Bargain hunt: fish

Categories: Expert guidance

Tom Hunt, author of The Natural Cook, uses high quality ingredients to create a balanced meal for under £10, focusing on a different food group each time. This month: fish

When I visit Furness Fish & Game—the fishmonger on Middle Road in the centre of the Market—I can’t help but be excited by the table of fish they have on offer. Their display is like a static shoal of migrating fish, waiting to be delivered to the plates of Borough’s hungry customers.

Gaping monkfish sit ugly alongside siren-like salmon, bass, mackerel, sole and plaice, all decorated and dappled with crustaceans, bivalves and seaweed. Furness Fish is good for choice and for their famous hand potted shrimp and crab, however each fishmonger in Borough Market has its own specialities and reasons for a visit.

Sussex Fish in the Green Market is good for traceability. Paul Day, the loveable owner, works closely with inshore fisheries and small boats off the East Sussex coast. Paul also keeps an impressive selection of fish, mostly caught by driftnets which he says are selective and allow juveniles to escape.

Plentiful stocks
I asked Paul for some advice about which fish he thought were cost effective, and he was quick to recommended plaice, which are in prime season. He also recommended hake, mackerel and dab, which are all brilliant sustainable choices, currently with plentiful stocks. I bought a hake’s head and eight whelks, the two cheapest items on Paul’s stall costing just two pounds. Now that is a bargain!

Hake is very popular in Spain and the jowls from the head are a sought-after delicacy, savoured for their tastiness and gelatinous, satisfying texture. A hake head is good roasted whole, served as a centrepiece; boiled into a soup and picked of all its delicious meat; or as I have written in this month’s recipe, it makes an out of this world, aromatic and flavourful seafood paella.

Shellseekers Fish & Game, opposite Furness Fish and Game is known for its diver-caught scallops. Darren Brown started experimenting with scallop diving when he was in the Royal Navy, which led to him opening Shellseekers at Borough Market.

Ecologically viable
Diver-caught scallops are expensive, but they are the only ecologically viable option. The alternative fishing method, dredging, damages the seabed and is unselective, landing whatever it drags up. To eat scallops on a budget, serve them as a delicacy, raw or as a part of a larger meal.

A popular market is the best place to buy fresh fish. With limited opening days and high foot fall, you know the fish can’t have been hanging around for long. If you visit the Market on a Thursday—when the fishmongers buy in the bulk of their stock for the weekend—I would recommend making the most of the fishmongers’ fresh catch by making sashimi or ceviche.

Although the general rule is that fish is better the fresher it is, it is perfectly fine to eat when it is a few days old and surprisingly, some species will even become better with age, like turbot and other large gelatinous flat fish. When buying fish from a counter, if you are unsure about the freshness, look for flat fish. If you want to find a bargain, it’s worth bearing in mind that stalls often reduce the price of their fish to sell out before closing.

Conscious and connected
Being conscious of and connected to the origin of our food is important for the ecology of our planet and the fair treatment of communities around the world. Fish and its use as a food staple is a particularly contentious issue, which needs to be approached with thought. If you would like to support the fishing community and the continued abundance of fish, it is important to consider where it has come from and how it was caught.

The first step is to talk to your fishmonger and find this out. Sometimes the views of the fisherman disagree with the scientists and guides available online. I prefer to err on the side of caution, by following the Good Fish Guide on the Marine Conservation Society’s website.

Of course, the fishermen know their industry better than anyone and it is vital their opinion is considered. There are plenty of species that are considered sustainable by certification bodies which are often less in demand. Buying those fish brings value to the species and broadens diversity, relieving the pressure on the most popular fish which often suffer from overfishing. 

The ethicurean
Fish can be expensive, but fortunately for the ethicurean, the more sustainable fish are usually the more affordable ones as they are less in demand than species like monkfish, tiger prawns, skate, shark and tuna, which as a rule should be avoided to help the recovery of stocks.

The more plentiful and sustainably viable species I currently recommend are pollock, coley, gurnard, sardines, herring, trout and of course hake, mackerel and dab. Most shellfish are also a good, sustainable choice, primarily bivalves like oysters, cockles, mussels and whelks.

My tips for buying sustainable fish:
Talk to your fishmonger and find out where his fish is from and how it was caught
Check the species is recommended as safe to eat by the Good Fish Guide
Buy fish from day boats and small inshore fisheries where possible
Buy line caught fish whenever possible
Avoid buying juvenile fish that seem small for their species (a guide to the recommended size is on the Good Fish Guide)
Shellfish are a good sustainable option, especially oysters and mussels which actually clean the water through their feeding process  

Read Tom’s recipe for seafood paella