First it was fruit and veg. Then we turned our hands to keeping chickens and bees. Could the next thing be using the garden pond to grow our own edible carp? Is it time for Gordon the Goldfish to move over?
Jimmie Hepburn, formerly a salmon farmer in Scotland and one of Britain's leading experts in organic aquaculture, certainly believes so. He argues that at a time of depleted wild fish stocks – predicted by some scientists to collapse by 2048 – backyard carp could play a vital role in feeding us.
The joy of carp is that, unlike most other farmed fish – which depend on a diet of meal made from wild fish (which further depletes fish stocks) – carp are omnivorous and devour almost anything. Basically, they're the aquatic equivalent of the household pig that was fattened on kitchen scraps.
"At present we're locked into a stone-age system of fish farming using wild fish that's completely unsustainable," says Jimmie. "Now that wild stocks are pretty much exhausted, we have to think of other ways of producing fish."
One answer, Jimmie believes, is back-garden fishponds like those that helped to feed us in medieval times. The challenge is to persuade Britain's pond owners to rear fish as food rather than ornament.
"Unlike on the Continent, in Britain we love our ponds – we have over two million in this country. So there's a huge interest already. Fish is part of our culture," says Jimmie, who admits to becoming hooked on fish at the age of five and now runs Britain's first organic carp farm.
"I chose carp as it's the easiest fish to rear, and the fastest-growing. And, unlike other farmed fish such as salmon and trout, they don't need lots of fresh running water."
This autumn Jimmy and his wife, Penny, will be running small-scale fish farming courses to help people get going. Last month they gave me a taster course at the 10-acre former trout farm, hidden in deep Devonshire countryside, that they bought in 2006. "All you need is a pond that's at least 3 by 3 metres," says Jimmie as we tour his 17 ponds, keeping an eye out for kingfishers which unfortunately are as enthusiastic about Jimmie's new venture as he is.
"We feed our carp a mixture of grains," he explains, showing me a tub of soaking grains that look much like my morning muesli. "The bigger ponds also get regular doses of organic cow manure, which creates its own ecosystem of algae and plankton that provides the fish with around half the food they need."
Carp ponds are great for children as they can help to feed the fish – anything from worms to bread, says Jimmie, who hopes soon to invite schools to visit so that children can be given a chance to grasp the idea of rearing their own edible fish. Will carp ponds one day be a feature of the school playground? I wonder.
"You stock your pond in the spring with baby carp. In around three years you will have plate-size fish which make a very presentable family supper. The best months to harvest them are November to February."
A murky carp pond may not be as eye-catching as an ornamental one, just as a veg patch can lack the visual appeal of a herbaceous border. But given the constant stream of inquiries he has received, Jimmie believes perceptions are changing. "Many people now find a pond that's producing for the pot more attractive than one that's just designed for the eye," he says.
So with carp as easy to grow as cucumbers, what's not to like? Some complain about the taste, which they say is muddy. Carp rarely features on restaurant menus and you'll be hard-pressed to find it in your local fishmonger or supermarket. Let's face it, from a gastronomic point of view, carp isn't cool.
In Britain, that is. But look further afield and you realise we're on our own. In Asia, among the Jewish community, and in Eastern Europe, carp is highly sought-after. More carp are farmed for the table worldwide than any other fish. In Poland and the Czech Republic the fish is the prized centrepiece of the Christmas festive dinner – visit any home on Christmas Eve and you're likely to encounter a carp languishing in the bathtub, waiting for its final knock on the head before being turned into a feast.
There are signs things may be slowly changing here in Britain. When Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall did blind tastings for his TV series on fish two years ago carp came out surprisingly well. London's El Vino chain of wine bars has been putting Jimmie's carp on its menus, and several supermarkets now sell carp at Christmas, mainly for their East European clientele. Consumers are also increasingly eco-conscious, with many preferring to buy fish they see as truly sustainable to fish that's been fed a diet of wild fish and then flown across the planet.
A harder nut for Jimmie to crack will be Britain's four-million-odd anglers who are currently mourning the recent death of Two Tone, a gargantuan mirror carp which held the British record at 67lb 14oz and had apparently been caught no fewer than 50 times. With carp seen as deity rather than dinner (to borrow a phrase from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall), the idea of eating carp is considered unthinkable by anglers – but this is something Jimmie hopes to change. "Even anglers are going to have to face the fact that we're running out of food and that we're going to have to farm fish to feed future generations," he says. "I'm running this carp farm for my grandchildren. People talk about peak oil, but we reached peak fish about 15 years ago. We have to start thinking outside the box."
Jimmie is optimistic that both government and public will come round to seeing small-scale sustainable aquaculture as one viable solution. He points up the hill towards Dunkeswell Abbey, a Cistercian monastery founded in 1201. "The monks kept ponds with carp in them to eat on Fridays when meat was forbidden. The sea was 20 miles away, much too far to get fresh fish," he says. "We've come full circle. We're reconnecting with the knowledge that people had then, and realising that we have to work with nature rather than against it."
We are back at the shed where Jimmie keeps fish which are about to be eaten in special tanks. To purge them of their muddy taste, carp need to be kept in clean water for a couple of days. Jimmie nets a large pewter-coloured carp, whom I christen Charlie. As I hold him in my hands his scaly skin shines with a gold tint. Colour and size apart, he looks remarkably like the goldfish in my pond at home – perhaps not surprising given that they belong to the same family.
Charlie is dispatched and handed over to Penny, who works her culinary magic, stuffing him with ginger, lemongrass and peppers (see recipe). Half an hour later we sit down to lunch inside the farmhouse. I take a mouthful. It doesn't have a strong taste and there's a hint of sea bass. It slips down remarkably well and I'm soon back for more. I reckon I could happily enjoy home-grown carp on Fridays like those medieval monks. Carp and chips anyone?
Jimmie Hepburn is running small-scale fish farming courses at Upper Hayne Farm, Cullompton, Devon, on 18 September and 8-10 October (residential). Aquavisiononline.co.uk
How to grow carp
* Prepare your pond. You may be able simply to convert your existing pond, but if it's choked with weed and silt it will be less productive, so you should clear it and start again. Make sure your pond has an area where it is at least 2.5ft deep.
* Size. The smallest pond you could rear carp in would be 3 by 3 metres, ie 9sq metres. A slightly larger pond, eg 5 by 5 metres, is ideal. Garden-size ponds will probably require a filter and pump to stop them silting up. These cost around £250 upwards.
* Buy one-year-old common carp in the spring from a local fish farm or aquatics centre. They will look like dark goldfish and measure 3-6in. For a pond of 5 sq metres or less, the maximum number would be around 12.
* Food. Feed them cereal-based pellets, which you can buy from specialist stores. Top up with mealworms, earthworms, maggots and kitchen scraps. Larger ponds (more than 100sq metres) can be dosed with manure.
* Harvest the fish when they have reached 9-12in. They will probably be around three years old but this can vary.
* Before eating leave the carp in clean water for 48 hours. This purges any muddy taste.
Penny's Baked Carp Oriental Style
Whole carp (approx half a kilo in weight), gutted, headless, scales removed
Spring onions, finely sliced
Small amount of root ginger, finely grated
Lemongrass, finely sliced (or grated lemon zest)
Red pepper, thinly sliced (can also use yellow and orange ones for colour)
1 teaspoon coconut milk
Extra virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
Lightly oil a piece of baking foil with olive oil. The sheet needs to be big enough to loosely wrap the whole fish.
Lightly sauté the spring onions.
Stuff the carp cavity with sautéed spring onions, peppers, ginger, lemongrass/zest. Add coconut milk to the stuffing. Grate a little black pepper over whole fish and scatter a pinch of salt.
Wrap up fish loosely in the oiled foil.
Bake 180C for approx 20mins or until just cooked.