Last year, pubs served 157m portions of fish and seafood according to Seafish. Yet, of the 85m portions that were fish, a whopping 66m of them were white fish fillets battered, fried and served with chips.
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While including one of Britain's favourite dishes on any pub menu is a smart move, having it as the only fish dish may not be.
Figures from Seafish show the number of seafood servings out-of-home last year rose by almost 7% with diners spending £3.1bn on eating seafood in pubs, restaurants and cafés. With demand for fish evidently on the rise, seafood specialists believe pubs could be missing a trick by not varying their offer.
“Most pubs feature fish on their menu of one sort or another, but mostly it's through fish and chips, which is really limited,” says Rebecca Wilson, northern European marketing representative for Alaska Seafood.
“There is a known consumer demand for more fish and seafood, and particularly out-of-home. We know that people are eating more fish, but less at home, because they are slightly nervous of cooking it or because of the smell. So there's a real opportunity for pubs to provide them the variety they are looking for.”
Fresh fish daily
A variety of fish and seafood dishes are on the menu at the Lamb in Angmering, West Sussex, where head chef Richard Cook receives fresh fish daily from a local fishmonger.
Dishes starring mackerel, cod, smoked haddock and Loch Duart salmon are currently on the menu while black bream, turbot and plaice have also featured recently.
“I also offer a fish special in the evening based on what is in season. My fishmonger tells me what's good to use and what's sustainable,” he adds.
While he likes to exercise his creativity as a chef with the fish and seafood he is supplied with, Cook says balancing it with what his customers want to eat can sometimes lead to him reeling that creativity in.
“I like to use different species of fish because it keeps it interesting, but my customers love salmon and cod, so I keep them on the menu. I want them to have something they'll like, especially with the pub being in a small village,” he says.
“The consumer does tend to be wedded to four different species – salmon, haddock, cod and prawns – and, outside that, we hardly eat anything else really, which is such a shame,” adds Alaska Seafood’s Wilson, who nevertheless thinks that many pubs could move outside their comfort zones of serving the traditional cod or haddock.
She believes adding more salmon to the menu could be a way of broadening a pub's fish offering without pushing the boat out too far.
“Last year, only 8.8m portions of salmon were served out-of-home, which is tiny in comparison to total fish and seafood. Salmon is heads and shoulders above other fish in terms of what consumers want so it's odd that those numbers aren't borne out in pubs,” she says.
Concerns around using farmed salmon, or paying the hefty price tag attached to wild salmon, need not be an issue for pubs, assures Wilson.
“The market has changed quite a lot and, as a price differential, it's not that much to use wild salmon,” she says, suggesting pubs concerned about the price should consider wild pink salmon or wild keta salmon.
“The price point is better for them with these species, but it is still wild and, with Alaska, it's sustainable, so you've got a nice story behind it there, without necessarily having to pay a premium for it.” she says.
As Wilson highlights, using produce with sustainable credentials is becoming increasingly important to pub chefs. So too is location.
However, when it comes to sourcing fish and seafood, unless your business is close to the sea like Cook's, 'local' may not always be the best option. Pubs situated in-land wanting to serve fresh fish, could wait several days between catch to kitchen.
“Fresh seafood doesn't necessarily mean it has been harvested recently or is top quality,” notes Wilson.
“I have a good supplier in Brighton who is on my doorstep,” adds pub chef Cook, “but if I was in-land the story might be different.”
If this is the case, some believe that frozen fish from sustainable sources and treated correctly through the freezing process could be a better option.
“Freshness is a key attribute of frozen fish because it is frozen at sea minutes after it is caught, offering the freshest product,” says John Hyman, chief executive of the British Frozen Food Federation (BFFF).
Wilson says it is important to check the sourcing and treatment of fish, regardless of whether it is supplied fresh or frozen.
“Quite often, high-quality seafood has been frozen, but it has to be frozen and treated correctly to maintain that quality,” she says.
“In the case of Alaska, most of the pollock is taken out of the water and frozen within four to six hours at very, very low temperatures and it has this traceability through the supply chain where the temperature is checked at every point to ensure the quality of the fish. If you have a fish that has been treated in this way, you invariably have a fish that is 'fresh'.”
While freshness can be maintained with frozen seafood, the BFFF claims it is also better for the environment as it reduces CO2 emissions.
“A report conducted by BFFF focused on the environmental benefits of four ingredients including Atlantic cod.
“Researchers found that fresh Atlantic cod produces 3kg of C02e for every kg transported from Iceland and frozen Atlantic cod from Iceland produces as little as 1.5kg of CO2e per kg of cod. Overall, fresh Atlantic cod produces at least 50% more CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) than frozen because the extended shelf life offered by frozen food enables more efficient transportation methods,” says Hyman.
The use of frozen could also cut unnecessary wastage in the kitchen because it allows chefs to only use what they need for each service.
“With a shelf life of 12 to 18 months, frozen food will not spoil before use, reducing spoilage waste and, being pre-portioned means the exact amount can be used per meal, with any unused food returning to the freezer for later use, significantly reducing waste and offering better stock control,” he adds.
Cook agrees that using fresh fish can throw up issues over wastage. “With fresh fish, it doesn't have a great shelf life, so if it doesn't sell you have to think about what you can do to use it up quickly. If we have a mix left we tend to put it into a fish pie and that will go, but I think that's where frozen does have its benefits,” he says.
Wilson says new freezing methods also allow chefs to cook fish from frozen by simply rinsing a frozen layer off of a fish fillet under the tap and then cooking for two minutes longer than from fresh.
“Cooking it from frozen can be done, but very few chefs are doing it,” she claims.
Benefits of frozen
The benefits of using fish and seafood supplied frozen instead of fresh are clear to many. Yet, Wilson notes it is difficult to convince some to cast aside preconceived ideas about the use of frozen.
“The argument is there, communicating it is the difficult part,” she says. “I don't think it needs to be communicated that fish is frozen on menus though. If you improve the taste and the flavour, there are many benefits to chefs using frozen products but it also means that they can have access to the different species year round.”
Cook says he would use frozen if he worked in a kitchen farther from the coast as long as he could trace its origins.
“In a previous kitchen I worked in, the owner bought some frozen sea bass and when it was defrosted it was lovely, the quality was good and I had no qualms with using it, but you do need to know your supplier first to ensure it's going to be right.”
However it is supplied, Wilson's aim is to get a greater variety of fish on pub menus.
“I would love to see more Alaska seafood on menus, obviously, but I'd like to just see more species on the menu, not just from Alaska,” she says. “The more fish we can see on the menu, the better in my view. Demand is already there for it, the nutritional benefits are clear to see and variety is available, so if overall fish sales increase, so do ours.”
Words: Emma Eversham | Podcast: Nicholas Robinson (music: Bensound.com)