Zest and Herbs

Book Review: Mitch Tonks’ Fish

One thing my bookshelf had been missing for quite some time is a good, introductory fish cookery book.  Rather than turn to one of my favourite cookery writers – and fish specialist – Rick Stein, I decided to try out an offering by someone different.

Also based in South-West England, Mitch Tonks is one of Britain’s top seafood chefs.  His restaurant, The Seahorse in Dartmouth (cookbook coming June this year), has been repeatedly named as one of the best in the UK.  I was lucky enough to go there for my birthday last October and had a fantastic meal (pricey, but the quality of the food and the atmosphere meant it was definitely worth it).  Of course, when it came to the book I had high expectations!

Mitch Tonks' Fish: The complete fish and seafood companion

First published in 2009, Fish: The complete fish & seafood companion is pitched as a comprehensive guide to the fundamentals of fish cookery, and certainly goes a long way to achieving that.  The first forty pages of the book are an introduction to all aspects of seafood.  Principally there are the virtues of eating more fish and shellfish, with nutritional information and simple timings, guides to the most basic ways of dealing with any fish, what to look for in a fish and an overview of all the edible bits (there are even a couple of roe recipes thrown in).  It also goes a little deeper into the workings of the fishing industry, including the methods employed on the boats and the workings of Brixham Fish Market.  The most controversial aspect of fishing, its environmental impact and sustainability is also given plenty of room, with statements from academics and the industry that show how well researched the whole book is: it would easy to just give the opinions expected of a top chef, that farmed fish is of worse quality for example, so I think this level of detail and balance should be really commended.

The second part, and majority of the book, is given over to recipes.  Organised by the fish used in each one, they have a clear Mediterranean bias, with familiar flavour combinations and simple techniques – fire up the grill and stock up on lemons and capers!  Tonks clearly recognises people’s unfamiliarity and lack of confidence with cooking fish, but I think the style of recipe employed goes a long way to encourage people to give them a try.  I certainly would have been apprehensive about buying and dealing with a whole flatfish or skate wing for example, but Fish emphasises the simplicity of cooking a whole fish, and now I’ve done it once I feel confident enough to do it more and more!  There are also plenty of shellfish recipes too, from expensive lobster and oysters through to affordable mussels and squid.  Each fish is introduced with one or two pages of information about it, detailing its habitat and lifestyle, the catch methods employed, sustainability and seasonality as well as some very detailed tasting notes (personally I find them a little over-the-top, but it’s a nice touch all the same).  For the more familiar and more popular fish, there’s extra information too, with specific comments of cod’s sustainability, salmon farming and the more experimental farming of tuna in Australia.

While some flexibility is offered in terms of recommending alternative fish, I’d have appreciated seeing more of that on offer, perhaps grouping similar fish together like the so-called cod substitutes of coley and whiting, to give readers a better idea of what fish are suitable with particular flavours and cooking methods and what could be substituted to fit particular price requirements, something that isn’t given much consideration in the book.  Equally, some of the more specific environmental comments are no longer applicable six years after publication, though the general picture presented has largely remained the same.  Throughout the book, reference is always made to using independent fishmongers, but unfortunately for most (myself included), the supermarket is the only available place for sourcing fish, which can be a little discouraging.  Similarly, many of the fish I’ve seen in my local supermarket, both pre-packaged and on the fish counter, have been omitted from the book for whatever reason – trout, catfish/basa/river cobbler, crayfish tails, octopus and dabs all spring to mind – and so it’s a shame these have been missed, particularly as I enjoyed a very good octopus carpaccio in The Seahorse!  And as many recipes call for your fishmonger to do the dirty work of scaling, gutting and filleting fish, there are no instructions on this for the more adventurous who might wish to try it themselves (and since you won’t have the waste, no stock recipes either).

I said at the start of this review that I had been looking for a good introduction to fish, and this book certainly has met my requirements.  It’s ideal for someone who might be confident with meat or with flavours, but want a little push when it comes to seafood.  Or someone who, with concerns about the environment or ethical issues, wants the knowledge to make more informed decisions about fish, and perhaps move away from the big five of British seafood – cod, salmon, haddock, tuna and prawns.  It takes an encouraging and simple approach, but without being patronising, and does a fantastic job of making you want to cook more fish.  There are gaps in the content that keep Mitch Tonks’ Fish from being truly encyclopaedic (admittedly, a tall order) but it is inspiring enough in its style and content to make you want to fill in those gaps for yourself.

I’d love to hear in the comments of any books you can recommend to me and/or would like to read my thoughts on.  I really want to make these a feature of this blog, but at the moment am driven by my own interests and cookbook collection – it would be great to know the kinds of things you, as a reader, would want to see as well!

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