At his new restaurant at Kensington's Baglioni Hotel last week, Moreno Cedroni created a dazzling dish of cuttlefish lasagne with a vivid parsley sauce, finished with diced susci (an Italian take on sashimi) of cuttlefish and a dramatic drizzle of cuttlefish ink. Jean-Denis Le Bras, head chef of Michelin-starred Sketch, serves it as an appetiser briefly sautéed and chilled with diced red and green pepper, cucumber, courgettes, kaffir lime zest, sesame oil and toasted sesame seeds. Alyn Williams, at The Westbury, prepares cuttlefish cut like tagliatelle, marinated with celery seeds and oil, cooked quickly on a grill, then combined celery and radish.
Pulling the innards out of some black-and-white, slippery, dodgy-looking character at 8.30am isn't something I make a habit of. But I'm now planning to do it more often. Courtesy of an early morning getting-down-and-dirty session at the Billingsgate Seafood School I've discovered that cuttlefish, the big ugly sister to squid, despite its alarmingly less-than-alluring looks, has much more flavour when treated with tender care and doesn't toughen up so quickly.
"Avoiding cuttlefish ink projectile vomit is the real knack," says C J Jackson, our teacher, who's on the Food Catch Advisory Committee and an avid proselytiser of cuttlefish and other under-loved – yet plentiful – non-endangered and wholly sustainable ugly fish as she demonstrated how to gently ease out the ink sac intact.
With a bit of knife dexterity I managed to do so (a fellow participant ended up with viscous, sticky ink all down her cleavage) and smugly added it to my risotto nero to give it the all-important dramatic colour before adding finely sliced strips of the cleaned cuttlefish head – sautéed for 20 seconds each side, no more. It may look like something a Macbeth witch would concoct, yet even more unctuous was cuttlefish stew made with the leftover tentacles slow-cooked with red onion and Rioja.
Besides instructing more adventurous home cooks in how to prepare more forbidding, neglected cuttlefish, spider crab, gurnard and more, Billingsgate Seafood School runs courses with Sustain for chefs keen to broaden their repertoires. Cuttlefish seems currently to be leading the shoal in terms of culinary cool and creative versatility.
Dip a little deeper – a good many of these uglier fish do lurk at the bottom of the seabed – and it emerges that some of the UK's most glamorous restaurants are refreshingly not judging their fish offerings by their looks. Caprice Holdings, whose A-list restaurants such as The Ivy, J Sheekey and Scott's are actively encouraging their diners to put aside piscatorial snobbery and try different species to promote ocean conservation. Tim Hughes, the chef director, says: "I see it as our duty to impart our knowledge to a wider audience so everybody realises how important it is to cherish our fish stocks and safeguard our seas. We continue to champion lesser-known species in plentiful and sustainable supply."
Often ugly, the surprise catch of the day from the day-boat Princess Louise (name-checked on the menu) has become a talking point at Butlers Wharf Chop House, one of D&D's flagship restaurants, by Tower Bridge. Chef Martin Kroon says: "Besides being ethical, our 'sea-to-plate' specials offer the opportunity for more interaction with diners, who are taking a keen interest in knowing more about what they are eating. We buy directly from Chris Bean, taking whatever he catches, which often includes red or tub gurnard, spider crab or scad. Chris fishes inshore from Helford River in South Cornwall and only discards fish that are undersized." Bean emails Kroon with his catch of the day, which leaves Cornwall at 5pm in an ice box and arrives by road courier at Chop House by 3pm next day, giving sufficient time to improvise how best to serve the latest delivery.
More blatant still is "Ugly Fish Friday", audaciously pioneered by Lusso, the Square Mile fine-dining arm of CH&Co caterers. "We wanted to make a voluble stand against the fishing-quota system that sees dead fish thrown back into the sea and show that such neglected fish have culinary value, too," Paul Hurren, the managing director, says.
Their "high net worth" financial and legal clients may be used to choosing higher-status fish on restaurant menus, but are proving incredibly receptive to gurnard, megrim and dab cooked to order. Buoyed by their success, Lusso held their first "Ugly Fish Friday" street-food pop-up at Whitecross Market last Friday to reach out to a wider city (and beyond) audience. Assisted by television's The Fisherman's Apprentice Monty Halls and Nigel Legge, Lusso's chefs cooked dishes from fish landed 24 hours earlier, including spider crab and mackerel fish cakes with salsa and cuttlefish, wrasse and hake gumbo. Curious, rain-drenched customers queued down the street, making it an off-the-scales success and netting £450 for fisherman's charity, too.