Last week’s Brexit negotiations, conducted by video conference, failed to come to an agreement on fisheries. Michel Barnier, the EU negotiator (and former French fisheries minister), insisted that continued European access to British territorial waters was a prerequisite of any deal, and David Frost, his British counterpart, replied that this was ‘incompatible with our status as an independent coastal state’. If there is going to be no deal as a result of fishing, as seems increasingly probable, we are going to have a lot more fish to eat, but we’re also going to have to eat a lot more fish.
For an island surrounded by fish, Britain has never really been keen on seafood. Never: an analysis of skeletons from a Pictish burial ground in Scotland, published a couple of weeks ago, showed that the Picts ate beef and pork but no fish, despite living in what is now the fishing village of Portmahomack. They were quite capable of sailing — there are archaeological remains of a Pictish naval base at Burghead, on the opposite side of the Moray Firth — but it seems it just never occurred to them to catch and eat fish.
And it is still true: we don’t eat as much fish as most Europeans. Historians suggest that this dates from the Reformation, when rules about fasting were overturned and fish was stigmatised as ‘popish flesh’. But the protestant north of Germany has traditionally eaten more fish than the Catholic south. In Germany, as for most of Europe, the closer you are to the sea, the more fish you eat, yet we eat roughly the same amount of fish per capita as Austria. There is a butcher in my Cornish fishing village which only survives because of fishermen: skippers bound to sea for a week will come in and buy £150 worth of steak for their crew. ‘Do you never eat the fish you catch?’ I ask one. ‘Only if the meat runs out,’ he says, looking horrified.
My own theory is that it’s the English language to blame. We can eat beef and pork and, on some level, pretend it’s nothing to do with cows and pigs; with fish you don’t have that almost-plausible deniability. A John Dory on your plate is always the same as a John Dory in the sea — and for that matter, little Johnny Dory in a Julia Donaldson book that I used to read to my son and which put us both off the fish for life. We can only seem to eat fish when it’s called ‘fish’ — in fish and chips, or fish pie, or fish fingers — that is, when it’s not recognisable as a fish.
In the fish markets of Spain or France you will see nothing but whole fish for sale, but in the UK filleting is left to the professionals. Indeed, the Church of England last year launched a campaign to outlaw pointed kitchen knives as a dangerous anachronism, backed by judges and trauma doctors. I read the report and thought: those are men who’ve never had to fillet a mackerel. In supermarkets, you can buy ‘fish pie mix’, a collection of odd bits of skinless, boneless, nameless fish, removing the need for any knife at all, and taking us one further remove from the reality of what we are eating.
And reality is, I think, one of the reasons we are so scared of fish. We can judge beef and pork by the colour of the meat; one of the best ways to check if a fish is fresh is to look at its eyes. (I’d find it hard to eat bacon if I’d gazed into the pig’s eyes first. Harder, anyway.) Even when it’s cooked, provided it’s not coated with batter or breadcrumbs, it’s obvious that it’s a real animal you’re eating. And people in Europe seem better able to cope with this reality — perhaps because of the language, perhaps because they didn’t have an industrial revolution that took them away from the land as early as we did.
I’m not suggesting we should become totally European, and, like the Swedes, eat Surströmming, the fermented herring that smells so bad that tins have to be opened under water, or, like the Sicilians, scoop out the gonads of a sea urchin with a spoon. We do not need the piles of fruits de mer of French fish markets that so fascinate English children on holiday, or to follow Latvia and Portugal and have a surfeit of lampreys in our supermarkets. But it’s hard to understand why we import cod from Iceland and export most of our hake to Spain, when hake is a far superior fish, and plentiful in British waters. If you haven’t already, you should try it: we’ve got a lot to get through.
Andrew Watts on how we can become a nation of fish-lovers.