"The best fish I've had was some mackerel that had just been caught. It was so fresh it still had rigor mortis."
Keir Meikle says fish is his "great love". He owns the Navy Inn in Penzance, Cornwall, and has been there for coming on eight years, buying it from Punch Taverns 18 months ago. The Navy is a popular dining spot, and up to 70 per cent of the menu is fish dishes. Keir has been a chef for almost 28 years.
Thanks to its unique location, the pub gets get fresh fish delivered every day. "We're lucky to be right beside one of the biggest fish markets in the country," he says. "We've got two fishmongers on the market for us each morning who we work closely with. I spend a lot of time chatting to them about what they'll be catching."
Because getting the best fresh fish every day is his priority, Keir has to be very flexible with the menu, working with what he gets. This can lead to disappointment for customers, but this is something that they must accept if they want the fish served to be so fresh. "What we buy is caught that morning, delivered to us and generally sold that night," he says. "We buy small amounts - people sometimes get upset if we run out of something they want, but I'd prefer to buy it every day than selling fish that's two days old."
And it is this passion for producing high-quality dishes that has made the Navy a nationally renowned seafood eatery. It was named runner-up for Seafish's UK Seafood Pub of the Year, while Keir was runner-up for Seafood Chef of the Year 2009.
But that's not all - in an inn that seats 48 people, with three chefs operating in a "minute" kitchen, they're doing 40 to 60 covers a night in the summer. What's more, Keir saw a 10 per cent increase in trade last year alone, bucking the general trend within the industry.
So how come the menu is such a success? Aside from the freshness of the fish, they run a specials board of two or three fish dishes from what they've bought in the morning. "We buy what's best in the market that day," explains Keir. As for accompaniments, Keir mostly likes to keep the flavours unobtrusive. "You're selling that fish, you're not selling all the other ingredients that go along with it," he says. "It's about bringing the flavour out."
But that doesn't stop him and his sous-chef Jay Orley trying inventive accompaniments for the fish dishes. "We're always playing with flavours," he says. "We sit, get drunk, and fight about food." One dish he is currently serving is sustainable line-caught pollock and locally caught crab with red pepper and rose petal sauce. He says: "It's got rose water behind it, a little bit of saffron in there, so it tastes quite Middle-Eastern, but it's very subtle. You wouldn't even know the ingredients were there until you were told."
But it's not an easy slog. They've got four hours' fish prep every morning, and change the menu five times a year to stay flexible.
And for a successful fish menu, flexibility is vital. More than half the fish we eat in the UK comes from three species - tuna, salmon and cod. The success of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's televised campaign Hugh's Fish Fight has helped encourage customers to try different types of fish.
And what about frozen? For Keir, it's a no-no. "Everyone buys frozen food to cut corners and that's where they lose out," he says. "They would do better doing proper pies and scampi. Done properly, it is unbeatable."
Fish and chips
Of course, the only thing that is as much of a British institution as the pub is a good old-fashioned fish supper. Every year Seafish, the authority on seafood, holds the National Fish and Chips Awards, to find the best offering in the country.
Entries are taken from March, and the final winner is announced in January, with judges looking at ingredients used, practice, techniques and customer service, as well as how the business helps the local community. Andy Gray, project manager for the awards, has noticed a move away from the traditional fish species, which can be good for sustainability in local waters. He says: "We've seen fantastic examples of shops moving away from the traditional white fish species to sell everything from halibut to mackerel. Trying to widen the palate of the consumer is important."
And this more experimental approach is altogether good for business. Says Andy: "Cooking techniques have greatly improved over time, and certain species of fish that people were reticent to try to cook because they thought it wouldn't take a batter properly aren't a problem as much now. Offering a different menu might draw customers back more often than if you were offering them one or two types of fish - it makes good business sense to have a wider menu."
But Andy says that the British population has been slower to try new things than our Continental counterparts, and this has led many to worry about the sustainability of some of our most beloved species - such as cod. But despite the negative press on the subject, Andy thinks it's something British customers need not worry about. "The North Sea is in a state of flux at the minute," he says. "All the organisations involved in managing the North Sea are trying to improve what's happening there, but cod in this country comes from other waters. Customers can rest easy that they're not having an effect when they eat cod," he says.
Seafish works across all sectors of the seafood industry to promote good quality, sustainable seafood, and Andy is pleased that sustainability has become an important issue in the country. "A generation ago it wasn't an issue the industry was concerned about, or had any knowledge about," he says. "The industry's message now is to try different things - there are some fantastic species out there to try."
Andy sees a trend of customers widening their nets, which he attributes partially to celebrity endorsements. "Hugh encourages people to widen their palate, for example he has been pushing mackerel," he says.
"It's a readily available species and fantastic value for money. All these lesser-used species, where they're being promoted, have had good positive feedback.
"People are having their eyes opened to that and it gives the customer something else."
As for the future, Andy says it's time for seafood to take on the snack sector, which could be something for pubs could capitalise on.
"Mackerel especially can be made into a quick snack," he says.
"On the seafood side of things compared with other snacking sectors a lot more could happen - I think we'll see a steady increase in seafood being used this way."
• For more information and advice on sustainability, visit: www.seafish.org
• For more information on the Fish and Chips awards, visit: www.fishandchipawards.com