The way I see it: if you’ve got a half decent fishmonger near you, you’re blessed with the opportunity to eat like a king. I’ve been pretty fortunate as the neighbourhoods I’ve called home have all had fish shops of some description, from the fairly decent Walter Purkis in Crouch End to the excellent Harts’s bi-weekly fish stall in Frome.
So I was really deflated when we moved to south Bristol and there was no fishmonger to be found nearby, despite a whole host of decent restaurants, bars, delis, butchers and bakers (no candlestick makers though, because we don’t have those anymore, do we?) along nearby North St.
And yet it turned out that wasn’t actually the case, for at almost the same time we moved to the city, The Fish Shop, a successful fishmongers based over on Gloucester Road, opened a second smaller shop (a ‘shopette’, if you will) just up the road from us. And so not only do I have a fishmonger once again, but it’s the best one yet!
What really elevates The North Street Fish Shop for me is the quality of the produce. I don’t mean it’s all swanky turbot, sole and halibut (indeed, you’re more likely to find pollack, squid and mackerel here), it’s just always so bloody fresh and inviting. In fact, what really caught my attention when I finally discovered the place is that it smells of the seaside. Not just fish, but of salt-crusted rock pools, sea air and sun-baked seaweed. I don’t know how they do it, but it’s very hard to resist.
And it gets better, as not only is the fish beautifully fresh and bountifully stocked, but proprietor Dan Stern is a consummate foodie who’s always able to recommend an alternative fish if you can’t find what you’re looking for, or the best cut for the dish you have in mind, or simply a good, easy-to-prepare recipe if you’re not sure what you want. This, for me, is really the key to buying fish.
I trained as a chef at 15 and have been cooking most of my life, but fish is still a challenge I’m a long way from mastering. I make the effort and push myself to get better at understanding and cooking it, but this is greatly aided by the help of a good fishmonger (and fish eater). A bit of cooking confidence with fish goes a long way.
For instance: I made ceviche for the first time recently, and despite all the recipes saying ‘use any white fish’ Dan was very particular about recommending me a fish that would give the best results (and the least chance of parasites – according to where and how the fish fed in the ocean, apparently). And when I made one of my favourite fish dishes, Vietnamese Cha-Ca, again he was keen to recommend just the right variety of white fish for the job (Pollack in this instance), insisting on tail end cuts to avoid bones.
The original Fish Shop opened on Gloucester Road in 2010. Dan wasn’t a fishmonger by trade, simply a businessman responding to a gap in the market. The learning curve was pretty severe at first, but ultimately he relies on quality and fair pricing to guide him. “I buy and sell what I would want to eat myself”, he says. “If I don’t rate the catch, I’ll send it back to the supplier.” As a small independent business, that’s not an attitude that’s going to ingratiate him with the old guard trade, but for consumers like me, it makes all the difference.
The majority of The Fish Shop’s wild stock is landed on the South Coast, from Newhaven down to Newlynn. They’re big advocates of MSC-certified fish and will buy this wherever possible. Sustainability is also important, so they stock many lesser known UK fish like sand sole, dabs and ling. Sustainability extends to farmed fish also, with MSC-approved Arctic char from Dorset and high quality GM-free Var salmon from the Faroe islands. I haven’t tried the salmon yet, but the char is lovely, with a very clean, trout-like flavour. “Ultimately”, Dan concludes, “I’d love to be in a position where shops like ours can buy mixed catches directly from smaller day boats without the risk of discards.” Unfortunately, he says, this is still a long way off.
So let’s hear it for our fishmongers. If you have any interest in eating good fish, there’s nothing that can beat their knowledge and passion when it comes to sourcing and selling the stuff. Get down to your local, ask questions, and expand your culinary horizons. Good fishmongers are the key to eating a better variety of sustainable fish and helping to raise the UK fishing standards. As consumers we hold some of the power in securing a better future for the our seas, and certainly our diets.
Oh, and if you want to try something a little different (but really easy to make), here’s a little video of how to make Hanoi Cha-Ca fish. It really is one of the nicest fish dishes I’ve had. Just remember the tail-end trick, it’s winner!
<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/155906749″>Cha-Ca Fish</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/user49112600″>William Thomas</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a>.</p>