Good Food Blog
Never mind the pollacksPosted at 11:30AM, 08 January 2009 by Andy Lynes - Food writer
Fish are fashion victims. That doesn't mean you'll spot a salmon tottering around Chelsea in Christian Louboutin pumps sporting the latest Matthew Williamson creation. But some species are less à la mode than others, and suffer badly because of it.
A supplier told me that he'd seen four tons of whiting put back in the sea because no one wanted to buy them
Earlier this year, a supplier of fish to the restaurant trade told me that he'd seen four tons of whiting put back in the sea because no one at Brixham's famous fish market wanted to buy them. The Marine Conservation Society's (MCS) website says that "whiting are a low-value species and often discarded in large quantities."
The question is, why? If pollack, that rather watery creature of indeterminate flavour, can find its way onto the menus of posh London restaurants like Hibiscus and Arbutus and our supermarket's shelves, then why not the creamy fleshed, delicate and delicious whiting?
Even the late great food writer and fish fanatic Alan Davidson had it in for the poor old whiting. In the Oxford Companion to Food he rather unkindly describes it as "easy to digest but lacking in flavour" and "suitable for invalids, especially when steamed or poached".
More helpfully, he points out that a number of species around the world are referred to as whiting, but that the first to bear the name - and the variety that you will find in the UK - is the Merlangius merlangus, a member of the cod family found in the North Atlantic, Mediterranean and Black Sea.
Perhaps Davidson wasn't lucky enough to have eaten Joël Robuchon's Le merlan frit Colbert, beurre aux herbes - the whole boned fish fried in breadcrumbs and accompanied by lemon and herb butter - which the legendary French chef serves at his London restaurant, L'Atelier . And he definitely missed out on the whiting specials at Mark Hix's recently opened Oyster and Chophouse, that feature a fillet of the fish sandwiched between two slices of potato and deep-fried in batter.
I like to think that my own recent creation of pan-fried whiting fillets served with a Bourguignon-style red wine sauce with bacon, baby onions and mushrooms and petit pois à la française might have swayed Davidson's opinion a little. He might even have been impressed that I virtually cut the cost of the dish in half by using whiting instead of that Kate Moss of the marine world, the sea bass.
The MCS currently gives whiting a rating of four. That means it narrowly escapes appearing on their list of Fish to Avoid which are those "most vulnerable to over-fishing and/or are fished using methods which cause damage to the environment or non-target species".
With some careful shopping however, you can enjoy a guilt-free fish supper. The MCS recommend that you "avoid eating immature fish (less than 30 cms), and fresh (not previously frozen) fish caught during the spawning season (March-April)."
I was delighted to see Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall singing the praises of whiting on a recently screened River Cottage Christmas special. I hope other leading foodie opinion-formers will join me in a chorus or two of Never Mind the Pollacks and help make whiting the must-have fashionable fish of 2009, ensuring more of it ends up on our plates instead of being dumped back into the sea.