Sheila Keating, The Tim - How green is your fish dish?Feb 14 2009
Pollock or cod? Farmed or wild? A guide on how to be ethical about fish
Are you cooking something special tonight, pushing out the boat to show someone how much you care? Perhaps you are planning to start with smoked salmon - that's always romantic, isn't it? - or scallops, maybe, followed by turbot in champagne sauce. It's amazing how much of the sea's harvest is deemed to be the official food of love. But before you start your grand overture, a few questions. Is that salmon farmed or wild? And if it's farmed, is it organic? To Soil Association standards or those of the Scottish Organic Producers Association? Were those scallops hand-dived or unsustainably dredged? And while we're at it, shouldn't you be swapping that turbot for a nice bit of gurnard instead?
I bet that's put a dampener on the flames of passion. Since we became aware of the damage we are wreaking on our oceans - there has been a fivefold increase in the amount of fish we take from the seas in the past 50 years - the business of buying fish with a clear conscience has become one big headache. Yes, we've all heard the headlines - eat pollock instead of cod, coley instead of haddock, avoid wild salmon at all costs - but it's not that straightforward. Atlantic cod is endangered, but Pacific cod is in a much better state; Scottish haddock is a no-no, but Arctic is OK; and wild Alaskan salmon gets the cleanest bill of health the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) gives. No wonder so many of us are confused. In a way, bodies such as the MCS have done too good a job of broadcasting their central message, that a quarter of the world's fisheries are depleted, that only eight of the 47 fish stocks found around Britain remain in a healthy state, that action is needed now, without being able to compress a complicated subject into a few soundbites for the consumer to follow.
Mitch Tonks, the founder of the pioneering fishmonger and restaurant chain FishWorks, and owner of The Seahorse in Dartmouth, believes that we are in danger of lapsing into “sustainability fatigue”. “Like ‘organic', sustainability has become an overmarketed and often hijacked word,” he says. “It's very easy for everyone just to say, ‘Yes, we buy sustainably'. A chef in a city restaurant asks his supplier, ‘Is this sustainable?' The supplier says ‘Yes', and the chef puts it on the menu. Cracked it. The customer then reads something charming about small boats and local fishing communities and everyone can bask in the glow of having ticked all the boxes."
He believes that we need to clear our heads of some of the prejudices perpetuated in the media and the restaurant business towards big fish companies. “We have this idea that only fish landed by local artisan fishermen on small day boats is sustainable, while big companies and large boats are the enemy, but that is romance, not reality,” he says. “I am a huge supporter of the day boats, and there is nothing better than fresh fish landed the day it is caught. That is what I sell in my restaurant, but I live in the port of Brixham in Devon. To say that is the only fish you should buy or sell in restaurants, regardless of whether you live on the coast or in a city, makes no sense."
Small local fisheries cannot cope, he insists, which is why you should be wary when the words “line-caught” appear on menus from Wolverhampton to Wapping, since the demand and supply for fish caught with a rod and line simply don't equate. “We need to buy from the big people because they have the buying power to influence the world's fisheries and make change happen", he says.
Tonks believes that we are also going to have to put aside our prejudices and embrace more frozen fish. “A local, fresh fish will always be the best,” he says, “but fish that is caught in well-managed fisheries in other parts of the world and frozen immediately, using the latest technology, is going to have to be a big part of the future.
We are already seeing the result, with hitherto unfamiliar species such as tilapia and pangasius (less romantically known as Vietnamese catfish), both farmed in Asia, making it on to our fish counters. Fish farms will continue, of course, to play a key role - by next year they are expected to supply 50 per cent of all fish eaten - but they are not without controversy. Salmon, in particular, has been subjected to the worst of press over the years. Environmentalists worry about the overuse of antibiotics and chemicals, the spread of disease, the problem of escapers interbreeding with wild fish to create strange hybrids, and the vast quantities of small wild fish required to provide the feed for their farmed relations. While the Soil Association has certified certain farms as organic, there is unease about regulating the oceans in the way that you can with farming on land.
Tonks is broadly supportive of aquaculture, believing that the problems that have beset the industry are related not to the fundamental principle but to bad farming practices. “It's no different from people farming beef badly. I have eaten farmed bass and bream and it has been delicious, and I have seen halibut and salmon farms in Scotland that blew me away because the guys running them had the same passion for their fish as you might expect from a rare-breed pig or organic chicken farmer.”
So how can we, as consumers, play our part? By leaving it to the experts, is the advice of James Simpson, of the Marine Stewardship Council, which awards its blue-tick mark of certification to fisheries that meet stringent standards of sustainability and management, from Alaskan pollock and cod to the mackerel hand-liners of Cornwall. “Fishery science is one of the most complicated subjects in the world,” he says. “Headlines saying don't eat this or that species help to raise awareness, but there is much more to it than that. Which fish you can eat with a clear conscience varies from fishery to fishery, even boat to boat, around the world, and according to the particular fishing methods.” Of course, there are responsible fisheries who have not signed up to the MSC scheme, just as there are wonderful, ethically run agricultural farms that see no need to be certified as organic. However, in little over a year the quantity of UK fish that is MSC-certified has risen from 6,700 tonnes to more than 150,000 tonnes, surely a sign that the fishing industry sees such independent assessment as the way forward.
Perhaps we should end on an optimistic note, from who better than Rick Stein. “A few months ago I was worried that virtually every fish on my menu was being earmarked as endangered, or to be eaten only occasionally. I won't buy any species I know to be in danger. For example, we don't use local cod in the fish and chip shop, only Icelandic cod, and I don't buy anything other than local line-caught bass, but you can't have a really attractive menu if you can't put much else on it other than pollock, mackerel and herring.
“I was feeling anguished, and stumped about what to do, frankly, so I met up with Nathan de Rozarieux, who is the project director of Seafood Cornwall, and what I learnt from him was that thanks to a cohesive policy and the closing down of fishing grounds for certain periods of the year when the fish are spawning, stocks of species such as Dover sole and monkfish are pretty good.” We may not be off the hook yet, but we may just be headed in the right direction.
Mitch hooks a winner with fish roadshow - Herald Express - Emma PearcyNov 11 2008
Mitch Tonks is a very busy man. In the hour I spend with him, his phone erupts into a cacophony of ringing three times and once he disappears outside for at least 15 minutes. Normally one would find this infuriating but, in fairness to the famed fishmonger and restaurateur, he did pre-warn me his phone would be singing out sporadically. And anyhow it gave me a good chance to chatter away to his wife, Pen, who was busy setting up nearby dinner tables for the evening trade. (Our rather random conversation about the price of grappa glasses turned into a glorious insight into Mitch's legendary drinking prowess).
I visited Mitch's Seahorse fish and grill eaterie, on South Embankment in the heart of Dartmouth, as the 41-year-old teeters on the brink of televisual fame. A programme, which started last week and continues this week on UKTV Food, has seen him teamed up with rugby ace and Celebrity Masterchef winner Matt Dawson for an experiential fishy road trip around the UK following their catches from the sea to the plate and providing fresh inspiration for tasty dishes. It has been a big satellite hit with critics offering it up as their pick of the week, attracting massive viewing figures and there is now talk of a second series.
Mitch (when he sits still) looks relaxed but talks fast, peppering his speech with the word 'great'. He is bubbling over with enthusiasm about everything: his restaurant, the programme Mitch and Matt's Big Fish, his new friendship with Matt, his future and the words tumble out of his mouth as quickly as I can get them down on paper.
"During the show, Matt and I became really good friends. We shared a lot and spent a lot of time around the table having great conversations. He became really passionate about the same issues as I am. It was just a great show to make. You know, you have got two blokes travelling around this great island in their camper van, meeting great people and talking about their love of fish and food."
When he stops to catch breath, I ask him what the highlight was. Without missing a beat he replies: "Meeting all these people who are genuinely passionate about the sea, fish and the industry. You know, the one thing that really came out of all this is that the British fishing industry is in good hands with good people - and that really should be publicised more."
To document Mitch's career achievements would be like trying to rewrite Tolstoy's tome War and Peace. He is a food writer, author, fishmonger, TV chef and restaurateur who has, along the way, scooped awards including restaurateur of the year, best fishmonger, best London seafood restaurant and best fish book.
For real foodies, he is best known for establishing the FishWorks chain of restaurants and fishmongers and establishing his Dartmouth abode via various forays into publishing and television.
Now living in Brixham, he has achieved phenomenal success and can be added to the rich list of well-known chefs Devon already boasts.
For the next generation, he will probably be known as 'that chef off the telly' who taught us islanders that fish is not an elitist food and, as an island, something we should probably all be eating more of.
Not bad for a bloke who was originally number-crunching as an accountant.
I see a ghost of a smile flicker across his face: "As a boy, I always cooked with my gran. Her house was full of cooking so it was very traditional in that sense. My mum cooked regularly too and I always remember enjoying it."
Indeed he spent large swaths of his time by the sea: fishing, sailing and skiing on it; and admits now he was, back then, a 'frustrated chef'.
While living in Bath he opened a specialist fishmonger and his path dramatically changed when his friend Gary Jones, the head chef of Oxfordshire eaterie, Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, phoned him to thank him for a fish purchase.
It led to the most amazing request as Mitch explains: "Gary had brought some fish off me and phoned me to say how great it was. We had a chat about things in general and he said 'well, if you are a frustrated chef, you should get involved'. Anyway, he was about to marry and he asked me to cook for the wedding."
Mitch still looks incredulous at the memory: "I mean, there were going to be some really serious chefs at this wedding. He tested me out on a few dishes and that was it - I cooked for it. By doing that, he really gave me a lift and I thank him for that."
The idea for FishWorks was born when Mitch struck upon the idea that people should be able to buy and eat their fish in one place.
"People didn't think it would work but I thought they were missing the point," he said. "I want people to see fish is not an elitist food and can be as simple or complicated as it's wanted. It turned out people loved the idea and it became Bath's best-kept secret."
One led to 13 fishmongers, restaurants and cookery schools in places including Bristol, Bath and exclusive London boroughs Chelsea, Primrose Hill and Richmond.
He designed the shops with the atmosphere of a working fish market trading in species from all over the world. In 2000 the Which Good Food Guide voted it best seafood restaurant.
Two years later Mitch launched FishWorks Direct, a national home-delivery service offering next day delivery of fresh fish and shellfish from the royally-appointed Channel Fisheries, FishWorks subsidiary based in Brixham.
But a meteoric rise brings its pitfalls and his business was no exception. The company reported a £1.6million loss in the previous 12 months amid a series of upheavals and restructuring of personnel and premises.
In July the chain announced it was parting company with Mitch.
He says it became 'untenable' for them to work together but he still works in an ambassadorial role and says: "Yes, it was hard to let go. I spent 12 years of my life involved in it but I just decided to get on with it and I really hope they do what I set out to do with the company."
However it was the start of an exciting new period of his life. With his old school friend, Mark Ely and chef Mat Prowse, the trio opened the Seahorse in April. A mere three doors away from the New Angel, owned by fellow chef John Burton-Race, the Seahorse specialises in local fish and meats cooked over charcoal. It has its own launch, the Pearlfisher, which can collect and return customers across the River Dart.
"We are loving it here. We have met some wonderful people and are just having a great time. I really think people from all over should be experiencing the fish we have to offer here in Devon. I would like to think that we can bring people from all over the world here, don't you?"
I nod and with that, his overburdened phone rings again signalling the time for the South Devon chef to deal with yet more demands on his time.
Delicious Magazine November 2008 - Heart and SoleNov 07 2008
Seafood supremo Mitch Tonks has opened a new restaurant on Devon’s south coast that sets new standards in beautifully cooked fresh fish. Will Dunn drops in for dinner.
'Butter, just butter.' Was Mitch Tonks’ response when I asked him what my Dover sole had been cooked in. He’s a man who considers it his role in life to bring the best of the sea to us landlubbers, and he doesn’t mess about with his fish.
The Seahorse is Mitch’s new restaurant - a cosy inviting place on the harbour in the chocolate-box town of Dartmouth, in south Devon. It’s a short distance from the fishing port of Brixham, where Mitch lives and buys his fish (he commutes by boat) and there can be few chefs who use their proximity to the local fish market so effectively. By buying in person, at source, he secures the best fish for his kitchen and cooks it in a very simple style, with a few subtle Mediterranean influences.
On the menu, alongside the magnificent local Dover sole, in its foamy halo of golden-brown butter, are cuttlefish cooked in their own ink – a beautiful shiny-black pile of strands brought steaming gently to the table by the friendly, informative staff.
I scored about two out of five on the fish-identification test that is the plate of fried local seafood, but it was an experience too delicious to be embarrassing. Other main course delights range from red gurnard ‘n’ chips to the spectacular salt-baked sea bass, a big chunky fish that needs two people to eat it. The waiters display it with justifiable pride before taking it off the bone. Although the menu’s focus is on fish, there is also an excellent selection of local meats such as Cornish lamb and Devon beef.
While Mitch’s food is dazzlingly accomplished, the man himself is more genial host than blustering chef. He’s a friendly guy who wanders out to ask diners how they enjoyed their meal, and often drives them home at the end of the night in the restaurant’s boat, the Pearlfisher. Which is not something you’d get at Claridge’s - no matter how much you pay.
Mitch has us hooked on fish - Western Morning News - Jackie ButlerNov 01 2008
The duck egg blue and white camper van has seen Mitch Tonks and his family through some memorable experiences over the years, writes Jackie Butler. The 1976 VW was home to the popular chef and his wife, Pen, when they used to holiday in a caravan park at Leonards Cove, Stoke Fleming, before their five children came along. And it has provided a warm family refuge for successive years of revelling at Glastonbury Festival. Now it provides the backdrop - and a handy store cupboard - for Dartmouth restaurateur Mitch and his new foodie pal Matt Dawson, international rugby star and Celebrity Masterchef winner, for a TV series documenting their mission to introduce more of us to the tasty world of fish and seafood.
Mitch developed his expertise through the chain of seafood restaurants known as FishWorks, which he left earlier this year to set up his seafood and meat grill in Dartmouth, called The Seahorse. Townie Matt, on the other hand, while loving to eat fish, didn't know anything about seafood at all.
"It was a real voyage of discovery," says Mitch. "We got on like a house on fire - it was like one long stag weekend. We had a great time and we cooked and ate some great fish."
Setting off from the South Devon fishing port of Brixham, where Mitch and family now live, the pair have explored the traditional fishing centres of Grimsby, Lowestoft and Cromer in the east, Stornoway, Ullapool and Glasgow up in Scotland, and Morecambe on the west coast, as well as Dartmouth and Cornwall, highlighting the incredible range of seafood available on our doorstep.
Their six-week summer journey and the fishy dishes they prepare en route have been captured on film by Plymouth-based Denham Productions, creators of the Rick Stein programmes, and sponsored by frozen fish and seafood company Young's.
While Mitch acknowledges that there is nothing better than fresh locally-caught fish straight from the market, he is also keen to point out that using frozen fish is better than not eating fish at all.
"We wanted to get out there and explode a few myths about fish and really show people what is going on in the fishing industry," says Mitch, who spent several years selling fish in Bristol and Bath. "In the media we always hear bad news about it, but the fishermen on the front line are amazing people. They all talk with incredible passion about the industry they are in, and I think that's brilliant."
Price is a key issue for a lot of people who might want to eat more fish but find the cost prohibitive. Mitch says we can all enjoy it, but within our individual means.
"I would hate fish to become a 'boutique' food that only the well-off can afford. That's what happened with the £12 free-range chickens," he says. "I say fish is for everyone. You don't have to have line-caught day boat fish - there are alternatives, and that can mean frozen."
There has long been concern over the environmental impact and sustainability issues of fishing across the globe, but Mitch is quick to point out that fisheries in many parts of the world now guarantee they use responsible methods.
"A lot of TV chefs won't put their name to using frozen fish, but Young's has an incredible set of ethics," he adds. The message is that fish and seafood that is frozen - either locally or by a big company like Youngs - is a great standby.
"In these tough times you can go to the supermarket and get a £5 pack of frozen fish and feed your family well, and that is absolutely fine," Mitch says.
"Not everyone can get to the fishmongers or afford to buy fresh fish regularly. "It's about working to a budget and keeping a balance."
He admits that fresh is more versatile than frozen, but says there are loads of simple and delicious recipes that can be used with either, many of which he and Matt will be sharing in their series and on the UKTV Food website.
Fish always has a strong presence on the menu at The Seahorse, which has been going great guns since opening in April.
"We've been packed all the time, and with the summer season over we are doing a special menu for local people at £20 per person," Mitch says.
His current top recommendations for fish lovers are plaice, grey mullet and Dover sole, for which he has provided a simple recipe, opposite.
Sadly, the camper van's travels with the Tonks family are now over as they turn their attentions to another entertaining mode of transport.
"There's something about the camper van that just says freedom; it's absolutely wonderful, but we are going to sell it now," confesses Mitch.
Before moving down he and Pen learned to sail when they came to Brixham on holiday.
He qualified as a day skipper, and she as competent crew, and they have invested in a sailing boat.
"I do love being on the water, and we have sailed as far as the Channel Islands, but since we moved down to Devon two years ago we haven't used it that much so we are going to try and get something smaller and get out there more often," says Mitch, who also dabbles in a little sea fishing when the opportunity arises.
"I have rods in the garage, and when the tide is right I fish for bass and mackerel."
Mitch and Matt's Big Fish is showing on the UKTV Food channel (available on cable and satellite) from Monday, November 3 at 9pm. The 10 episodes will be shown Monday to Friday evenings over two weeks. The series is scheduled for repeat on the Dave channel (available on Freeview) from January. For more details on The Seahorse Restaurant at Dartmouth call 01803 835147 or visit www.seahorserestaurant.co.uk