Queuing for a table on a recent blustery afternoon on the Essex coast, enviously eyeballing those lucky ducks already seated, it struck me how unusual it was to see whole families happily cracking into crabs and pots of mussels, or someone reading the paper over a plastic platter of oysters. In my experience, British seafood joints tend to come in two flavours: chippies, and places that charge £40 for a piece of halibut with foam on top.
Indeed, for an island nation, fish plays a surprisingly small part in our everyday food culture. Consumption has been in decline for the past 15 years, and is now less than half the weekly amount recommended by the government’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition. We’re not alone – Ireland records similar volumes (and, according to the most recent European Commission data, the Netherlands and Greece eat even less). Malta and Sicily may be enthusiastic fish fans, but just up the coast, traditional Sardinian cuisine focuses more on meat and dairy.
The Suffolk writer and industry expert Mike Warner sighs as he tells me that in Britain “we have some of the most diverse habitats and range of commercial species in the Northern Hemisphere. Sometimes there are 50 species at Newlyn or Brixham market… yet about 80 per cent of our catch is exported”. Part of the problem, he explains, is that other countries are prepared to pay a premium – a fact echoed at Jonah’s Fish Market in Aberystwyth, with staff lamenting that “local fish and seafood has become unaffordable where we are in west Wales… Local caught bass is three times the cost of farmed bass imported from Greece [and] people just won’t pay the inflated prices.”
Hence Britain imports most of its fish and seafood, despite the wealth of more sustainable options on our watery doorstep. Warner quotes the late Keith Floyd: “When it comes to cooking seafood, we’ve lost our grandparents’ nerve.” You still get the odd stall selling polystyrene pots of cockles and whelks, but gone are the days recalled by the London-born food writer Kerstin Rodgers when “every pub used to have a massive free seafood spread on Sundays”. Oysters, once famously the food of the urban poor, are now seen as the equivalent of champagne – if rather less universally popular.
Various suggestions have been put forward for what the historian Rachel Laudan calls fish’s “more than usually unacceptable” qualities as a foodstuff. For a start, there’s the fiddle factor: the smell and mess that a Dutch correspondent tells me is often cited as the reason why people in the Netherlands, as in the UK, tend to eat more fish in restaurants than at home. (It’s no coincidence that the most popular fish in the British market are those that come in easy, anonymous chunks.)
[See also: How Brexit is already changing what we eat]
The Reformation, with its abolition of meatless fasting days, is cited too, though in the years that followed, Elizabeth I passed an act in 1563 increasing the number of weekly fish days from two to three in order to protect the fish trade. The quality of the wares seems a more likely explanation: before reliable refrigeration, the catch would be either salted or dried for sale inland, and, as the historian Annie Gray suggests, fish eaten by the poor must have been either “challenging… or dodgy”. (One 14th-century recipe advises beating stockfish with a hammer for an hour to render it tender enough for consumption.)
In coastal communities, meanwhile, foraging for seafood may have been looked down upon. The Irish chef and historian Máirtín Mac Con Iomaire notes how the shellfish that could be gathered on the foreshore were known as bia bocht, or “poor man’s food” – an attitude, a Shetland dweller informs me, that persists (there, at least) to this day.
It seems once people had the choice to eat meat instead they grabbed it with both hands. And the habit, and with it the knowledge of how to prepare fish and seafood, was lost. “I don’t know how we get it back,” Warner says sadly. Me neither.
This article appears in the 10 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Eternal Empire