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From catch to customer

Words by Hannah Tapping | Images by James Strawbridge

Following the journey of Cornish fish from one of Britain’s largest privately owned fleets.

W Stevenson has been in the fishing industry for over 100 years. Now owned by parent company, Ocean Fish, sustainability lies at the heart of the entire operation. Its fishing fleet of sardine ring netters operates mainly from Newlyn, returning their catch to its market daily. Having control of their own fleet of boats, a fish market, an on-site fish monger, as well as wholesale and on-line retail sales, allows for control over the whole journey of the fish. With such vast diversity in the Cornish fishing industry – there can be up to 35 different species landed on the local markets on any given day – Stevenson and Ocean Fish work closely with local, regional, national, and international scientific and management organisations, ensuring they are always at the leading edge of sustainable fishing practices.

Alongside an expanding e-commerce site, where consumers can order fresh fish for delivery to their door, the fishmongers beside the Newlyn market offers direct sales. Run by Elaine, who was the first female master fishmonger in the country, the shop has thrived under her initiatives which include serving fresh crab sandwiches and fish tacos during the summer months, as well as running filleting courses for the faint-hearted. This is part of Ocean Fish’s mission to encourage the people of Britain to fall in love with British fish. Shockingly much of the fish and shellfish that is caught in British waters is exported and so in collaboration with Cornish development chef James Strawbridge, Ocean Fish and W Stevenson are promoting fish with easy, accessible and very tasty recipes.

Ocean Fish

“Newlyn is synonymous with Stevenson,” explains James. “It’s one of those heritage fish merchants that I’ve always admired. For me, it’s the whole notion of the fact they’ve got their own fleet and there’s traceability. I think a lot of the time, environmental and sustainable buzzwords get thrown around by businesses and there’s a danger of greenwashing. When you know exactly what boats are going out and what they’re coming back with, then you’ve got a high level of true seasonality and sustainability. You can see the boats out there catching sardines, you can speak to the skippers and I think that gives a genuine understanding of what the fish supply chain in Cornish waters is all about.”

James goes on to say that while there is a lean towards buying higher welfare meat, seasonal vegetables and supporting local dairies, when it comes to seafood very often consumers will opt for the big sellers such as salmon, cod, and haddock, which feels very national: “I’m personally much more focused on regional foods now. Many years ago, I cooked my first Stargazy pie and I remember learning of Newlyn’s and Cornwall’s rich pilchard (or sardines as they are also known) history. If you’ve got a place you can go and buy fish that hasn’t left the county then that doesn’t get more local. If I’m getting some monkfish, I’d much rather it comes from Cornwall, supporting not only the fisheries and that journey towards sustainability, but also, it’s in turn supporting local communities.”

For James the thing that stands out most with local fish is the variety: “Alongside my favourite Cornish sardines, MSC hake, monkfish and megrim sole are not only delicious but also good for you. Often, species such as megrim and king crab are shipped to Portugal and Spain, so it’s about educating people with recipes so that they are not afraid of cooking them.” He recommends keeping it simple and celebrating the fact that if you buy local then your fish won’t have seen a factory. It will simply have been landed, put on ice, before making the short journey into the kitchen.

James’ recipes are always led by the ingredients: “I am very much a mood-driven development chef in terms of seasonality – including the micro-seasons. For example, with broad beans you’ve got a micro-season where broad bean tops are fresh and fantastic as a pesto, and then come the young peas that you can throw straight in the pan, and those things will pair really well with fish. Even fish have a micro-season – when you speak to the fishermen they will tell you that the oil levels in sardines will change over the course of the season and this is the kind of knowledge I’m trying to relearn.”

For James, he follows style over fashion when developing recipes. Avoiding the obvious, he adopts macro food trends that he tries to reflect in simple recipes: “I love Indian cuisine, I love Mexican food and I love Middle Eastern spices and these are fantastic paired with the right fish. Or you could just go classic British and use a nice Cornish cheddar for a gratin on a piece of pollack; it’s very much thinking of where the food would be at home with ingredients that are local. I like to try and have a clear idea in my head when I’m creating recipes so that it’s not too confused, but I’m also not shy about throwing a lot of ingredients at it and having fun with cooking. Sometimes, you absolutely want a pure and simple piece of fish cooked well, however, we have become accustomed to world food flavours and this can be reflected in the plate with a piece of Cornish fish.”

“You’ve heard of nose to tail eating, so when it comes to fish, we call it fin to gill and we need to think about that too. Making good stocks and roasting on the bone delivers flavour. We’re used to doing that with a chicken or a lovely rib of beef and it should be the same with fish. People are afraid of fish bones, but actually if you cook fish right it just falls away off the bone in a beautiful clean serving at the table. I think it’s a bit of a journey to look at how we can re-educate people to enjoy cooking with fish.”

Following the advice of his father, the formidable Dick Strawbridge, James has always followed the ethos that “faint heart never won fair lady”. For him, confidence and a mindset of not being afraid when it comes to preparing and cooking fish, combined with some basic knowledge, which you can pick up from speaking to a local fishmonger, watching some of the videos hosted on the Stevenson site or downloading the recipes, can make all the difference. “We are so used to buying pre-portioned vacuum-packed fillets and while there’s nothing wrong with that – it’s really convenient and very versatile to cook with at home – having a go and learning to fillet and prepare fish yourself is so rewarding.”

“As a chef (and a guy who loves tools) I love owning different knives for different jobs. Get yourself a filleting knife which has a bit of flex to it and is nice and sharp and then start off with a simple fish to fillet. I always think something like mackerel is a great way to start. Getting a grasp on the basics is key, and once you’ve grown in confidence, then there’s huge potential to explore other species of Cornish fish. It’s also really good to get children involved at a young age – they’ll be fascinated by picking and cracking a crab at the table, cooking sardines whole or stuffing mackerel with some aromatics and then roasting them on the barbeque. They can look at the head, they can see the bones and can learn first-hand.”

While the pasty and cream tea are what Cornwall is famous for, James would love for there to be a point when, instead of thinking of sardines as a Mediterranean dish, it becomes a Cornish staple. “A lot of people maybe don’t realise just how healthy the Cornish sardine industry is, and that’s down to hard work and good decisions made by Ocean Fish and the fishing community. They’re investing in their future, making sure there’s plenty of fish for people to come in future generations, as well as celebrating the past. I think it’s a really good example of a proper way of fishing.” James, in association with Ocean Fish, is on a mission to demystify fish cookery with a new range of dishes just launched with Ocado. Their Hook, Line and Sinker is a value-added fish brand with species ranging from hake and monkfish to pollack and sardines, all prepared in an easy to cook format. Cornish fish will also feature in Ocado’s Fish Market, helping to promote fresh fish out to the wider public.


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