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Sustainable Seafood & Fish Dishes at The Woolacombe Bay Hotel

Looking for one of the best fish and seafood restaurants in North Devon? Led by our Head Chef Eddie Grecu, we are as committed as ever to providing not just a succulent menu, but a sustainable one. This month, we caught up with Eddie for the lowdown on fish dishes and how we keep our Bay Brasserie and Doyle's Restaurant menus fresh here in Woolacombe:

Image titleSustainable & delicious: Pan fried mackerel from Doyle's Restaurant.

We really love fish here at The Woolacombe Bay Hotel! Good quality fish, of course. Given the feedback and statistics we get, we are also sure that our customers enjoy it too. Things have changed a great deal in the past decade or so, however, with a new variety of dishes evolving for conservation as well as culinary reasons.

A couple of years ago, I decided to take the fish dish off the permanent menu, and it was one of the most liberating decisions I have ever made in the kitchen. It was also a decision based on pretty clear signals from MSC and other organisations that wild fish stocks are declining rapidly and the only responsible way of enjoying this amazing ingredient is to actually take advantage of the abundance of species, rather than getting limited by set menus and fashions.

For example, while we might have to consume less cod, bass and other overexploited species, others such as mackerel, pollack and gurnard are all present in better numbers and extremely tasty.  Not only does using these species make environmental sense, it also gives the diner more choice and more flavours to try.

How fresh is the fish on your plate?

Here at The Woolacombe Bay Hotel, sea food and fish for our restaurants comes only from day boat fish. This represents the lowest food miles and the shortest time from sea to plate. Our trusty suppliers S & J Fisheries and Kingfisher Brixham understand our ethos and provide us not only with immaculate fish every day, but also with very valuable information about the provenance of the seafood, with market predictions, seasonal forecasts, etc which make our decisions so much more informed at the moment of purchasing fish and shellfish.

So how can you be sure of the quality of your dinner in general? Dull eyes and drab colours are always obvious signs of poor quality at the fishmonger's counter, but perhaps the safest way to determine how fresh your fish or seafood is at a restaurant is simply to ask the supplier where it came from! A lot of fish you find in takeaways and other Devon fish restaurants is kept for longer than it should be, imported long distances or cooked from frozen. Not the best recipe for sustainability or a tasty menu in our book!

Image titleWild turbot, fresh from Brixham.

The Farmed vs Wild Fish Debate

There is also a huge current debate about farmed and wild fish. British fish farms, either on land or at sea, are very tightly regulated and they do indeed, comply, with the highest standards that are only exceeded by the Scandinavian nations: antibiotics in the feed are kept to an absolute minimum; if they are being treated with antibiotics, the sale of fish can be delayed for weeks, until the treatment goes out of the fish’s system.

The feed is made of sustainable marine species like the sand eel, that is being harvested responsibly with the least damaging practises for the sea floor and marine ecosystem. Unfortunately, there are still big threats to our oceans, especially from countries outside the European Union that lack any strict regulation. But as they bring better profit margins to the importing fisheries and restaurants, sadly they are still relied on extensively in spite of their poor ethics.

To make the situation easier to understand, we could take sea bass as a good example of one dilema facing restaurants:

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Day boat wild sea bass: Today in the water, tomorrow morning the fishery is shipping it to the restaurant; tomorrow night it is likely to be on your plate, surrounded by delicious garnishes. Under the correct and strictly monitored refrigeration conditions, the fish will last for up to 6-7 days, yet we only use it for 2 days. However, numbers of bass are severely depleted due to overfishing. This is not helped by the fact that bass are slow growing (females are often only mature after they reach five or more years of age and well over 1kg in weight- with commercial boats taking fish before they have had a chance to spawn or even deliberately targeting breeding areas!). For these reasons we must use reputable sources and treat bass as a special fish, not one to consume every day.

The farmed sea bass scenario: Much of our bass is now farmed in Greece or Turkey, and can travel for days from the farm to the UK. Once delivered to the restaurant, it could be four days until it gets to your plate. Obviously, the fish is no longer very fresh. Of course, like in most farmed fish scenarios, the ratio of water to fish is also drastically low compared to the wild equivalent, which means the flavour of the farmed fish is also clearly diminished by the lack of movement. However, the clear benefit is that farmed bass do not put a dent in wild, fragile and often highly localised populations.

Varieties of Sustainable Devon Sea Fish

Just like the world of fruit and vegetables, fish vary greatly from species to species, category to category. You can find yourself exploring all kinds textures and tastes, from levels of delicious bitterness to unexpected sweetness as your palate migrates from the sublimely sweet and delicate sea bass, to the small but strongly flavoured sardine, from the meaty monkfish to the exquisitely sweet and delicate fresh mackerel, from the luxuriously flaking cod to the subtly sweet and soft skate …we could go on forever!

So which fish are the best to eat? And, just as importantly, which fish are sustainable to eat? Like any other type of food, it is very much a matter of taste. There is no perfection here, so do not look for it! The secret is in our amazing adaptability to eat and enjoy such a bewildering variety of foods. We chefs have a stewardship to fulfil besides hungry mouths to feed; and as the most precious and endangered food of all, fish take special consideration here at the hotel. We call the fishery every day not just to find out what is supremely fresh and reasonably priced, but abundant and sustainable.

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Gurnard (above) sum up how daft cooking fashions can be: It is a delicious and plentiful fish, neglected for years on looks alone.

Naturally, the other part of the deal, of course, is over to the diner, to try and enjoy and celebrate more fish, in order to broaden the palate and put less pressure on particular species. Of course, you may still want to treat yourself to a portion of wild sea bass , possibly the best fish that lives in the seas of Europe (in my humble opinion), but this should be regarded as an occasional treat. It is only this way, by thinking about our consumption, that sea bass, like many other “premium fish” species, will not be banned again from the commercial fishing and our next generations will get to taste a fillet too.

So, next time you are eating out in Devon or anywhere else that has excellent seafood restaurants, I would urge you to be broad-minded and try something fresh and new. Enjoy your fish, enjoy your life and make the most of everything that is on offer, because while we might have to change our habits it is an exciting time for fish and seafood, whether you are a chef or a diner. I'll leave you with a handful of species to look out for, both on the "threatened" list and a selection of more sustainable "fish to try":

Threatened British Sea Fish to Cut Down on or Avoid:

Bass: Slow-growing and overexploited, bass should be eaten infrequently or avoided altogether.

Cod: Severely overfished for decades, the long term future of this fish relies on much better conservation.

Eels: Once abundant and popular eating, migratory eels are now in serious decline.

Non-Threatened Sea Fish to Try:

Pollack: Also sometimes spelled "pollock", this British sea fish is still abundant, has tasty white flesh and is great for old school fish and chips.

Mackerel: Fabulously tasty and far more numerous than species such as bass. 

Gurnard: A strange looking fish, the gurnard was unfashionable for decades. Silly when you discover its deliciously meaty, slightly sweet taste.