Monday 25 July 2011

How to choose fresh fish

Now this may seem like a rather odd topic for a blog that is primarily about competitions,  so let me explain why I'm writing it.

Last year, a good friend, Sharon Buchalter, was lucky enough to win a fish cookery day for two, at a restaurant not far from my home. Unfortunately she had to drop out at short notice, so she  very generously arranged to have the day transferred to me and my daughter.

We had a fascinating day, cooking and eating numerous dishes, all accompanied by indecent amounts of excellent wine. The most useful information of all though, was gleaned not from the cooking and eating, but from the visit to the in-house fishmonger's shop where we were given some invaluable tips on choosing and buying fresh fish. Tips that apply just as much if you are shopping at a supermarket fish stall as if you are fortunate enough to be able to shop at an old-fashioned fishmonger.

I think we’ve all heard that when shopping for fish, you should look for bright eyes. The eyes should be shiny and slightly raised from the face.  If they are sunken inwards and/or slightly opaque, the fish is past its peak of freshness.

The gills should be bright red when you look inside  them, not  a  grey brown colour. Fresh blood is OK- slime isn’t.

A whole fish is also pretty stiff when it is very fresh. Something the size of a mackerel can be held up straight like a truncheon and not flop over (no sniggering at the back).
Flat fish should have a thin covering of rather horrible feeling slime –  the nastier they feel, the fresher they are.
Other  fish should feel quite scaly when you run  your finger up the body the wrong way. As the fish ages, the outer scales  fall off and the skin becomes smoother.  
It should  smell  of fresh sea air, not “fishy”
If it is filleted so that you can see the flesh, the whiter it is, the fresher it is. The flakes of fish should be densely packed and the meat feel firm.
Obviously most fishmongers and especially  supermarket fish stalls don’t want you to handle or sniff their fish, so look  out for these ways of  disguising less-than-fresh fish (Note – if it’s on sale it MUST be fit to eat, by law, but it’s not going to keep when you get it home).
It’s quite easy for them to display their fish in such a way that you can’t see whether it is stiff or not, but there are some other things to look out for.

The first thing they do is cut the head off, so you can’t see the gills or eyes. In a display of really fresh fish, the only fish without a head will  be the monkfish, which most fishmongers feel is so ugly it puts people off buying.

Next they “clean” the fish, washing off the slime from flat fish or scraping off scales from other fish. This of course saves them time as they can  do it when  the shop/stall  is quiet rather than doing it for each customer who comes along,  but it’s also a very handy way of disguising fish that has already started to lose its slime or scales.

The fish that has been cut up and put in packs is  likely to be the oldest of the lot, still edible but carefully arranged so that if you are looking out for any of the pointers above you can’t see them.
I hope you find these tips useful - they have certainly helped me in my shopping.

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Image: pixbox77 /

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