National Seafood Week, developed to encourage us to eat more fish finished yesterday but eating this healthy food should be something we do all year round.
Ironically, one of the biggest problems here, despite being surrounded by sea, is sourcing good fresh seafood. Fresh fish, for the record, should not smell fishy. If the supermarket counter smells of fish, just walk on by – it’s a sure sign it’s past its sell by date.
There are some stand out places in Northern Ireland to buy good fish and one of my favourites is the fish area in St George’s market every Friday and Saturday. Sparklingly fresh salmon sits alongside live local prawns, lobsters and crabs with silver herrings, mottled mackerel and a myriad of beautiful treasures of the sea in between. Not only is the produce lovely to look at, it is irresistibly fresh. The stall holders will be able to tell you when it was caught and give you advice on how to cook it.
Unfortunately fishmongers in Northern Ireland are a rare breed nowadays. Walter Ewing is a third generation fish merchant from the Shankill Road in Belfast. His shop hasn’t changed much since opening in 1911 but his business has. The retail outlet is only a small part of his overall activity, which involves processing and supplying restaurants throughout the country. When I shop there I love to pick up some potted herrings, made to an old original family recipe. The soft herring, zingy with vinegar and topped with buttery crumbs is so deliciously old fashioned, tasty and evocative of simpler times and lyrics from my music hero Van Morrison. It’s refreshing, if not a bit mind blowing, to see school children buying small polystyrene tubs of whelks for lunch from the shop, instead of frequenting the local fast food outlet. Ewings isn’t just a shop, it’s a symbol of hope in a fast moving world.
There are fish vans dotted around the country and well worth sussing out. It’s good to know that buying from independent shops, vans or stalls is considerably cheaper than from major supermarkets. The van I use sits beside a local supermarket in Portrush every Thursday. Alongside beautifully fresh fish, sits local salted ling. Ling is a white fish with a flesh a little like cod and traditionally it was salted to preserve it. When you were ready to eat it you rehyrdrated in cold water and then poached it in milk with some scallions and potatoes – a precursor to chowder. Salt fish is celebrated across Europe and into Russia and should be here too. It’s a vital part of our food history.
A really handy way of sourcing fresh fish is to use Mourne Fish box. They’re based in Kilkeel where they have access to pristine produce. You pick from a selection of fish and they’ll deliver to any address in Northern Ireland. Go to mournefishbox.com for details.
My recipes this week use sustainable local fish and the first one is for an oatmeal crusted herring, fried in bacon fat with a potato salad – traditional and delicious. Bouillabaisse is a classic fish soup from the south of France, where fish bones are boiled with aromatics and then pressed through a mouli sieve. My version is a bit more substantial and user friendly, with gurnard and coley poached in a tomato and fennel based stock – perfectly tasty for this time of year.