR220) also cites the hake population as being potentially problematic for the just-enforced Landing Obligation or “Discards Ban”, that requires fishermen to land all undersized and juvenile quota species, rather than discard at sea.
“The problem is the hake are swimming and feeding with the haddock which is our primary catch. If we exhaust our hake quota then that species may become a “choke” for the haddock, preventing us for landing either.”
But in reality it’s all great news, particularly though for the likes of the Newlyn hake fleet, where their static gill nets with generous mesh sizes, that allow for minimal discards anyway, not only fosters consumer confidence, but presents the country’s buyers, chefs, fishmongers and foodies with the ultimate example of a fish with both maximum quality and traceability. Indeed, in the light of the hugely encouraging statistics released by MSC this week, that portray a healthy increase amount of fish eaten by the UK consumer last year (17% eating more than a year ago), the message has to be, that the more sustainably caught species we can eat, the better.
Sue Lucas of “Passionate About Fish”- The Fish Shop Camberley simply epitomises the passion and love that this once locally unheard of fish is now generating. Having worked her way full circle from her parents’ fishmongers through the corporate world of processed seafood and back to her own Camberley slab, she is a dedicated advocate of prime Cornish hake, as harvested by Alan and the other Newlyn netters.
Having just celebrated her first anniversary as a purveyor of fine seafood to Surrey tables, the most logical question to ask her is whether her innate appreciation of this fish has successfully transferred to her customers and I learn overwhelmingly, that it has.
“It’s lovely to be able to sell people not just a fish but a story,” she enthuses.”We’ve actively promoted hake, because it presents such a delicious and truly traceable alternative to the staples of cod and haddock. Since we opened I can categorically state, that sales of Cornish MSC hake, now outsell cod by twice as much and by four times the haddock.”
“I’ve made a deliberate and concerted effort to include the Newlyn fishermen in the whole promotion and Alan has been fantastic in assisting with our requirements. He’s always in contact and will message me even when he’s at sea, so I feel very connected with the whole process”
It’s very easy to see how this fish is exerting an almost charismatic appeal to consumers.
Sue continues. “Social media now plays a huge part in how we promote the sea to plate journey. Fishermen like Alan are embracing the technology and the ability to communicate with a wider audience. This is vital in our portrayal of a vibrant and viable seafood sector, where confidence is beginning to return after decades of bad press and constant vilification.”
Sue engages as much as she can with the Cornish boys and procures most of her South-western fishery needs through Newlyn Fish. Every species sourced is tagged with the name of the boat that caught it and Sue reckons it doesn’t come a lot more traceable than that.
Now into her stride and raving further about its culinary attributes, Sue identifies key qualities in this fish that afford it the versatility that top seafood chefs such as Mitch Tonks and Nathan Outlaw, already endorse.
“The texture of the loin is really hard to beat” continues Sue, (my tastebuds by now well afire), “the unique bone structure allows for maximum meat yield and the firmness of flesh makes it ideal for inclusion in Asian dishes, as it holds together so well- a bit like monkfish. Loins are without doubt the most popular cut and we could sell them exclusively if we had to, although we obviously make full use of the whole fish that come up from Newlyn”
Talking fish with Sue is like undergoing a kind of Pavlovian endurance test and knowing full well that the next question will have me drooling further over my notes, I venture as to her own preferred way of eating this incredibly endearing denizen of the Ladabie Bank.
“Simply”, comes the reply. “Pan fried or roasted with the skin crisped to a delicate crunch and lovingly set atop a bed of spring onion mash.”
In second place, she reveals, it might have to be smoked, substituting for the regular and dependable haddock in a Kedgeree, adding a delicate touch of the South West, to the spiced Indian tones of one of my most highly favoured breakfast indulgences.
There’s not much more one can add really. The thought of that sublime piece of hake is enough to turn my thoughts into raptures, as I envisage my next foray into the kitchen.
Delighted to have spoken to someone so obviously dedicated to sourcing the best from the best and displaying such care over the preparation and presentation, I turn my attention to my own task of transforming this sensational product into an exhilarating dish, that my family will, hopefully, be suitably impressed with.
Rather than trawl, albeit happily, through my well-thumbed cookery tomes from Allen to Stein, by way of a change, I’ve allowed myself the luxury and the privilege of inviting someone eminently more capable of wielding a pan than me, to do the job and so it’s with massive and heartfelt thanks and a lavish dollop of foodie love, that renowned Cumbrian chef, bon viveur and generally all-round-top-man, Jon Fell, of the White Mare Hotel at Beckermet, has agreed to share his profound passion for and in-depth knowledge of cooking this fish, as a very welcome guest on my blog.
Herewith then, Jon’s kindly donated offering and his take on the hake!
You will enjoy.
This recipe I’m going to share with you is a real favourite of mine, combines many of the flavours I enjoy, The Hake obviously, but also clams, mussels and chorizo
The Whole thing is cooked inside a bag in the oven, all of those flavours are retained perfectly, with the added bonus of clams and mussels which add that “seaside” smell, and the smokey flavour from the chorizo makes this dish absolutely stunning
This recipe will serve 4 people
4 Fresh Hake Fillets
150g of good quality cooking chorizo (go for the spicy one!) finely chopped
1 good handful of fresh clean clams
1 good handful of fresh clean mussels
A good splash of dry white wine (if you wouldn’t drink it! Don’t cook with it!!)
A good handful of fresh parsley chopped
A fresh leek finely sliced and washed well (grit ain’t good yeah?!!)
Squeeze of lemon
Splash of double cream
Place your beautiful Hake fillets onto four squares of tin foil
Top each one with the chopped chorizo equally
Now place the clams and mussels around each hake fillet
Fold the sides up carefully and add a good splash of white wine onto each
Sprinkle over the parsley
Season well with salt and pepper
Seal up your parcels really tightly
Place on a baking sheet and put in a preheated oven 200c for 10 minutes
In a pan sweat the leeks in some butter until nicely soft
Add a good splash of double cream and season to taste
Remove your hake from the parcel, divide the leeks between 4 warm plates
Serve the hake on top of the leeks, spoon the delicious mussels and clams around, add a good squeeze of lemon
You will never get tired of this dish, it’s fantastic and so easy
Huge thanks again to Jon and do visit his “Fish and Tips” at Simply Good Food TV – a brand new foodie hub featuring some of the nations favourite chefs doing what they do best!
You can see Jon in action, barbecuing hake in this clip from the series. http://youtu.be/KvaHheCEPBs
So I’m off to rustle up my interpretation of Jon’s fab dish.
I hope I do it justice!
NB My grateful thanks go to Alan Dwan and Sue Lucas also, for letting me use their wonderful photos.
Mike Warner 2015