A surprise win for Hastings-caught fish at the Billingsgate Sustainable Seafood Awards could not have come at a better time for the town that is making every effort to demonstrate the value of it’s once favourite fish, the herring.
And it was a herring, a bloater smoked by Sonny Elliot, that beat fish from all over the world including the Norwegian Cod and the Alaskan Salmon to win the 2012 championship at Billingsgate on Wednesday. The emphasis was on sustainability, and the Hastings fleet has a superlative record with a 1000 year unbroken run of fishing from small boats off the beach area known as The Stade. It is the only Marine Stewardship Council accredited herring fleet in the country.
The town’s fishermen are a tough lot and have survived numerous threats to their livelihood. In 1831 they formed a union to fight for their medieval right to fish from the Stade. The beach is still populated with their boats and weatherboard net-sheds, which are now listed buildings.
Their outlines made an imposing silhouette against a threatening sky when we arrived at the seafront. Behind them lie the tiny sheds where stall-holders sell fish and behind them are the boats, wheels, the real work of fishing and the sea.
With no idea of what to expect, we started asking for Tush, the legendary producer of Fisherman’s Rolls. Now over 70, he was a town fishmonger for 20 years and now tours the country fairs with wife Pat in his yellow van selling rolls stuffed with fried plaice, dab, whiting and gurnard. We found him setting up his burner for the first Hastings Herring Festvival – today and tomorrow – aimed to promote the herring within the community.
‘The herring is off quota now, they’re a good size and the boys can catch as many as they want. But we think that over the years, they’ve got forgot about’ he says, with a trace of a soft Sussex accent.
We later bought some from a stall behind the net-sheds for £1.50 a lb, less than half the price of the supermarkets, for this is prime herring season. ‘In the old days, at this time of the year, there would have been 15 or 20 boats going out on both tides and probably landing 2000 stone of herrings a day between them’ says Tush. ‘Those herrings would have been auctioned in the morning and sent all over the country. As a kid if I’d walked down All Saints Street of an evening, all I would have been able to smell was herrings.’
‘Today, I’m going to show people how to cook and eat herrings. Just score them and fry them slowly. And you’ve got to eat a herring with care, that’s all. You won’t get all the bones out but just peel back the skin and take the meat of segment by segment. Use your front teeth to spot any little bones. You eat a herring with your hands. It’s a delicious fish and so easy to cook. My father used to cook them over an open fire.’
But when is a herring not a herring? The answer: when it’s a kipper, a buckling or a bloater. To find out the difference we went and spoke to prize-winning bloater-smoker Sonny Elliot from Rocknore Fisheries. He was as surprised as anyone to find out he had won the Billingsgate sustainable fish award. Someone asked him for a bloater to take to the competition on Wednesday, and came back telling him he’d won it.
When we arrived, he was giving an eloquent interview to Meridian Television surrounded by his team of fellow filleters and oven workers. ‘A bloater is a whole herring that’s been cold smoked to preserve it and is raw but cured when you buy it. A kipper is the same thing, but has been split and gutted. You have to cook both of these when you get home. But a buckling is produced by hot smoking which actually cooks the fish, so you can eat it as soon as you leave the shop.’
He sells them from a stall, wedged down a tiny alley, and at £1 each they are a bargain. If you want to find him look to the right of the the Mermaid Restaurant as you stand with your back to the Jerwood gallery facing inland.
Here Sonny explains his fish at the scene.