From gill to tail to 'seacuterie': how the way we eat fish is changing

Why aged fish and alternative cuts may start popping up on more menus

Josh Niland FreshGill c Rob Palmer
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"We get a lot of people coming to our restaurant who don't like fish," says Gareth Ward, chef-owner of Michelin-starred restaurant Ynyshir. His eatery is located near the Snowdonia National Park in Machynlleth in Wales, and food lovers travel for miles to sample the cutting-edge creations of one of the UK's most admired chefs.

For three years, Ward, who loves fish, has been ageing it, like meat, in a custom-built Himalayan salt chamber. “We age fish on the bone for anywhere from four to 10 days,” he explains. “You are reducing the water content and increasing the flavour – it completely changes the texture of the fish. It’s all about giving things time.”

Mackerel, Ward's favourite fish, is particularly well suited to ageing. He places line-caught Scottish mackerel, "really big and fatty", in his salt chamber and leaves them there, undisturbed, for 10 days. "When you get the nastiness off the outside, it's beautiful pink fish that's really, really tender in the middle – and the flavour is unbelievable," he says. "It has that flavour of super-fresh fish."

Aged Mackeral-Wasabi 4 - Gareth Wardi

The latest species to enter Ward's salt chamber is tuna, specifically the otoro, the fattiest part of the tuna belly. It has been a huge success. "We stick it in the salt chamber for seven days and it's insane."

Ward is one of a handful of chefs credited with the creation of seacuterie, but he prefers to keep things simple. “We just age fish,” he says.

Tom Brown, chef-owner of Cornerstone, a contemporary seafood restaurant in Hackney in East London, is one of the other names associated with the growing trend. "For me, that term [seacuterie] means treating fish as you would meat," he says. "It would be quite easy to have a cured fish dish on the menu and attach a label to it – pastrami, ham or whatever – but it's not that, it's just that you have killed some fish and you want to try to sell it a bit quicker. For me, it's about the ageing and the drying – the more I do it, the more I realise those are the vital processes, rather than the curing."

Salmon pastrami and ChalkStream trout ham, now staples of the Cornerstone menu, are the end result of Brown's search for some "snacky bits" to serve before oysters. "I love eating charcuterie," he says. "If I go to dinner, I want to eat a plate of charcuterie, if it's available. It's a lovely way to start a meal. But we don't serve meat, so we had to do fish charcuterie. I bought a few books and played around with it. It was trial and error."

If you’re in luck, you might also find squid salami and octopus chorizo on his menu, but both tend to sell out in a matter of hours.

Over in Australia, there is a chef who knows no limits when it comes to fish. Josh Niland, chef-owner of the acclaimed restaurant St Peter and "modern fishmonger" Fish Butchery, both in Sydney, is a pioneer. The author of The Whole Fish Cookbook, he is determined to do for fish what British chef and restaurateur Fergus Henderson did for meat with his revolutionary 1999 cookbook Nose to Tail Eating: A Kind of British Cooking and Michelin-starred London restaurant St John.

The Whole Fish Cookbook CVR 3D

Like Henderson, Niland is concerned with using as much of the animal as possible, a philosophy he labels "whole fish utilisation".

The biggest hurdle left to jump is battling people's perception of fish as merely 'two fillets with a head'

“There are limitations to looking at a fish as just two fillets with a head,” he states. Thumb through a copy of his cookbook or scroll through Niland’s Instagram account and you will find a cornucopia of weird and wonderful dishes, such as fish black pudding, fish-eye chips, kingfish pastrami and swordfish bacon. “When you start delving into a fish and the potential … then you start finding all these cuts that look like meat. It’s a Pandora’s box.”

For Niland, the process starts with buying the best fish direct from the fisherman. “We always get our fish with the head on, the scales on and the guts in,” he explains. It is vital that once the fish is caught it doesn’t come into contact with ice or water, he adds. “Fish is so fragile. It has porous scales, so it takes on water.”

Washed, a fish will last four or five days. Kept dry and stored carefully in Niland's customised cooler, a fish can last from six to eight weeks. This mindful handling, which includes cutting the scales off with a knife instead of using a fish scaler and "sifting through the organs" – takes time, but it enables Niland to use 90 per cent of the fish. "The key to my work is trying to bring desirability to fish by increasing the standard of fish handling."

The biggest hurdle left to jump is battling people's perceptions. Change is afoot, however, and Niland's food and philosophy have garnered praise from the likes of Nathan Outlaw and Rick Stein. Here in the UAE, Niland has inspired Nick Alvis, chef and co-founder of Folly by Nick and Scott, even though he's not convinced seacuterie will take off here.

"What [Niland] is doing with fish is incredibly interesting. Have you seen his Instagram? It's dramatic, how he breaks down the fish. It's not merely a trend, he's taking fish to a new place and showing chefs what more they can do with it," he says. "I can relate to some of it, but not all of it. You have to love fish, that's for sure. There's an element of 'Wow, that is awesome.' But I wouldn't want [to eat] it. Here at Folly by Nick and Scott, we use fish cheeks, we barbecue the fish carcasses and use them to make sauces and reductions, we roast all the fish heads and use them in our beurre blanc sauce and we have used fish roe. Josh Niland uses the gills! He uses the lot."

Widespread concern for the environment could provide the impetus for change, however. If chefs inspired by Niland's cooking started to use 90 per cent of each fish, waste would be reduced on a global scale, boosting conservation efforts.

Niland says: "Moving forward, I hope fish and meat are seen as luxury ingredients." Will his fish revolution succeed? "Fergus has been doing what he does at St John for 25 years, and now we're seeing beef cheeks and oxtail and snouts and ears in supermarkets," he says. "I feel like we're in the very early stages of what I'm talking about – it is tricky being a single voice, preaching this message that nobody has ever preached before. It's hard, because the fish processing industry has been the way it is for centuries. It is saying 'Why mess with something that works?' I'm saying 'It's broken and it doesn't work'."