Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Plenty More Fish in the Sea?

Every Wednesday a mobile chip shop comes to my village.  The distinctive smell of frying spreads throughout the streets and people from miles around queue up to enjoy a weekly treat.  I’ve bought my supper there a few times and they really are excellent fish and chips.  Each fish is cooked to order in delicious crispy batter and the fish are plump, flaky and fresh.  More than any other fast food, there is a whole tradition around fish and chips.  Somehow they taste so much better wrapped in paper and eaten with a wooden fork.  Deep fried in oil, smothered in salt and vinegar, with tartar sauce, mushy peas and bread and butter on the side, it is hardly a healthy meal, but once in a while it’s OK to splurge.

I don’t buy them anymore.  It’s not that I’m health conscious.  It’s not the price, which is actually very reasonable, and the couple who own the van are friendly and polite.  It’s the fish!
They carry a fairly wide range of fish for an English fish and chip shop. In addition to the staples of cod and haddock you can also buy plaice, skate and rock.  The owners are happy to tell you that this fish is freshly caught locally. No doubt that’s a selling point in a seaside community where a few fishing boats do still offload their catch daily at the pier.

Suffolk was once home to a booming fishery.  Herring boats from Lowestoft followed the shoals right up the East coast to Aberdeen while inshore boats trawled for cod and plaice.  Those days are past, but today there are still 95 to 100 registered fishing boats in Suffolk although many of them are involved solely in potting for crab or lobster.  The remaining white fish boats are nearly all small and fish with the baited hook and line method.  This is the most environmentally friendly form of commercial fishing.  It is selective and tends to catch larger, stronger fish.  Spawning fish don’t eat and so they simply ignore the bait.  In some cases any unwanted fish which are brought up can be de-hooked and returned to the water while still alive. Line fishing uses much less fuel than trawling or seining, and does less damage to the sea bed, where 98% of marine species live.  For all these reasons Suffolk fisherman often describe their industry as sustainable.  Unfortunately there’s more to it than that.
Fishing boats on the beach at Aldeburgh
Waitrose is Britain’s sixth biggest food retailer.  As part of the John Lewis Partnership it has an unusual ownership structure and is actually owned by its employees.  While it would be wrong to say that it is not commercially oriented, the absence of shareholders does allow the company to promote ethical or social objectives alongside the pursuit of profit and this has given them a well deserved reputation for being a responsible and caring player in the global food industry.  Although small, their market share in the UK groceries trade is only 4.2%, their influence is much larger, and in the supply of wet fish their market share is roughly double their overall market position.
At a recent conference which I attended, Jeremy Ryland-Langley, the principal fish buyer at Waitrose and the individual most responsible for setting their purchasing policy in the sector, outlined the ‘four pillars’ of the company’s fish sourcing policy.
For a fish to be termed 'sustainable' in Waitrose it must meet the following criteria:
·         Be a species that is not regarded as threatened or endangered
·         Be caught from a well managed fishery with scientifically based quotas
·         Be caught using responsible fishing methods
·         Be fully traceable from catch to consumer
There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the way the Suffolk fishermen are catching their fish, but the trouble is that the North Sea itself is in trouble and it’s because of the first two bullets in the list.
According to the EU Fisheries Commissioner herself, 75% of EU fisheries are currently being over-fished.  EU quotas are produced as a result of negotiation with the fishermen themselves and bear no relation to scientifically recommended levels.  In fact, Ryland-Langley states that for the 12 most popular species of fish, EU quotas are at least 33% higher than maximum sustainable levels and that includes North Sea cod, haddock, skate, rock and plaice.  In other words these fish are endangered.  And the North Sea fishery cannot be regarded as ‘well managed’ while it allows over fishing, while it tolerates almost unfettered, destructive bottom trawling, and while only 0.3% is designated as ‘no take zone’ to allow fish a chance to breed.
The North Sea is not the worst affected region.  But it is scant consolation to know that the Mediterranean is in an even worse state.  Mediterranean fisheries are 90% over exploited. Nor does it help to know that this is not just a European problem.  The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that globally 32% of the world’s sea fisheries are currently being over exploited, and a further 50% are at or about safe maximum levels. By some calculations, at current rates of exploitation, fish stocks around the world will be completely exhausted by 2050.

The thing I struggle to understand is why this issue does not resonate more clearly with the public.  Surely nobody can claim to be unaware that there are serious problems with fishing, and yet public behaviour does not appear to change.  If you went in to a restaurant and found the menu full of endangered species: rhinoceros steaks, tiger stew, osprey burgers and so on, you would be rightly outraged.  Yet every day we are happy to chew our way through thousands of endangered species of fish.  But the good news is that there is a lot that we can all do, and it does not mean giving up eating fish.
What can you do to help conserve fish stocks?
1. Learn which fish are endangered and which ones are OK to eat.

The Marine Conservation Society's Good Fish Guide provides detailed advice on its excellent web site about which fish are safe to eat, and when they are threatened it provides a list of alternatives that might be available.  What I particularly like is that it recognizes that fish may be viewed differently in different fisheries.  For example Icelandic cod is currently regarded as sustainable even though North Sea cod is not.  They also provide a handy pocket guide that can be printed from the web site and taken with you on shopping trips.
2. Buy different fish.
For some months now Sainsbury’s, the UK’s second biggest supermarket chain, has been urging customers to Switch the Fish away from the so-called Big 5 species which collectively account for 80% of British fish sales: Cod, Haddock, Tuna, Salmon and Prawns.  This campaign is supported by Sainsbury’s house chef, Jamie Oliver.  Elsewhere many supermarkets often run promotions on less well known varieties which are in any case cheaper than the usual suspects.  Pouting fillet for example is a good alternative to cod fillet and costs about half as much.
3. Choose Environmentally Certified fish
Look out for the Marine Stewardship Council’s ecolabel certificate.  This global organisation is completely independent and objective.  They work with fisheries, seafood companies, scientists, conservation groups and the public to promote the best environmental choice in seafood.  This is equally true of frozen or processed fish and the ecolabel is issued to restaurants and shops as well as individual products.
4. Ask restaurants about their sourcing policy and let them know your concerns
The website associated with the award winning documentary film by Charles Clover, The End of the Line, has a printable feedback form which people are encouraged to take with them and leave together with the payment when you eat out.
I still eat fish twice a week, although I have to deny myself the pleasure of shop-bought fish and chips.  In this way I hope that when I am watching Finding Nemo with my grand-children I may be able to avoid awkward questions like “what were fish Grandpa?” and “didn’t you realize that you were destroying the oceans?”

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Handle with Care

Hedgehog (photo Wikipedia)
I have just become a Hedgehog Champion.  Those are words I did not expect to be writing when I got up this morning.  I was moved to look in to the plight of British hedgehogs (Erinaceus europaeus) after listening to a report on the radio over breakfast which talked about a long term decline in numbers.  According to the People’s Trust for Endangered Species a population which stood at around 60 million in the 1950s is now thought to be as low as 1.5 million.

The thing that moved me to action, albeit the sedentary kind at which I excel, was the assertion that the reasons for the decline were unknown. They even claimed it might be because of predation by badgers!  Badgers are the hedgehog’s only real predator it’s true, but the two species have rubbed along together (carefully I imagine) for millennia.  Why is it we always try to blame anyone or anything but ourselves?  In every extinction that we know about in the past 2000 years, man has been implicated as the primary cause.
It seems obvious that increases in road traffic over the past half century have played a huge part in the population collapse.  These small animals are very vulnerable to fast moving vehicles, and rolling in to a ball offers no defence. But it also seems obvious that the adoption of intensive agricultural techniques: insecticides, ploughing up hedgerows and the like must play a part too.  Sustainable farming cannot include the eradication of major species no matter how inadvertent it may be.
The truth is that we just don’t know what the causes of the decline might be, but the situation is even worse than the radio reported. The figure of 1.5 million dates from a survey carried out in 1995.  Some estimates claim that numbers may have fallen by as much as 25% even since then. It seems that on top of everything else a series of mild winters recently have been harmful for many hibernating species.  They interrupt hibernation and increase winter energy consumption.

Now a three year study to be run jointly by the PTES and the British Hedgehog Preservation Society will aim to see how farmland habitats could be better managed for hedgehogs, looking at how hedgehogs use hedgerows and field margins in different agricultural settings.  The public are also asked to help by recording sightings and help put together a true picture of the number and distribution of hedgehogs throughout the length and breadth of Britain, and that is why I have become a Hedgehog Champion.  Maybe it’s because I was brought up on Beatrix Potter, and Mrs Tiggywinkle was a childhood friend, but I can’t imagine Britain without hedgehogs.  After all what other species has its own Preservation Society?

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Foragers' Diary - Part Six

A few days of windy weather recently brought me an unexpected bounty courtesy of a neighbour’s walnut tree.  I know legally the nuts still belong to the owners of the tree, but it’s a second home and they are only summer visitors to Suffolk.  I felt justified in picking the nuts up from the road where they fell,  since the alternative was to watch them being crushed beneath the wheels of the enormous farm vehicles which pass up and down on this stretch of road.

I was surprised to learn that the so called common or English walnut (Juglans regia) is not a native at all.  It does so well in British conditions I just assumed they had always been here. But apparently the name derives from the Old English wealhhnutu which literally means ‘foreign nut’.  The idea goes that the Anglo-Saxon settlers came to understand from British residents that the walnut was a recent arrival in these shores.  In other words the Romans brought it here in the third or fourth century.  In Latin the name is Nux Gallica (Gallic nuts), these particular Gauls coming from Galatia in the central Anatolian highlands.  The trees it seems are native to central Asia stretching from Turkey to South West China, hence its more common name, the Persian Walnut.

Now walnuts are packed with goodness. They are one of the richest sources of plant protein and are also high in dietary fibre, B vitamins, magnesium and antioxidants.  They do contain large quantities of fat but these are mainly ‘good’ monounsaturates or polyunsaturates.  Like most nuts they contain plant sterols which are believed to reduce cholesterol levels and they are also high in Omega 3 fatty acids such as alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).  In fact walnuts have significantly higher amounts of ALA than other nuts.  ALA is believed to play a part in reducing stress and protecting against coronary heart disease.
I got about 80g shelled nuts
from 200g of whole nuts

My problem is that I don’t really like raw walnuts.  They have a bitter, astringent taste.  Niki Segnit, author of The Flavour Thesaurus, variously describes the flavour as woody, nicotine, butterscotch and like ‘a newly opened can of gloss paint’.  However my mother adored them.  She would sit in front of the fireplace with a pile of walnuts on her lap and crack them simply by crushing two nuts together in her hands.  So I guess it’s a personal preference.
Fortunately the flavour does complement a wide range of other ingredients both sweet and savory.  I will save a few to sprinkle on salads and serve with Stilton cheese, but my favourite use is in a delicious, sticky walnut pie.  Supposedly cooking reduces the nutritional benefits. What’s more I will almost certainly add whipped cream to my pie, so forget all that stuff about warding off heart attacks.  But this a sinfully wonderful treat, full of rich autumn flavours and I love it.
Walnut Pie

Preheat the oven to 180°c (350°F)
Grease and line a 8-inch (20cm) flan or pie tin.
(Economy Tip: I use the wrappers from packs of butter to line pie dishes instead of greaseproof paper)
For the pastry
125g (4½ oz) plain flour
75g (2½ oz)butter
25g (1oz) caster sugar
pinch of salt
1 egg yolk
For the filling
230ml (8 Fl oz) maple syrup
3 eggs
100g (4oz) dark brown sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
¼ tsp salt
120g (4oz) coarsely chopped walnuts
Beat the flour, butter and sugar and salt together until it resembles breadcrumbs.  Add the egg yolk and 1 tsp cold water and continue beating until it comes together to form a dough.  Wrap in Clingfilm and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
Once chilled, roll the pastry to about 3 mm and line the tin to make a pastry case.
Beat the syrup, eggs, brown sugar, butter, vanilla and salt together until well blended, then stir in the chopped nuts and pour the filling into the unbaked pastry case.
Bake for 40 minutes, or until the centre is firm to the touch.
Serve hot or cold with whipped cream.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Coriander Seed

This bizarre autumn weather is causing various problems for the wildlife around my Suffolk home.  Butterflies such as the comma, which had disappeared two or three weeks ago, have been making a surprise return to hedgerows, and the neighbours’ apple tree has returned to blossom.  On the other hand the sunshine is rewarding my faith by finally ripening my outdoor tomatoes, and a few days of genuine heat have dried off the coriander or cilantro if you prefer, which I let run to seed way back in July.

Coriander seed
Now that the entire plant is brown and brittle, harvesting the seeds could hardly be easier.  I simply pulled up the whole plant and carefully pushed the seed heads down into a large paper bag.  Plastic bags are not suitable as they can cause the plants to sweat and rot rather than dry out.  Also, most plastic bags these days have ventilation holes for safety reasons and these are a perfect size for little coriander seeds to escape.

I could hear seeds been brushed off and falling in to the bottom of the bag even as I was bagging it. Now I have hung the whole bag in the garage where I will give it a couple more weeks to finish drying. 

After that simply bashing the bag should be all it takes to dislodge the remaining seed, which I will store in jars ready to be used as needed in Indian or Mexican dishes, or even in carrot and coriander soup.