Fish. Things that swim, either in the sea or in fresh water - lakes, rivers, ponds and pools. They are mostly agreeable to eat, though if they have numerous bones they can be tricky. And some are poisonous, or parts of them are. Some are truly delicious.
Figures from Billingsgate, the main London fish market, in 2003 showed that 2½ kilos of fish were eaten per person per annum in Britain, 65 kilos in Japan and 40 kilos in Spain, while a FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) report states:
- Cyprus, Greece, Israel, Italy, Malta: 10-19 kg
- France: 20-29 kg
- Portugal and Spain: >30 kg
Fish as a general heading covers both freshwater and marine fish. In the UK there is a 10-point scale devised by Torry Fishery Research Station. On this scale, grade 10 fish give off fresh seaweedy odours while those with grade 5 have milky or oily odours. Waitrose buys fish only at grade 8 or higher. There are great concerns about the sustainability of fisheries and the Newfoundland cod fisheries collapsed during the 1990's and still have shown little recovery. Herring have been protected in British waters for some time and are plentiful, though not generally popular with the British public, though a good fresh herring is a thing of beauty as are bloaters and kippers. Most go to Russia. In fact most fish from these waters go to Spain and France and it is almost impossible to buy fish other than the most widely known in most parts of the UK unless you are lucky enough to live near a fishing port or, of course, London. There are recommendations that certain areas of the ocean should be marked as non-fishing zones to enable stocks to replenish. This idea seems to be growing in acceptance. In the mean time, it is probably up to the shopper to ensure that they eat fish from sustainable sources or fished using methods allowing for sustainability.
When I was a child growing up in the West of England, a chicken was a great treat, eaten for special occasions such as Easter. All chickens were free-range and there was no alternative; no supermarket down the road. The chicken had to be reared, fed, protected from the fox and then killed before it could be eaten. We expected to pay a high premium for such a delicacy if it came from the butcher. Nowadays we regard it as a right to be able to pay very little for that beast and end up with scrawny creatures with no muscles who lived an unspeakable dreadful life and which are probably laying down some horrible disease in those who consume them. Thinking about the chicken is definitely changing and the same mores should be applied to fish. If we want a fish to be properly caught, by divers or using small traps, nets or lines, rather than by trawls a mile long ripping up a seabed to its destruction, then perhaps we have to pay just a little bit more. Easy for me to say, I know, but eating such a luxury occasionally has to be better than eating rubbish every day.
I have had great difficulty writing about fish for whatamieating.com. Sometimes people say to me "You are wrong. That is not the right name for a sole in France.' or whatever it might be. However, what I am trying to do is to give guidance about what that fish on the menu or in the market might be, and the fishmongers and restaurants don't always get it right themselves. Or, at least, they *do* get it right, but just for that immediate vicinity. In the Douro once 'peixe-galo' appeared on the menu, We expected it to be John Dory, but the fish that appeared was more likely to be asvião, or wedge sole. This isn't a bad fish and I don't think it was a deliberate attempt to mislead. It may be that they just didn't know or called wedge sole by this name in Pinhão.
And then there is the question of flounder and sole. Two, three, four hundred years, people would fish something out of the water and eat it without paying any particular attention to the naming of it. They would discover that some, perhaps, tasted a bit nicer than others, and where and when to fish for them. Additionally, when various English speaking people left their homeland, feeling in some way oppressed or fearful at home, these were not likely to be the gourmets. These were people who were prepared to take risks, endure discomfort and peril for their beliefs, seeking a decent and pure style of existence. These were not the effete specialists in the naming of fish for the table, but the people who would set off to an unknown wilderness and build fences and forts and farms in the face of unknown predators and enemies.
So, when they first hauled a sole out of the water and someone said "Oh, that's like the one at home. It's a flounder." no-one argued. And the men who pitched up in Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and so on across the world, heaved other fish out of the water and called them 'flounder' or ‘sole’ randomly. So, as you travel round the world, or read food dictionaries and glossaries, you need to know where the fish was caught or the book was written before you can be secure about the naming of it. A major example of this is that what is called a halibut in the UK is called a turbot in the US and vice versa.
This misnaming is not confined to areas of the world where travellers have taken old familiar names of fish to new places and then sometimes misused them. This can happen from village to village along a coast where communications may have been limited in the past. In France there is a multitude of names for fish, depending on where you are. I have tried here to give you a fair indication of what the fish you are eating (or would prefer not to!) is likely to be. But I am afraid I cannot be held to account for the fact that, this particular village in, say Provence, has decided to call a gurnard by the name that everyone else uses for a rascasse.
If you find any names for fish not listed here, I should love to know about them. Please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org