Andrew Watts

Britain’s strange aversion to seafood

If we’re going to take back control of our waters, we should eat more fish

(iStock)

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.

In the markets of Spain or France you see nothing but whole fish, but here filleting is left to professionals

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.

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