A feast of unfamiliar fish

Exploring “lesser-known” fish means demonstrating that we can source outside the array of mass-market seafood and choose fish that aren’t threatened with extinction by virtue of finicky human consumption.

A feast of unfamiliar fish

Maxime Nouail, chef at Domaine de Rochevilaine in Brittany. © Olivier Marie

Exploring “lesser-known” fish means demonstrating that we can source outside the array of mass-market seafood and choose fish that aren’t threatened with extinction by virtue of finicky human consumption.

“Little-known, unknown, unsung … these are fish that we never get the chance to cook because they’re thrown back as soon as they’re caught,” says Maxime Nouail, chef at the Domaine de Rochevilaine, a Breton property perched on a rocky Atlantic peninsula. He animatedly describes Jean-Sébastien Briard, a “responsible protector of nature,” who only line-fishes from his small boat, the Mutin, without any “big machinery or factory,” two miles from his restaurant. Honoring the seasons and the fish’s freshness are values the two men share: “I follow the seasons, just like Maxime does with his cooking, which means I can get ingredients at their best, through diversified fishing.”

Just what does “diversified” mean in the world of fish? What creatures have the nets passed by? Maxime eagerly describes the famous fried whiting he has on the menu, marinated in Breton white beer, or his haddock, “all those fish that are delicious but not flashy,” he explains. “We have fun cooking everything that’s just outside our front door, not to mention the mackerel and sardines coming in from La Criée every day. There are people who have to fish to eat, and then those who fish for pleasure. Both sometimes forget that the sea has her own rules: She is a vast and beautiful person that must be respected.”
 

Swimming at the bottom of Rochevilaine © Jerôme Mondière

Over in the Mediterranean, Gérald Passédat, chef at Le Petit Nice, has devoted an entire book to bringing fish from the depths’ darkness into the light in Des abysses à la lumière, published by Éditions Flammarion. What better ode to unsung fish and their fishermen, unchanged for years? “Félix fishes longline, a meticulous art in itself that respects the Mediterranean and provides me with fish of extreme quality.” He continues, “I’ll ‘ripen’ the dentex before cooking it. But the forkbeard is immediately poached in a light broth to preserve the delicate texture.” Gérald is one of 210 chefs who signed a pledge against electric fishing in 2018.

Chef Gérald Passédat. © Richard Haughton
Bouille Abaisse menu by Gérald Passédat. © Richard Haughton
Three fish services follow one another. First the raw shells, then the mid-bottom fish, such as anglerfish or lively fish, which vary according to the season and the jolts of the Mediterranean. Finally, deep-sea fish, such as capons.

Englishman Michael Caines, whose spectacular restaurant Lympstone Manor overlooks the Exe Estuary in East Devon, knows sustainability is essential: “Our role is to raise awareness among customers and the up-and-coming generations of chefs about sustainable fishing, the importance of sourcing local, and ‘zero-kilometer’ cooking.” He describes his estuary menu, the one he finds the most meaningful and that lets him have some fun: “When it comes to cooking, that’s all that matters to me: how to be creative with what I have at hand – scorpionfish, eel, cuttlefish, red mullet – without making what people expect to eat in a fine restaurant, which is generally high-end fish that are often not in season and, worse, usually threatened species.”

Michael Caines (on the right), chef at Lympstone Manor, with his fish supplier
Butter poached Brixham : turbot scallop, mussels and clams, with basil butter sauce

Maxime Nouail leaves us with this thought: “I remind myself on a daily basis that I live in paradise, a place where I still see pods of dolphins swimming by – another creature that’s little understood. If we took better care of nature, we’d experience this kind of beauty more often.”

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