A real catch: The man who is bringing local fish to the capital's tables

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Few Londoners know that cod, plaice, bass and even oysters can all be caught in the River Thames

I'm driving in heavy traffic along the A13 towards Canvey Island in Essex. A summer downpour has reduced visibility to near zero and the shock of my five o'clock alarm has only just started to recede. Yet I'm bubbling with excitement. Through a break in the weather I've just caught my first glimpse of the flaming vents and cooling towers of Coryton Refinery. I know that within a few hours I'll be handling some of the freshest seafood in London.

Half an hour later I shake hands with Martin Yorwarth and clamber down a rusting ladder on to his red trawler the Jessie Alice. As a lifelong resident, Martin knows full well that Canvey is best known as a decaying East End holiday resort rather than a foodie's nirvana. But the 35-year-old is on a mission to change this by delivering the foodstuff inner-city gourmets crave most: wild, fresh, locally sourced fish. "People want day-caught fish," he explains. "Good quality fish that's caught on their doorstep. They don't want something landed by a super-trawler that's four weeks old."

Just forget any notion of Martin sailing around a coastal idyll to achieve this. Casting off from a small jetty amid the mud flats of Holehaven Creek, we chug into the Thames Estuary under the sharp industrial gaze of the refinery and are instantly dwarfed by a procession of vast container ships and oil tankers. Under dark, rain-heavy skies the shoreline resembles an aquatic version of Blade Runner, with cranes, fuelling platforms and wooden piers all jostling for position with the refinery's jumbled assortment of pipes and gas flues.

To make things even harder, the waters on Martin's patch are littered with the jetsam of this industrial highway. To navigate the fishing grounds he carefully weaves a path around discarded anchors, sunken barges and countless other camouflaged obstacles. It's only because he's sailed these waters since he was 16 that he knows where the danger lurks. As Martin deftly puts it: "I've had a few close calls [with the tankers]. You basically just give way."

Yet despite history's efforts to ruin the fishing between Holehaven and nearby Stanford-le-Hope, Martin has discovered something special amid the chaos: an ample supply of top-quality, sustainable seafood on the outskirts of London.

After setting his nets and trawling the waters for 90 minutes he brings in a small but impressive catch of crabs, Dover sole, flounder and gurnard. For a seasoned landlubber the sight of a catch being landed provokes a strange combination of awe, excitement and pity. Yet most of it is quickly tossed back alive into the sea – only the largest adult fish are kept.

Pride of place is taken by a large red gurnard. With its sharp, prickly fins and gleaming skin, you'd expect to see it swimming past your snorkel in the Caribbean or Red Sea rather than the back of a trawler bobbing around the gateway to London. But it's by no means alone, as Martin has landed such tropical varieties as parrot fish and fresh-water carp over the years. At different times of the year his more normal catch includes oysters, dabs, plaice, pouting, herring and a little-known salmon delicacy called cucumber smelt.

"Tell people you've caught this so close to London and they won't believe you," Martin shouts with the gurnard proudly held outstretched. "But they've cleaned up the Thames so much now that on a sunny day it can be impossible to trawl because the water's so clear the fish see the nets coming. Over the last 20 years Canvey's water has gone from category C, which is the lowest you can get, to category B. Whitstable is now category A, which means you can eat oysters straight from the sea without having to purify them."

Sadly, there's little time to take this all in. With Lithuanian first-mate Egon Judeikis busily gutting and cleaning the catch, Martin turns the Jessie Alice away from an oncoming container ship and resets the nets.

Over a cup of tea in the cabin he later explains that he's spent years trying to mentally reconcile the fact that most of his fish cannot be landed because of a quota system that means a large section of the UK's catch is "owned" by insurance companies.

In order to keep the cut that normally goes to agents, Martin has now taken the brave decision to ferry his fish direct to farmer's markets around London. Thanks to a new series of night markets in Covent Garden, he's also taking things one step further and bringing his Canvey catch straight into the heart of the capital.

He explains: "I think there's a massive market for this type of fishing. The problem is tapping into it as it's a lot of work to go trawling in the morning then take the fish to market yourself. But it's nice to see both sides of things. Fishing is quite a solitary job and I now get to meet all different sorts of people. Most customers like the thought that it's caught locally, and that they know where it comes from. There have only been a few who've been concerned about the water quality, but once they've tasted the fish they've always come back again and again. After all, it's only hours old sometimes. So the quality is second to none."

But while Martin is introducing London palates to forgotten local delicacies, in truth he's not doing anything new. Two hundred years ago nearby Barking was the busiest fishing port in the country, while fish have been plucked from Holehaven's waters for thousands of years. In many ways, landing fish on the banks of the Thames harks back to a time before edible preservatives, tinned tuna and the invention of the steam train.

Thankfully, Martin both knows this and relishes the opportunity to revive the past by showing that there's far more to the Thames than discarded bikes and burst footballs. Even news that Europe's largest container port is about to be built in the middle of his fishing grounds doesn't phase him. It's simply one more aspect of modern life he needs to adapt to.

"I caught a load of black sea urchins a couple of months ago and we were going down to a market so I thought I'd put them on the side of the stall for some decoration," he chuckles over yet another steaming brew. "From nowhere this French woman came up to me raving about 'Oursin! Oursin!' So I gave her one and she cut it open. Inside it has these beautiful, fragrant eggs. They're really delicious. I didn't have a clue they were there – I've been throwing urchins over the side of the boat for 20 years. So we put them all together and sold them at 50p a go!"

With that, Martin turns the Jessie Alice towards home and brings his nets back on deck. Above us the skies hang black and heavy, and after shaking hands I encounter the same haze of swerving drivers and horizontal rain on the roads.

Yet now I am not alone: in the passenger seat rest a pair of freshly skinned dover sole. I have lived in London all my life, yet this is the first time I've got remotely close to a local fish. Thanks to some flour, a frying pan and some oil, I can happily confirm that it won't be the last. Martin and Egon can now add another name to their list of the converted.

Fish: the freshness test

We'd all like to eat the freshest fish possible, but the truth is that very few people know what to look for at the supermarket or fishmonger's. Here Martin gives a few pointers on getting the best possible produce:

Bright eyes

"Anything that has red, cloudy or sunken eyes is not fresh, no matter what the fishmonger tells you. The eye should look like a healthy dome on the fish's face."

Clear slime

"Rub your hands down the skin of a freshly landed fish and you should find a layer of clear slime on your hands. It should never feel dry or scaly."

Red gills

"Open the gill cover and take a look inside. The fleshy part should be a healthy red, so avoid anything that's either grey or brown."

Sea smell

"Only old fish has a 'fishy smell'. When it's fresh a fish will smell of the salty sea, even after it has been thoroughly washed."

Firm touch

"When a fish comes out of the sea it's strong and packed full of energy so should feel hard. The longer it stays out of the sea, the softer it gets. So you can generally tell how old a fish is simply by how it feels."

Skin shine

"Hold the fish up to the light and see if the skin has an iridescent shine along its side. If it does, then it's fresh."

Sushi test

"Nearly every fish can be eaten raw. So the simplest test is to ask yourself whether you'd eat the fish raw as sushi. If the answer's no, don't buy it."

Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
A meteor streaks across the sky during the Perseid Meteor Shower at a wind farm near Bogdanci, south of Skopje, Macedonia, in the early hours of 13 August
voicesChuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise, says Robert Fisk
peopleEnglishman managed quintessential Hollywood restaurant Chasen's
Life and Style
food + drinkHarrods launches gourmet food qualification for staff
Arts and Entertainment
Michael Flatley prepares to bid farewell to the West End stage
danceMichael Flatley hits West End for last time alongside Team GB World champion Alice Upcott
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T plays live in 2007 before going on hiatus from 2010
arts + entsSinger-songwriter will perform on the Festival Republic Stage
Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
Jermain Defoe got loads of custard
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Recruitment Consultant (Graduate Trainee), Finchley Central

    £17K OTE £30K: Charter Selection: Highly successful and innovative specialist...

    SQL DBA/ C# Developer - T-SQL, C#.Net

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Working with an exciting ...

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    Day In a Page

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

    Make the most of British tomatoes

    The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf