From Sea to Plate, Brighton
The sky is clear and the sea calm as the Libby Lou sails out of Brighton marina with the sunrise. Skipper Steve Eason steers his 10-metre day boat out to where he laid eight 500-metre-long nets the day before, a mile off the Sussex coast. He is after slip sole, a smaller fish than Dover sole – its size means it is unsuitable for the UK market so it is exported to France and Holland. It has been a big tide and he is not optimistic. I'm just hoping that we catch something that will be of interest to a local restaurant as I try to follow one fish from sea to plate.
The Channel is like a millpond, but once we start pulling in the nets the boat turns into a rodeo ride. Eason suppresses a smile as the photographer and I try to steady ourselves. The 29-year-old has been working as a fisherman since he left school and the Libby Lou is the second boat he has owned, costing him £50,000 secondhand. Going out on his own most days – he only takes another crew member if he goes drifting for bass – it's a tough and potentially dangerous job. But for Eason, along with the pleasure of being out at sea, there is the thrill of the unknown: will he pull up a lucrative catch, or empty nets? Some days he can make as much as £1,000; on others he could find all his nets have been destroyed by a passing trawler, costing him around £4,000.
When we haul up the nets we find the first two holding a mixture of slip sole; undersized plaice and skate that are thrown back alive; a couple of good-sized cod and gurnard; and brown crabs whose claws are removed for market, their bodies discarded. I am tasked with this job and one, as unimpressed with my skills as Eason is with my sea legs, crushes my finger.
What's left in the net is the fisherman's curse: spider crabs and starfish. The starfish attach themselves to the trapped fish and start feeding on them. The crabs foul up the nets and the fast waters of the Channel mean they don't reach a size that makes them viable for market. They are smashed to bits to free them from the nets.
In the third net there is a 2kg turbot, the "king of fish". The flatfish is one of the most valuable fish caught in UK waters, selling at £7-10 a kilo. Turbot flesh bruises easily, however, and to prevent this it needs to be bled straight away. Eason hands me a knife and instructs me to make a small incision on its underbelly near the tail. There is a remarkable gush of blood.
Five hours after setting off, all the nets have been hauled in and cleaned. The smell is potent; the deck is littered with crab and starfish parts, whelks and seaweed, and my waterproofs are smeared in fishy slime. We have drifted east several miles and as we head back towards the marina, Eason lays out the nets again for the next day and guts the catch, including the turbot, a neat three- to four-inch incision behind the head. We tag the turbot with blue tape to identify it.
Back on land, we head in Eason's pick-up to Brighton and Newhaven Fish Sales (BNFS), which markets and distributes all the catch of Brighton'sfishing fleet and has a renowned fishmonger's. Eason will get around £7 a kg for the turbot, £14 all told. BNFS emails local restaurants and fishmongers detailing the day's catch. Our turbot sits packed in ice, ready for delivery. Who will bite?
Fishy Fishy was co-founded by The X Factor presenter and DJ Dermot O'Leary and is one of Brighton's leading fish restaurants. Apart from Scottish mussels, it only serves fish and shellfish caught in the English Channel. "When the weather is rough and the boats don't go out, we have to scale down the menu," says managing director James Ginzler who, with head chef Lloyd Jeffers, checks BNFS's email every day. Our turbot catches their eye and they pay £16 a kg for it, head and tail included, so its price has risen to £32.
The next day, we chase the turbot in BNFS's delivery van like fish stalkers. It arrives at Fishy Fishy's busy kitchen late morning and Jeffers checks it over before trimming, heading and tailing it with a viciously sharp knife and hammer, cutting it up into 10 neat steaks. How will he serve it? "I'm going to pan-fry it and accompany it with an olive oil mash, a roast carrot vinaigrette, steamed Poole Bay clams and a garnish of shaved fennel," he says. Price: £18.50. Bearing in mind there are other ingredients on the plate to pay for, not to mention the high overheads of running a restaurant, the price of this one dish is more than Eason earned for the whole fish.
The restaurant fills up and at 1.30pm an order comes in for the turbot from a customer sat on the sunny terrace, enjoying a boozy lunch with friends. Twenty-eight hours after being caught just a mile away, our turbot's meaty flesh is declared "wonderful". Ginzler invites the photographer and me to try it too. As we sit down and tuck in, my finger still tender from the crab bite, I appreciate the turbot all the more for the surroundings of the restaurant, a world away from the blood and guts on the Libby Lou.