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10 British fish dishes you need to try

by Neil Davey
10 British fish dishes you need to try
Image: Getty

There’s no time like Christmas to celebrate our great fishing heritage and delicious specialities. Here are 10 of the best British seafood dishes to try

For an island nation, the UK has a strange relationship with fish. Batter it and fry it, and the public are all over it. Sell it filleted and it’ll soon be in pans up and down the country. Leave it fish-shaped with the eyes in and, for many, it’s a very different story. ‘Whole fish or anything that moves,’ laughs Scottish chef Derek Johnstone, ‘and people steer away from it, or just eat them in restaurants.’ Aptly enough, the tide seems to be turning, and Brits are demanding more fish – but we need to explore more. ‘There’s really good seafood around the UK,’ says fisherman and marine biologist Andrew Whiston, ‘so try it! Be adventurous!’

1. Oysters

A couple of hundred years ago, oysters were so plentiful they were the cheap protein of the working classes. Having lost those natural stocks, these days they’re farmed but typically in innovative, environmentally friendly and sustainable ways. Open – or, perhaps, get a professional to open one for you. Leave it raw? Add a little lemon? A shot of Tabasco? A teaspoonful of the classic shallot and vinegar mignonette? Your call, although as Rob Hampton, of Covent Garden’s Oystermen, explains: ‘Lemon is a good start. It’s a familiar taste that encourages the flavour, it doesn’t mask it.’

2. Langoustines

Many people will have had langoustine at home: these delicious little creatures are also known as Norway lobster, Dublin Bay prawn or, believe it or not, scampi. Pepijn de Visscher, of Soho’s The Seafood Bar, has some advice for shopping and preparation. ‘The head should look fresh orange; the bottom should look fresh white,’ he explains. ‘Cut them at the belly lengthways, grill in the pan or griddle with olive oil and salt.’


Photograph by Maja Smend
Photograph by Maja Smend

3. Rollmop herrings

Herring is plentiful around the UK – even if, in recent years, our consumption of it has fallen. It remains a hugely popular fish across Scandinavia, Germany and the Netherlands. The Dutch often serve it as ‘maatjes’ – soused herring – in a simple roll with raw onion. If you need a more mellow introduction, however, try rollmops. Garry Price, of Sainsbury’s rollmop herring supplier Dawnfresh, suggests ‘serving them with potatoes or, better, run through a potato salad’. He also suggests eating them with ‘a good yeasty craft beer’.

4. Mussels

Cook mussels once and you’ll wonder why you always left them to the restaurants to prepare. Quick, easy, delicious and hugely adaptable, they’re also sustainable, plentiful and easily found at supermarket fish counters. ‘When you buy them, make sure they’re shut tight,’ advises Rex Goldsmith, the Chelsea Fishmonger, ‘not gaping open, and they should have a little sheen to them and not look dry.’

Photograph by Rob Streeter
Photograph by Rob Streeter

5. Kippers

You can tell the abundance of herring from the many ways we eat it in this country. And if anything deserves a revival, it’s surely the kipper? Essentially a whole herring that’s been butterflied – split tail to head along the spine – salted or pickled and cold smoked, it’s a healthy, oily product that makes a big-flavoured, hearty breakfast and a fine alternative to haddock in kedgeree.

6. Smoked salmon

Just a few years ago, smoked salmon meant Christmas. Perhaps a crustless, elegant tea as well but mostly Christmas. These days, however, like a dog, smoked salmon is for life, not just for Christmas. It’s also available in myriad forms. On the vaguest of possibilities you’ve never tried it, the classic combination with cream cheese, on a lightly toasted bagel, is very hard to beat, although served alongside scrambled eggs, or in a quiche, or as a pate, in a risotto…

Photograph by Ant Duncan
Photograph by Ant Duncan

7. Jellied eels

Once a source of cheap protein, and enormously popular in the East End of London, jellied eels still feature on the menu of the few remaining pie and mash shops but can also be found in your local supermarket. Eels are boiled in spiced stock and left to cool, hence the ‘jellied’. They are, unsurprisingly, best eaten alongside pie and mash with, ideally, a splash of chilli vinegar or white pepper.

8. Potted shrimp

While brown shrimp are available and plentiful around the UK, they’re most associated with Morecambe Bay, traditionally served peeled, and set in butter flavoured with spices such as mace and nutmeg. Peeling them is a job best left to the professionals, but happily they’re sold in supermarkets both pre-potted and as peeled brown shrimp. Spread them on toast, toss them in pasta, eat with a spoon…

Photograph by Kris Kirkham
Photograph by Kris Kirkham

9. Smoked mackerel

Spring and early summer is when British waters are full of mackerel before they head to warmer climes to spawn. The need to preserve these deliciously oily fish outside this season is probably the reason we discovered the joys of smoked mackerel. Try in a salad, a sandwich, or mixed with a little yogurt, lemon juice and horseradish for a great pate.

10. Crab and lobster

As with many seafood items, kudos to the first person who looked at most shellfish and thought: ‘I bet that tastes nice…’ It’s certainly worth a few minutes of your time on YouTube checking what you can and mustn’t eat when cooking crab or lobster which, again, aren’t as challenging as you might fear. ‘Cook the whole crab in court bouillon,’ advises Pepijn de Visscher (again, not as complicated as it sounds). ‘Grill lobster with lots of garlic butter,’ says Derek Johnstone of St Andrews’ acclaimed restaurant, 18. ‘Served with a bitter leaf salad and homemade chips. Luxury but comforting, homely but a treat.’

Photograph by Toby Scott
Photograph by Toby Scott

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