Buying fish in Newlyn


Bit of a rave from the grave, this one and I published it here a year ago when I could count my followers on the fingers of one hand   – but since we’re in Newlyn again I thought the amateur cooks like me  might enjoy it.

Buying Fish in Newlyn (1st November 2008)

The first time we tasted scallops was at Corsham where we were at Art School. There was a party and Chubby came back from Kirkcudbright with a salmon and some scallops. As always the cooking was accompanied by fierce debates as to the correct way to deal with them. I imagine, although I can’t remember for sure, that Tim was at the heart of the arguments. He always was. Cooking and eating were, for him, explorations of the extreme. The question was always – “how raw could you eat beef fillet?” We were different. We were working class and we liked our food cooked.

There were other experiences. Barney once said he could understand how people could live in little houses like mine. I don’t think he was being patronising, not deliberately. He just hadn’t ever considered that a family could live an entire life in an end-of-terrace 1930’s house. My mother always said it was semi-detached but I thought that was pushing it. It was joined on to a row of houses  but only on one side.

It was Barney’s mother that would start cooking supper, a new new kind of meal I’d never heard of before,  at around six. Out would come the sherry and cooking would take place. We only ate there a couple of times. On one occasion he said “don’t break the glasses they’re Jacobean” They felt wonderful in my hand. There was a Hiroshige print in the toilet – the place they called the lavatory; a Tang dynasty horse upstairs and paintings by Paul Feiler just like the one in Bristol Museum. You can get seriously seduced by that kind of stuff.

So, forty years later we went to Newlyn to buy fish. Over the years, since that time in Corsham I’ve bought and cooked scallops all over the place, always, though, so far as I can remember, prepared or frozen ones. Actually I know that’s the case – for reasons I‘m about to explain.

An amateur cook, like me, has to find everything out the hard way. In fact it was Barney who gave us our first cookbook. He must have seen the way I was looking at his mother. She was very sweet but probably thought I was a bit exotic, being properly working class as I thought then. Cookbooks in the sixties were not like cookbooks now. For a start there were virtually no useable illustrations. There were plenty of charming John Minton style illustrations, line drawings most of which involved Chianti bottles. Nothing, ‘though, to tell you how to skin a rabbit or draw a chicken. So a couple of dozen scallops seemed straightforward enough.

Actually it’s more complicated than that because there is significance to numbers. How many is too many and how few are too few?  Five sounds a bit cheapskate, as if you’re just trying them out. What if a dozen turned out to be beautiful but just too few? We’re talking about a forty mile round-trip here. But two dozen puts you in a good light; a man who knows his scallops. You might think this is all a bit silly but I’m very intimidated by experts.

And why Newlyn? Well, that’s where the fish come in: are landed. Romantic Newlyn, Cornish Newlyn; home to the Newlyn painters whose luminaries – Stanhope Forbes, for example, loved the romance of the fishing life. Take almost any municipal art gallery on a wet Saturday afternoon and look in the gloomiest corner and you’ll probably find a Newlyn painting. Largely ignored, beyond the indifferent gaze of the children out for a funless afternoon of access with their estranged fathers, there will be a painting with a story. A narrative involving impossibly handsome young fishermen leaning against glistening granite walls, as their winsome young ladies gut mackerel with happy smiles against the backdrop of a gathering storm in which you know SOMEONE IS GOING TO DROWN.

Actually Newlyn, these days, is no great shakes. One local fishing fleet owner was in the midst of being prosecuted for faking fishing quotas. There was nowhere much to park. The local heritage Pilchard Experience had closed down and there were one or two faintly dangerous looking men leaning against the wall of the Fishermens’ Institute. Stanhope Forbes it wasn’t. But the sea was as blue as only the sea in Cornwall is capable of being. It’s a breathtaking mixture of turquoise and ultramarine, shining and glinting in the light. We tried the newly refurbished Newlyn Gallery but it seemed to be closed. The Guardian What’s On? Said there was meant to be an exhibition called Social Systems which was dispersed over several sites in Newlyn and Penzance. It was “responding to the potential of everyday life practices”. We could see a couple of women talking, and downstairs there was a table with decorator’s equipment on it so we went away. Later in Tate St Ives they told us that actually  was the exhibition, so maybe we missed something awesomely subtle.

Still, there were the scallops to buy, so we walked hand in hand along the road past the ice works, the trawlers, the sheds where they auction the catch. What I’m saying here is that there was a load of emotional freight attached to buying these shellfish. This was not fish fingers we were after here, it was a piece of conspicuous consumption. I didn’t need bloody Tim, or bloody Barney’s mother or anyone else to tell me how good this was, or how I was supposed  to cook them. I’d got a bottle of Muscadet in the fridge. Ten years previously I wouldn’t have dared to admit that, but on the telly I saw Rick Stein saying there’s nothing better than a nice bottle of Muscadet with shellfish. “Fair do’s, I’ll buy that one Rick” I thought,, and in any case there was only the two of us so no need to be even secretly embarrassed.

So we got to the fish shop. It was like arriving at Canterbury after an arduous pilgrimage as we peered through the door, a little nervous about going in. There was a family in there already gathered around a young, dark haired man who seemed to be explaining something to them over the slab. They all looked so intimidatingly absorbed that we left the shop and walked up the road a bit to another fish shop. But the display there wasn’t that great. In fact I’ve seen a bigger variety of fish on display at Tesco. So we went back again to shop number one. The family appeared to be leaving empty handed; perhaps they’d ordered something for later?

The dark haired young man was still bent over the slab. He was filleting a piece of fish very very slowly, and as he cut into the fish his head was gyring and bobbing almost imperceptibly. I’d seen a similar affliction in the pottery workers who operated the  jigger machines in Stoke on Trent. “Look here” he said, motioning for us to come closer. “Ringworm” he said as he teased one of the parasites out of the rapidly shrinking fillet. And then, just in case we weren’t really sure we’d seen the whole horror of the infestation he pulled out several more tiny worms, slightly bluish against the white of the fish flesh. I remembered reading in Michael Bourdin’s book Kitchen Confidential about infestations in swordfish, but when I mentioned it to the young man he said he’d never seen it in a swordfish.

I could see a big basket of scallops on the floor covered in ice, but I didn’t want to buy them immediately so I said “Have you got any fresh haddock?” “How fresh do you want it?” he asked, archly pulling a very small haddock from the display. Was it a haddock? How did I know it wasn’t a cod? Could I safely identify half a dozen white fish varieties? Probably not, I was on the back-foot again.

“Do you want me to fillet it for you?”

He took the knife, the same knife he’d used to prod out the worms. He didn’t sharpen it. He hacked away inconclusively at the wretched fish until it yielded a couple of absolutely tiny ragged fillets. The plump remains looked almost capable of swimming away. I’ve seen dead fish look all sorts of ways but never complacent before.
Madame, meanwhile, was inspecting the freezer. “They’ve got whitebait!” She knows how much I love whitebait, but I can rarely find them. I think it offends the sensibilities of most people to eat the whole tiny fish, bones, scales and guts as well. So we bought a bag of whitebait.

I was losing confidence fast. The pilgrimage was going a bit awry at that point, but I would have my scallops. Two dozen live scallops in their shells. He counted them out and we negotiated some extra ice and a polystyrene box and drove back to our rented cottage in Cadgwith.

I’ve been ill on shellfish. I once truly thought I was going to die after a desperately greedy meal of live shellfish in France. It wasn’t so much food poisoning as toxic shock I think. So here are the rules for shellfish. If they’re open and won’t close don’t eat them. If they’re closed and won’t open in water don’t eat them either. You want your mussels, your clams and your scallops to function like Olympic opening and closing athletes. You want them to slam shut at the tiniest tap.

These scallops turned out to be a bit sluggish in the opening and closing department. Those that weren’t already dead were suffering. But worse still was the smell. Rule three is this – if fish stinks don’t eat it. But there were still a few, maybe thirteen scallops that passed tests one and two. I thought if I removed the obviously deceased the smell might go away.

Then there was the experience. I’m sure I can remember Rick Stein opening freshly caught scallops with a penknife and downing them whole and live. It was one of those paeans to the ‘stiff fresh’ and natural that they do on the television; more lifestyle and spirituality than straightforward eating. But that must be a false memory because when I prised open the first scallop it was – well – full of the mildly unpleasant stuff that living things always have inside. Stuff you don’t want to think about let alone eat! It turned out that scallops are more complicated than you’d imagine. You have to clean them, removing frills and black bits and sand and membrane and oh-God stuff. By the time you finish you’ve got the muscular bit that joins the part you’ve just thrown away to the shell and, if you’re lucky, a fragment of coral that you didn’t manage to burst while you were peeling the rest off. And from two dozen shells four inches across I got less than half that number of very small scallops.

I put them in the fridge but by that time I’d suffered a crisis of faith. I kept getting them out and sniffing them but somehow the smell wouldn’t go. It was the smell of the fish trains at Temple Meads railway station when I was a child. So forty miles of driving, half an hour of fiddling about and any sense of the lyrical possibilities of holiday food lost forever I threw the scallops in the bin, tipped half a bottle of oil into a pan and deep fried the whitebait. Bottle of muscadet, slice of brown bread, salt, black pepper and a squeeze of lemon; sunshine and the sound of the sea in our ears. It was good.

Working landscape


I woke up this morning listening to horses passing.  Their hooves were sounding  on the cobbles outside, except they weren’t because it didn’t take long to realize that these horses were big clots of rain falling from the blocked gutter into the yard below.  We’re staying in an old net-loft, once used as an artist’s studio, and the gutters in the building opposite (so close you could reach out and touch it) are completely clogged with a wonderful array of grass and ferns – very Cornish! I’d  been having one of those dreams that you can chase down to an event during the previous day. My dream concerned a pair of wellington boots – black and very ordinary looking – but which I knew were known as “recording boots” – and which I desperately wanted to own.  They were (needless to say) very expensive. At this point, amateur Freudians, Jungians and my properly professional therapist would be saying – “What were you supposed to be recording?”  I’d gone to bed after reading from John Wright’s new book on foraging, so the obvious (but wrong) answer would have been that I wanted to record plants.

As I often do, when Madame and I sit in bed with a cup of early morning tea, I mentioned the dream to her in the knowledge that it would be hard for her to find any sinister interpretation in my harmless desires. We chatted for a bit and then there was one of those therapeutic silences and it occurred to me that I had spent an amount of time on the bus stop outside the old fishermen’s institute in Newlyn yesterday, regarding a young man – or more precisely – regarding his wellingtons.  I promise that this is not some homoerotic/rubber confession, at least not mine.

And so, with a bit of clarity beginning to dawn, I explained the origin of the dream and Madame launched into one of her revelatory discourses.  Our conversations often seem to possess unexpected emergent qualities.  Suddenly we were back on the quayside in a Newlyn harbour some time between 1880 and 1900.  The young man I observed yesterday, the one with the slightly too large, green, steel toecapped safety boots was obviously a fisherman returning from a spell at sea.  He looked tired out.  On his back was a rucksack that contained very little – I could see a bottle of shower gel, so probably his work had taken him away for several days.

“It hasn’t changed very much”, Madame said. “Not from the Stanhope Ford paintings.”  And it was true. With a different set of clothes he could have been one of the eponymous “Jack” models from the paintings, which were revolutionary at the time, with their focus on a rather romanticised view of working lives. The fishermen, smokng their pipes as they mended their nets and their wives, sometimes grieving wives, gutting fish or hauling them off in huge baskets to sell.  The beautiful young girls not yet eroded by the weather of a harsh life – all there then, and all still here now.  Stanhope Forbes, Walter Langley and the others had found their recording boots.  The herring and pilchard have gone, long since but the young men still put to sea.  In the pub a group of older men came in – down fishing, but not local men – among them one from the Shetlands, one from Ireland.  We eavesdropped on their conversation. They were talking about boats and about the cost of gear.  One remained silent, keeping his counsel and sipping his single pint where two of the others were downing them.

Out on the street there was a lot of ordinary life going on. Young mothers out with their children in pushchairs, a couple of men outside another of the pubs, one saying to another – “She’s not speaking to me so I might as well ….”. There’s work, but it’s often poorly paid and seasonal just like it always was.  Nowadays the catch goes off in lorries while the remaining boats play cat and mouse games with the Spanish and Dutch factory ships out there hoovering up everything including the sea-bed. The fishwives have morphed into an army of cleaners who look after the holiday cottages whose owners live elsewhere. Not much of the money comes into Cornwall.

The Newlyn School painters, if they were able to come back, would find plenty of familiar scenes to paint.  The grandchildren and great-grandchildren of their original models are probably still here somewhere. They’d be able to buy their favourite French cheeses in the upmarket shops  and get some sourdough bread too – that would have pleased them, no doubt. They never lost their London ways. But here, life’s a gamble – only the bookmakers get rich, and hardly anyone can afford a pair of recording boots.

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