Like most flatfish, plaice are found in sand, mud and gravel because they can hide in it, or stir it up to expose crabs and other goodies. We generally catch them in small trawls off Budleigh or Teignmouth. They migrate to the huge seed mussel beds to the west of Portland Bill in the spring and early summer, as their tough mouths allow them to tear off these tiny mussles. Plaice start life as normal upright fish, but as they grow tip over to one side and one eye migrates around the head. What makes them stand out most vividly from the rest of the Lyme Bay flatfish are the bright orange spots sprinkled across their greeny-brown backs. No other flatfish sports spots like these. The flesh of plaice is exceptionally fine and delicate and is best fried in oil and butter, or grilled under a hot grill. It is one of the few fish that can be fileted with no bones. Alternatively the whole fish can be baked whole in a piping-hot oven – though care should be taken not to overcook it. If you get it right, the moist Christmas-white flesh should gently cling to the bone frame. Eat one side, flip it over and eat the other.
Solea Solea acquired its name because Dover was historically the most reliable port for the London market. These days, most Dover sole for the British table passes through Brixham market – unless you’re lucky enough to buy it directly from the Fish Store that is! Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, sole was the most prized of all sea fish, maybe because it takes 48 hours on ice after coming out of the water to reach its best… Similar to skate wings, this allows for some bacteriological action to turn the flesh soft and tender. Dover sole are predominantly night feeders, when they creep around sandy or muddy areas of the seabed hunting for crabs, worms and mussels. Whilst being a restaurant favourite, sole is an easy fish to get the best out of at home. We’ll remove the coarse dark skin from the upper side for you in the Fish Store – after that our favourite way to cook them is simply grilled or fried on the bone, top skin off, bottom skin on.
The lemon sole is something of an impostor as it isn’t a sole – in fact it is a member of the plaice family. The smattering of tiny yellow flecks among its red-brown skin is commonly assumed to be where the name lemon came from, although some think it is from its perfectly oval shape. Lemon sole is found in deeper water, and is a night feeder, which makes it a rare catch on day-boats like the Compass Rose. It’s a tasty fish and can be prepared similar to plaice or Dover sole.
Easily caught inshore around most of the British Isles, these two flatfish generally end up being caught by boats targeting top end flatfish. Both have plain skin with no elaborate markings and are generally smaller than plaice, brill or turbot. Flounder particularly seem to revel in the reduced salination found in brackish waters like the Exe Estuary. Dab meat is some of the sweetest and softest fish flesh, and because of its small size, is available at a very keen price. A whole flounder, simply grilled and served with a generous amount of melted butter, flaky sea salt and chopped fresh parsley is our preferred serving method. Or pop a pair of dab fillets in a white bun covered in tartar sauce.
Since Victorian times, Turbot has been held in high esteem for its rich, gamey flavor that gained it the reputation of being the ‘pheasant of the sea’. Like all flatfish, they don’t start life flat. For the first 6 months the swim around in a conventional upright manner, but as they grow and leave the mid-water nursery for the seabed they gradually metamorphose into flatfish. Turbot grow to be big, powerful fish and the quality, firmness and succulence of their flesh is such that it will stand up to most cooking techniques: frying, grilling, baking, steaming, poaching and even barbequing. However, like Dover sole and skate, it takes 48 hours on ice for the flesh to become tender, so try not to eat it before then.
Brill is slightly lighter and less meatier than Turbot, but by no means the inferior cousin. In fact, their habitats, behavior and diets are so similar that they have been known to interbreed. The obvious difference between the two is in their markings. A turbot has hard, horn like lumps called tubercules sprinkled across its back, whereas a brill is smooth. In the kitchen, brill can be cooked like turbot – versatile enough to be fried with capers and black butter (as if it were a skate wing), or served with sorrel sauce (as if it were a piece of sea trout), and won’t disappoint dusted with seasoned flour and sizzled in a pan like a piece of pollack.
In British waters we have three types of gurnard, of which red is the smallest. They are most common in the warm waters of the South West. They feed on crustaceans and will also hunt for live fish like young whiting and sand eels. They are extremely pleasant to eat, with a robust flavour and a firm texture that when cooked allows all the flesh to peel off the skeleton without releasing any bones. When picking the meat off a cooked gurnard, remember to pick right up into the ‘shoulders’ for think chunks of white flesh. It also works extremely well in stews and soups, as the tight, meaty flesh won’t disintegrate even if simmered a little too long. Despite all this, its lack of popularity on the dining table means that it remains a bargain. Delicious, affordable and idiot-proof in the kitchen – could their be a higher recommendation for a fish?
Mackerel’s blue-black-green tiger-striped back and shimmering silver belly are always an inspiring, and indeed mouthwatering, sight. Mackerel will snap at anything, and are generally caught on ‘feathers’ – strings of 6 hooks, each with a colourful feather tied to its shank. When a shoal passes, you can expect more than one hook to be full. Mackerel are true pelagic fish, roaming the seas for food at any depth from seabed to surface, on anything from ragworms to sprats, sand eels to plankton. Their healthy lifestyle makes them a great source of nutrients and they make great bait for predatory fish such as sea bass and pollack. There are so many ways to prepare this delicious fish – wood-grilled, baked, soused, smoked, cured, potted, even raw. When we catch mackerel we do not gut it, as it keeps better this way. Instead we put it instantly on ice – fresh mackerel is not easy to retail, as the blood in the flesh deteriorates quickly, so knowing yours was landed in the last 24 hours is key.
When you buy a ‘skate wing’, is doesn’t actually come from a skate but a ray – one of about 10 different species found in British waters. Skate are a far bigger species than you’ll see on a fishmongers slab, often weighing more than 90kg. Rays are a member of the same family and their names have always overlapped. The fishing industry has evolved around the notion that the passing of time is detrimental to the product. Rays (and turbot and Dover sole) are a curious exception. All sea fish have evolved to deal with the constant presence of salt. Bony fish solve that problem with their gills, Rays don’t have a gill structure so instead maintain a supply of urea in their blood stream. When they die, this urea starts to break down and is released and at the same time its texture changes from hard, chewy, rubberness to a yielding tenderness. The best skate is therefore two to three days dead. A skate wing gently fried in foaming beurre noir, then finished with a scattering of capers and a squeeze of lemon, is one of the best fish suppers out there.
Fried bass fillets served with just about anything from Puy lentils to purple sprouting broccoli are found in many reputable restaurants – and with good reason. Its firm, creamy-white, slightly oily flesh is like a cross between cod and mackerel… the best of both worlds! For a couple of decades it has been top of the chef’s hit parade, and is also a great choice for home cooks who want luxury seafood made simple. For its classy reputation onshore, in the water sea bass is a violent, bullying fish - the French even call it ‘loup de mer’ or ‘wolf of the sea’. They are lethal predators who hunt shoals of finger-sized sprats or sand eels, often working together to corral their prey into tight bunches. Razor-sharp gill covers and spines fanned throughout their fins serve for both attack and defence.
The lazier a fish the whiter its flesh, as their muscles do not need constant fueling with energy-rich oils. Cod live just above the seabed, in the ‘demersal’ zone, and will lead a relatively indolent life hiding behind rocks or wrecks waiting for food to be dragged past by the tide. (Compare that to a tuna, which may swim up to a staggering 2 million miles in its lifetime). Cod stocks are still in crisis having been depleted some 90% between the 1960s and 1990s, however the situation is improving. Recently the Marine Stewardship Council declared that stocks are on the road to sustainability. For our customers who are partial to some cod, we’d urge you to consider Pollack.
Part of the cod family, and superficially similar with a large head and big eyes, you can do everything with Pollack as you can do with Cod. It is common all around the coast of Britain and Ireland, but we mainly catch it around the wrecks near where we set the pots.
We get lobsters in our pots about 6 miles from the mouth of the Exe Estuary. Lobsters don’t have very good eyesight but they do have a phenomenal sense of smell – hence we bait our pots with fish innards and skeletons left after we have been fileting in the Fish Store. When catching lobsters we try to be as sustainable as possible. There is no strict seasonality to lobster procreation, and females carrying eggs (berried females as they are known) can be found all year round. Berried females are returned to the water unharmed and we mark them with a V-notch in their tails, to identify them as sexually mature. This tells other fisherman to return them, even if they are not carrying eggs at the time. The ones we are keeping have their claws held shut with rubber bands (lobsters fight by nature) and are then kept alive in fish boxes on deck with a constant stream of seawater going through them. Once ashore they go straight into our live tank. Lobsters are exquisite to eat, simply boiled and served up with homemade mayonnaise. Come down to the Fish Store and pick yours out today!
Minimum catch sizes in the UK have been in place for brown crab since 1876, something that has stood it in fantastically good stead. There are no concerns about the future of our crab fisheries. Crab potting is one of the most fair-minded sort of fishing, since a crab in a pot is by no means doomed. It is hoisted onto the boat alive, and if soft (recently moulted), too small, or berried, it will go back into the water. When a crab moults its shell, once or occasionally twice a year, its overall size will increase by as much as 30 per cent. It takes up to 2 months for the soft, water-logged skin to calcify into a new shell during which time the crab will hide away, not feeding or exercising. The best crab therefore, are the dirty ones – the ones covered in barnacles with old, battered shells. They are the ones that have been feeding all year and are full of prime meat. The sex of a crab can be determined by looking at its ‘tail’ – a little flap of shell curled up under the body. The female’s is wide and somewhat rounded, the male’s narrower and pointier. If you’re choosing a crab the cocks generally have more white meat (mainly in their larger claws) whilst the hens contain a larger ration of brown meat. In the Fish Store we boil, chill and pick the majority of the brown crab we catch, selling it in 250g mixed tubs. So fresh, the meat is a wonderful thing to behold. There’s the rich, nutty, creamy brown meat that lurks deep inside the carapace, the strands of sweet, tangy white meat found in the leg sockets and the body, and there’s the rich seam of short-grained white meat from inside the claws.