Looking down at our plates the other night, I heard the dread words. The ones I knew were coming one day. The sound of the apocalypse.
“Is it OK to eat fish?” Sophie looked up from her haddock. “I mean, ethically?”
Now I’m a carnivore forced into vegetarian clothing while at home, and the compromise is that we eat fish. But killing any creature is a big compromise for a life-long veggie like Sophie, and I don’t like anything that threatens our peace treaty. I don’t like hearing that fish just wanna have fun, or that every fish has a mummy. At the same time, I’ve read my share of eco-armageddon stuff on the marine environment. Like Taras Grescoe’s new book, Bottomfeeders, a stunning expose of human folly with fishing around the globe. I know all that, but I can’t help myself: giving up on fish would be totally gutting, and perhaps unnecessary.
So I answered firmly, “Yes.” The sort of voice, I hoped, that delivered certainty, and brooked no argument.
A week later, an old friend, Chris Bax, got in touch: “Would I be interested in doing a weekend course in coastal food foraging? There’s a few other people coming. We’ll hunt in rock pools, go out in a boat, make sushi . . .” I saw my opportunity. No longer a slave to trawl nets and industrial ocean hoovers, I would salvage dignity for myself and the fish. The nobility of the hunt would be mine, plus some Yorkshire sushi.
Chris met me and the other participants at midday on the quayside at Whitby where we jumped aboard John Whitton’s boat, Never Can Tella.
This is a tough bit of coast for boats: in the late 19th century there was one year that had at least one wreck a day for all 365 days. No wonder Bram Stoker chose such a red-blooded spot to have Dracula shipwrecked. Storms can close the harbour mouth for long periods in winter, but we were lucky with the weather, chugging out past the rows of fish and chip shops, in sunshine.
John and his mate Tony showed me the morning’s catch: several lobsters, velvet crabs, edible crabs and a huge octopus whose feeding habits seemed straight out of Bram Stoker too. “They drape themselves over the pot, stick their tentacles inside and crush the lobster, then pick out the bits.”
“Will you eat him?”
John shook his head. Apparently no one eats or buys octopus. I don’t blame them: my own experience is of rubbery snacks around the Med. Chris, however, took it and dropped it into our goodie box along with a couple of lobsters and a selection of crabs. Up front in the tiny cabin, John introduced me to the technology that is devastating our sealife. Simple and cheap pieces of software that coordinate the boat’s position and show fish shoals. These are the tools of modern fishing, and the result is frequently total madness: vast quantities of fish discarded because they are the wrong species – 87,000 tonnes of haddock alone every year for the past 40 years in the North Sea, huge vessels scooping up edible sardines or Antarctic krill to feed to farmed salmon (along with chicken feathers and feet, artificial colourants and antibiotics), and the remorseless hunt for bluefin tuna that is sending populations the way of all cod. John’s boat may be a tiny day-sailer, but it still has the same devastating technology. A tap of a key and we had a 3-D representation of the sea bed showing a first world war wreck poking up.
“With this, we can drop our lines down the side of it and drift away with the tide.”
The difference between us and a super-trawler was in our catching gear. Where they have a lethal array of nets and electrified stunning equipment, we were holding 5ft long rods, wooden Scarborough reels and rigs of feathered lures. It could not be simpler. John gave me the lowdown on the complex angling technique known as jigging. “You drop the line to the bottom, then jig the lure up and down.”
But I didn’t get to the bottom. The lure went over the side and descended halfway, about 60ft, then it stopped and started doing its own jigging.
“Mackerel,” said John, “Reel ‘em in.”
Leaning over the gunwale, I could see them coming up: sudden surges of quicksilver, flashing down there in the green depths. One fell off but two landed on the deck, smacking at the boards with their tails, their backs so beautifully marked that I squatted there for a long while gazing at them in awe. I hadn’t caught a mackerel since I was 14 and long forgotten the sheer magic of that feeling.
The others were hooking into the shoal too, and soon our tub was filling up. “I’m going to shift the boat,” said John, “Otherwise we’ll never get through to the cod and whiting lower down. Reel in.”
Back in the cabin, I asked about cod: were the press stories of collapsed population true?
“Yes,” he said emphatically. “Things are getting worse for cod. The only population doing well is lobster.”
This might seem like a tiny piece of good news, but as Taras Grescoe points out in his book, lobsters are doing fine since fish populations collapsed. Seaweed beds have grown and the lobster thrives in them with few predators to bother it. Whitby is doing well from shellfish, if not the traditional cod. The truth is that the world’s oceans are filling up with crustaceans and slime.
As if to reinforce the bad news, we were suddenly into a patch of cod and whiting, most of them too small to eat. John had us put them all back. Nevertheless, after three hours we had a tub containing two cod, half a dozen whiting and about a hundred mackerel. Chris looked relieved. “I have been out and caught nothing,” he admitted. “But this is good – we can do some sushi.”
By dinnertime we were over at the camp, a few miles up the coast, raising a good fire. Chris, a trained chef as well as bushcraft expert, taught me how to fillet and trim for sushi, then prepare crab. John, one of the other participants, was tenderising octopus with a stick. Richard, a forester from Lancashire, was learning how to deal with lobster while Rose, a sculptor, chose to go and collect a salad of wild leaves. I will remember many tastes from that night: the delicate flavours of raw mackerel, and the buttery beauty of a fresh lobster, but most surprising was the octopus – a creature thrown in the UK’s fishery bin. Not a hint of car tyre, just sweet and tender.
Next day we were not so fortunate with the weather, but the food possibilities never stopped. A walk down to the sea through Oakrigg woods was punctuated by stops for plants: herb bennet – very like cloves; woundwort – very good antiseptic; a clutch of different mushrooms, all edible.
The beach was at Port Mulgrave, a tiny former mining cove up the coast from Whitby, now little visited, but full of interesting flora and fauna. Despite frequent rain squalls we pressed on, collecting seaweeds and whelks, even a lobster that had strayed from deeper waters. Chris passed me a piece of kelp to nibble on and washed the sand from a load of laver, a seaweed that is used in the nori of Japanese sushi. “In Wales they use it in laver bread – oats, seaweed and bacon fat – we’ll try it for breakfast. There are no inedible seaweeds in Britain so you just check the water quality, then try them!”
There is a kind of enthusiasm that only real foodies can generate, and that of the wild food foodie is particularly infectious. Chris has that type of creative imagination that can run to extravagances like woodlouse pizza, or innovations such as a fish smoker made from a Quality Street tin and some oak shavings. That night we drank Chris’s home-made elderflower champagne and sipped his hawthorn blossom liqueur before our feast. The final morning was all seaweed recipes and things to do with whelks.
I came away with all sorts of new skills and knowledge, some confidence about gathering and handling coastal food, plus several mackerel that the local farmer had kept in his fridge for me. We even learned how to call roe deer, bringing a large buck bouncing out the woods. Then we realised he wasn’t fish and sent him back. I’m not sure I went home with an answer to Sophie’s question. But the catching of it, by hand and personally, was positively saintly in comparison with the industrial sea hoovers of this world. My next task is to dig up some horseradish, then the dream of Yorkshire sushi will become reality.
· Chris Bax (07914 290083, tastethewild.co.uk) runs courses in wild food, including coastal foods. The next coastal food weekend including a boat trip from Whitby and two nights in a seaside cottage in the village of Staithes (rather than camping) costs £180pp.
· Bottomfeeder: How the Fish on our Plates is Killing our Planet by Taras Grescoe is published by Macmillan, £12.99.
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