If you stand on your tiptoes on the steps at the back of Kitchen 3, on top of the cows, fields, hedges, and trees, you can just see a thin blue stripe of sea, and if you’re lucky, you can catch a taste of the crisp, salty tang in the air that blows in from the coast. Perhaps I’m sentimental, but for me this vista depicts how the school is connected as much to the sea as the land, which we’ve found happens in often unexpected ways – seaweed is used to enrich the compost and set puddings, shells to feed the chickens, sea water to boil new potatoes (this is great, by the way – see recipe here). By now, we’ve grappled with all manner of sea creatures…mussels, prawns, oysters, clams, pollock, cod and the unfortunate-looking monkfish, and by week 5 it was high time I went to the local fishing village, Ballycotton, to see how it got from the sea to my chopping board.
So, on a beautiful Tuesday evening, we bundled into Alice’s enormous Land Rover Defender (the party bus) for a trip on the open seas with Peter the Fisherman. The school sources the seafood we cook from the fishermen in Ballycotton or other sustainable fishing boats, but aside from getting unbeatable freshness, supporting their sustainable practices is a moral duty: as many as 80% of all commercially fished species in EU waters are currently overfished, so without supporting sustainable practices, there soon wouldn’t be many fish left at all.
Alice, Clemmie, Florence, Molly, Aoife, Rod, Laura, Chris, Suze and I all met Peter in the harbour, and merrily hopped aboard and sped out to sea, flanked on either side by a procession of beady-eyed seagulls, cawing with an encouraging sense of expectation. We were advised to wear hats to protect our hair against any unfortunate aerial bombardment.
On the journey, Peter humoured my maritime ignorance, and explained that as the yield for line fishing (fishing with rods) is significantly lower than when fishing with nets, the highly controversial EU quotas which restrict numbers of fish landed per boat (and can lead to excess fish being dumped back in the sea, dead) do not really come into play here, so they can fish as they choose. Nevertheless, there is an understanding between the fishermen at Ballycotton to release young or endangered fish, and likewise to tag and release blue sharks, and save the bragging for the pub.
Peter warned us that there might not be many fish about, as the water was still murky from the turbulence of a storm three days before. He didn’t know where they disappear to either – one of the mysteries of the sea – so the odds were against us.
A few miles out to sea, we lowered our rods. I had never been fishing before, and felt a strange mixture of excited anticipation and the smallest nagging guilt on behalf of the fish I might potentially catch. This was soon forgotten with cries of glee from me and Florence within only five minutes. Frantically, we reeled our catch closer and closer, and, as it seemed to grow heavier and heavier with each rotation, our imagination grew proportionally… until Peter came along and told us with a small sigh that the only thing we’d caught was each other, underneath the boat. Oh dear.
After 30 minutes without a single fish, the sea gulls were openly disappointed and bobbed around on the waves with disdain. So we moved on to different waters, and proved them wrong – Clemmie and Florence caught two pollock in quick succession, then Alice a beautiful cod and then Molly two herring – I think Laura landed a pollock too. Rod reeled in a cod, but it was too small, so Peter returned it to the water (but it still counts, Rod). Peter was dashing from one side of the boat to the other helping us disentangle fish from hooks and hooks from coats and then showed us how to gut and fillet the fish, throwing the scraps to the seagulls, who thought it was about time too.
We eventually headed home with our catch, chasing the setting sun with a mutual agreement that life couldn’t get better than this.
It’s rare that you have the chance to eat fish this fresh, and one of our classmates Son, who owns a restaurant in Hoi An, Vietnam, showed us how to make the most of it with his Vietnamese spring rolls, here is the recipe – so simple to make, and completely delicious… an excellent starter to fool your friends into thinking that no cuisine is beyond your grasp.
What I learned this week: How to get your hands on the best fish if you can’t catch it yourself:
Fish are often filleted (the flesh removed from the carcass) to disguise their age, so you’d be best with a whole fish from a fishmonger or fish counter, with clear, bright eyes and then ask them to fillet it for you if you can’t do it yourself. Look out for the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) ecolabel to check whether the fish and seafood is being sourced sustainably:
The MSC website is full of really helpful information, include a directory of compliant restaurants, fishmongers and producers: https://www.msc.org/where-to-buy/product-finder.