Life

A glimpse into the world of professional fish cookery with chef Simon Hulstone

Ella Walker spends a day with Devon chef Simon Hulstone, visiting Brixham Fish Market and learning to cook the sustainable seafood he passionately champions

Simon Hulstone and his wife Katy run The Elephant restaurant in Torquay
Ella Walker

WE'RE warned: Walk into Brixham Fish Market in Devon while wearing green wellies, and the likelihood is you'll be met with farm noises.

White and yellow wellies are the way forward if you want to mingle authentically in the chilly, early morning world of the fish market, a-bustle with fishermen who drink together on the weekend, but compete daily in the market.

However, we are not professionals, so instead, our guide James Mooney, from seafood wholesaler and fish supplier Kingfisher Brixham, has us decked out in plastic slip-on shoe covers, hair nets (very fetching) and white coats, as though we're about to enter a medical lab.

We enter the warehouse, with its sales screens gently scrolling on the walls; the fish are laid out on the floor in uniform white tubs that slosh with ice.

The rule is you buy by the box, explains Mooney, who wryly notes that the fish are caught by fisherman often handling boats named after their ex-girlfriends.

You can't just walk in here off the street and start haggling over scallops, though. You have to pay a bond to actually buy the fish, and anyway, a novice would struggle to navigate the tactics involved – and the relationships required – to bid in person, "which has been the way for hundreds of years", Mooney notes.

We're here with chef and seafood champion Simon Hulstone of Michelin-starred restaurant The Elephant, located in his nearby hometown, Torquay.

We stalk between crates of mottled Dover sole; inky lobsters with their taped-up claws still trying to clack; huge slabs of turbot flop belly up; and box upon box of red mullet – a bycatch – which shimmer crimson and fuchsia. "Chefs want the pink scales," says Hulstone, "but they get battered when they're caught."

Most eerily, there are tubs containing severed, alien-like monkfish tails, which historically have been used as scampi (the deep-fried stuff you get at the pub): "The fishermen bring them in headless because the head is as big as the body," explains Mooney – and there's not much to be made from the heads.

Mooney and Hulstone talk fish trends (the fishermen are keen seafood trend followers), including why British restaurant-goers aren't interested in eating 'black gold', aka cuttlefish, which, like a lot of crab, is bought up by other countries.

You feel as though you've breached a whole other world just being inside this market in the fishing port of Brixham, then your taxi driver informs you that yes, you really do stink of fish, even if you can't smell it yourself.

Back at The Elephant, which Hulstone runs with his wife, Katy, he demos three of his dishes, filleting halibut, hake and cod in swift succession.

Hulstone is a big supporter of Brixham but is also a major fan of – and ambassador for – sustainable Seafood from Norway, including skrei cod and Glitne halibut, from Norway's fjords. "It's all about heroing the product," he says.

He has fewer than 10 people in his kitchen and considers himself the "conductor at the front", while interestingly, his apprentice James, doesn't even like eating fish.

"I don't like the way it's made," James admits sheepishly, when quizzed over the carcass of a glistening halibut. Hulstone is working on him, though; putting people's indifference and dislike of fish down to the fact "batter has blinded us".

It's hard to dispute that many of us would be utterly stumped if faced with a whole fish on the bone. "It's an animal, it's got to move, it's got to live, it's got to bleed – people forget that," explains Hulstone.

That said, he's very strict on getting rid of any "uglies" – whether you're cooking fish at home, or being served it in a restaurant.

"Always check the inside is really nice and red, no smell," says Hulstone, reeling off what to look for when selecting a fish. "The less handling the better, or it degrades." And that icky fish slime you get? "That means it's fresh."

But don't be put off buying frozen fish. If the label says 'frozen at sea' he explains, it means the fish has been filleted and frozen on the boat, within two to four hours of being caught – so it should end up being considerably fresher than stuff that's just been chilled and transported back to the mainland.

"People think it's being a cowboy, freezing your fish," he says. "It's not, it tenderises it – it's exactly the same, even though it can seem like a cheat."

And if you're anxious about filleting your own fish, there's no shame in asking your fishmonger to do it for you.

:: Simon Hulstone has teamed up with Seafood From Norway (seafoodfromnorway.co.uk) to promote fish; below are two of his recipes for you to try.

FILLET OF NORWEGIAN HADDOCK WITH SWEETCORN AND MUSSEL SOUP

(Serves 4)

2 Frozen at Sea Norwegian haddock fillets, skinned and pin boned

1 pre-cooked corn on the cob

Olive oil

Sunflower shoots (if available)

For the sweetcorn and mussel soup:

1kg clean mussels

400ml white wine

1 shallot (chopped)

2 sprigs of thyme (chopped)

1 clove of garlic

1 star anise

1/2 fennel bulb (chopped)

500g sweetcorn niblets frozen

500ml vegetable stock

500ml double cream

200g unsalted butter

Method:

To start the soup, heat a large pot and add the mussels, chopped fennel, chopped shallot, star anise, garlic and thyme. Once these are added, pour 400ml of wine and cover, checking regularly to see if the mussels have steamed open.

Once all mussels are open, drain the juice into a separate pan. Remove the mussels from their shells and place into the mussel stock.

In a separate pan, pour in the vegetable stock and sweetcorn niblets and bring to a light simmer. Once simmering, add in the mussels, stock and double cream and allow to cook for five minutes.

After five minutes, add in the butter and bring the soup to the boil. Place the soup into a blender and blend until smooth. Pass the soup through a sieve to remove any husk and season and set aside.

To prepare your corn, heat a frying pan with no oil and cut off the bunkers of the corn cob with a knife and place into the pan. Remove from the pan once the cob is suitably coloured.

Take your haddock and cut the fish into four equal pieces. Place into a non-stick pan and cook very quickly on both sides, leaving the fish slightly under cooked (the soup will finish the cooking). When your haddock is nearly ready, warm the soup and use a hand blender to lightly froth.

To serve, place the haddock into a bowl and arrange the niblets on top and garnish with the sunflower shoots. Pour the warmed soup around the haddock, drizzle olive oil and then serve.

HALIBUT WITH TOMATO CONSOMME, SALSA VERDE AND FENNEL

(Serves 4)

4 x 140g Norwegian Glitne Halibut fillets

8 various coloured heritage tomatoes

1 head of fennel

For the consomme:

1kg overripe plum tomatoes

1 shallot

1 clove of garlic

25ml vodka

25ml balsamic vinegar

100g sugar

25g sea salt

For the salsa verde:

100g parsley

100g tarragon

100g basil

1 shallot

1 clove of garlic

1 lemon, zested

200ml extra virgin olive oil

Method:

Create the consomme the night before you plan to serve the dish. Blend the plum tomatoes, shallot, garlic, sugar, vodka and balsamic vinegar for three minutes (or until totally blended). Pass the juice through a coffee filter and leave overnight.

The next day, take your consomme and dispose of the leftover pulp and season the clear juice ready for serving. Cut the eight heritage tomatoes into various wedge sizes and place in a low temperature oven at 40C for one hour. Slice the fennel into quarters, and blanch until soft.

Take the halibut and place a non-stick pan. Roast the fish skin side down, add the fennel and continue to cook until golden brown. Turn the halibut to ensure it cooks through.

For the salsa verde, finely chop the clove of garlic and add the shallot and lemon zest. Then chop the parsley, tarragon and basil together, add to the mixture, finally adding olive oil and seasoning.

To serve, place the tomatoes onto the middle of the plate and garnish with fresh basil. Then place the halibut on top of the tomatoes and sprinkle on the rest of the fennel. Finish by pouring the consomme and salsa verde oil over the fish, and serve immediately.

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