Food Focus: Battering up for fresh fish

WE’VE just got back from a week on the south coast and we had really excellent fish and chips – fish caught in UK waters, then cooked the same day.

The batter was puffed and crisp and the chips were perfect. I thought a few of our readers might have had a similar experience over the Easter break, so it made me think about fish in our local area.

We live such a long way from our coastline, so we don’t have the option of walking down to the local fisherman’s hut to check out the catch of the day. I don’t know of any permanent fishmongers in the local area. So what are our options?

Buying good fish in our local area is not easy. Any fish that we buy has had to travel to get to Hertfordshire but we do have one or two good options.

The best place I have found to buy fish is at Poulter’s fish stall at the Saturday market in St Albans. I spoke to Darren Phillips, who has worked there for over 20 years. They sell a wide range of fish and seafood, from their bestselling sea bass and venus clams, to English oysters and crab.

Much of their fish is sourced from UK shores, including Newlyn, Falmouth, Broadstairs and Brighton. They buy fish from day boats, which is a good sign. Day boats are large, but still much smaller than the huge trawlers that go far out to sea and dredge the bottom of the sea for their catch. Trawled fish can be several days old by the time it gets to market, although it will be sold as “fresh”.

The scallops Poulter’s sell are hand-dived, which again helps to protect supplies. The stall was busy on the day I was there and I was introduced to some of the loyal customers, many of whom go every Saturday to stock up.

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If you need advice on how to cook fish, or want to try something new, then do ask; all the team are very knowledgeable and can give you recipe tips!

For tasty smoked fish, there are a couple of good stalls at the various farmer’s markets. You can find a much broader range of fish, seafood and smoked treats than in any of the supermarkets, so go and have a look. Most of the stalls put out a few samples to try.

If you are keen to support UK fishing, do ask where the fish comes from, and if it has been farmed or line-caught. Read the labels of the fish you buy in supermarkets – you may be amazed at how far it has come.

I have tried fish and chips from many places in St Albans in our 10 years of living here and to be honest, some of them could try a bit harder.

It would be good to see pollock on the menu, as cod is in real danger of running out. To be fair, I guess it is what most customers ask for. I do wonder if in fact they use pollock or similar, as cod is actually really expensive to buy now. If they do, then why not just tell the customer so everyone gets used to it?

The one I go to most is The Camp Fish Bar, Sutton Road, St Albans, and they were voted second in the ‘local gem’ category in last year’s Food and Drink Awards. They always have a long queue on a Friday, so they have a loyal following.

For truly fantastic fish and chips head towards the restaurants. Lussmann’s in St Albans have been named by Fish2Fork as one of the UK’s top 10 restaurants, because they use fish sourced from sustainable and well-managed stocks.

Others in the top 10 include Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir aux Quat Saisons, so they are in good company! They use line-caught British pollock.

Lussmann’s only sell fish and chips on Fridays (pictured), and at the moment only plan to until May 28 (I guess unless people demand more!). At �9.95, it costs more than you would pay at a chippy but the quality is a league ahead. The batter is light and crispy and the fish flakes apart. It is served with tasty proper mushy peas and lots of hand-cut chips.

The White Hart Tap, St Albans, also does terrific fish and chips. It is a very small pub, so go on a warm evening when you can sit in the garden. Again the batter is crisp and billowing, and as good as any you will find at the coast.

So if you are land-locked for the next few months, there is hope!