It’s the seagulls that alert me. When there’s a swarm of them close to shore, I know what’s arriving in my home port in Lyttelton, New Zealand. They fight and cackle and I stand at my window watching fishermen off load their catch …
… or I used to.
There was a time it was possible to buy fresh fish straight from the shore, walk the few steps home and cook it for dinner. (Though a poor neighbour missed out one day. I know, because I came home to find a whole fish – still in paper – in the middle of my lounge floor. The mystery remains. I can explain it only by supposing that a cat had bitten off more than it could chew. Filched off someone’s kitchen counter, the catch was dropped in our yard because it was too cumbersome to run further with. Our dogs, naturally, joined in the mischief and dragged the fish through the door flap into my house. No I did not cook it for dinner – being uncertain of its source and all – but I guess my equally puzzled neighbour would have resorted to store bought fish and chips that night?!!)
Then I heard a rumour – some official meddling I did not understand …
… and the small vessels disappeared.
Now I watch two large fishing trawlers regularly off load their cargo straight into enormous freezer trucks. If I want fish, I have to go to a supermarket to buy it. It’s pressed into uniform blocks; contained in plastic wrap; packaged with colourful print and words trying to convince me I’m buying ‘the best’. Really?
So it was a pleasure to get up at 3am one morning in 2017 and take a long boat trip with a local photographer, to a remote fishing village in Vietnam. (Top photo our arrival near the village).
Here, what you see is what you get. It’s up to the purchaser to use their senses to select the best fish:
- What does your nose say? Fresh fish should not smell offensive
- What do your eyes say? The scales of a fresh fish are intact; the eyes glossy and bulging; the gills bright pink or red
- What do your fingers say? To the touch the flesh should be wet, slippery but not slimy and a poke of the flesh with a finger springs back to its natural shape.
I’m keenly aware that, in our current situation, the hygiene of wet markets is under scrutiny. Questions of food safety are being raised around the world and, I’m guessing, changes are afoot. But, I certainly hope that, in trying to address these issues the option to buy local, and the community spirit of markets, is not trifled with. That the capacity to make sensible choices – with knowledge passed on through generations – is not taken away. Highly processed and multi-packeted is the other extreme. In the West we’re told what is best by the advertisers and our ability to use our senses to judge what is fresh and good has been dumbed down by ‘best before’ and ‘use by dates’.
Let’s not throw the
babyfish out with the bathwater