We increasingly have adopted the barbecue as the cooking icon of summer but, in doing so, have tended to embrace the American rather than Mediterranean ethos - with an emphasis on meat rather than fish. The smell which hangs like a pall over a sunny evening in suburbia is of charred animal flesh, interwoven with the whiff of kerosene. It is rarely of fish and herbs, is more crematorium than taverna.
The reasons for this carnivorous bias are not hard to work out and are largely historic. Meat was always considered better fare than fish, a food downgraded by its association with fasting. Indeed, fish on Fridays is an enduring habit based on its designation as a meat-free day in the Catholic calendar and a penance by definition. Oysters, herring and salmon were for hundreds of years the food of the poor; a role that low - grade quality farmed salmon can now ironically play again, with prices plummeting below that of broiler turkeys. Fish was something you fed invalids. With multiple unpleasant connotations, it is not surprising that so many of our countrymen stand with their backs to the sea.
This contempt for fish developed comparatively recently, an attitudinal slant that has been gradual but inexorable. The ascendancy of supermarkets — combined with a car-driven move away from town centres towards dedicated superstore sites - have effectively killed off the high-street fishmonger, along with numerous other specialist retailers.
Whatever the causes, we are the island nation which has denied its piscine heritage and which today eschews fish unless it is sanitized in white fillet form or purchased in ‘added value’ packages. This description is as vile a misnomer as any new marketing speak for, in reality, it means not better value, but worse - with the price loaded disproportionately in return for a little manufactured mise en place... a poor scattering of inferior crumb here, a floury coating of suspect sauce there.
Do you have an excellent fishmonger near you and, if you do, do you shop there every week? The answer to both questions is likely to be negative, for if you reply in the affirmative then you are sadly one of a very small minority. People still eat fish and chips, which when good are very, very good; but then they conform perfectly to convenience criteria. Indeed, fish and chips, first introduced around the turn of the century, were the model for all the fast food that has swamped us recently.
A move towards frozen filleted fish has been exacerbated by the dire quality of most supermarket ‘wet’ fish, which may be up to a week old before it reaches the store. Temperature fluctuation is what speeds decomposition and frozen fish can, in these circumstances, easily be superior to what is laughingly referred to as ‘fresh’. The old adage that ‘if it smells fishy then it is time for the dustbin’ holds true. Really fresh whole fish smells of the sea and is unmistakable; with its bright eyes, deep red gills, gleaming scales and slippery surface sheen.