Food & Drink: Press the flesh, sniff the skin and stare it in the eye

There is no more fatuous question to be asked of a waiter in a restaurant than: 'Is this fish fresh?' In a lifetime of eating out I have yet to hear (for example): 'No, I'm terribly sorry, not really; sea bass is expensive, and we had no takers yesterday so . . . well, you understand.'

Is the 'catch of the day' really the catch of the day? Of which day? Daily I see the crustaceans (especially) and fish for which Sete is famous roar northwards in refrigerated trucks. Given the efficiency of the French food distribution system, I feel reasonably certain that within 24 hours that harvest will be in the market and on the table.

That is about the outside limit for freshness, though restaurateurs and fishmongers resort to some pretty tricks on this score, such as: tying head and tail together to create the characteristic arching of a fresh fish; constant spraying with water to reduce visible drying-out, the mark of putrefaction; scaling the fish down to the skin below to make it seem brighter; removing the eyes so you do not see they are dull; spooning chicken blood in the gills; even colouring the flesh with dyes. Oh, the tricks of the trade are endless.

The unhappy truth is that not many of us, shopping for fish or shown one in a restaurant, can actually tell fresh from foul. That is especially the case when we eat by the sea, and make the automatic mental adjustment that if the sea is that close, then the fish must come from it. Ha] This, I fear, is a myth. Anyone who lives by the sea, and certainly by the sea-as-resort, should be able to count the number of fishing boats that chug off into the waters at night; and if these are few (or nil, which is more likely) he can wait by the market and watch his fish being brought in by truck.

Oddly enough, my experience is that islands suffer most from this situation. Any idea that the fish you will eat on a Caribbean island is fresh should be abandoned. Places that live by tourism have no reason to engage in fishing. Those picturesque boats you see lying on the sand may indeed be used to catch fish, but those fish are eaten by the person who has caught them.

For though fish fetches a fine price, and is often more expensive than meat on a menu, fishermen do not get rich and are therefore an ever-decreasing breed, especially in the less industrialised countries. In 'advanced' Europe, fishing is an arduous and sometimes dangerous task. The market is capricious, transport and refrigeration expensive, competition exceedingly fierce. The result is that a trade that was once highly local, and on an island almost omnipresent, has become the domain of the wholesaler, who will often find it cheaper and more efficient to import than to handle local fish.

Can the wholesaler be blamed if the ultimate customer does not know enough to know when fish is fresh?

Here, then, is my guide, culled from many sources, as to how you can tell. First, some elementary facts. Within 20 to 30 minutes of being caught, or an hour or two if large, a fish begins to corrupt. Its backbone will rigidify but, as a fish rots from outside in, its flesh will still be solid. Then, one by one, the symptoms of decomposition set in:

If you press the flesh with your finger, you should leave no mark.

The scales should be bright, close-linked and attached to the skin, while the skin should be taut and humid, and should show neither crease nor laceration.

The eye (if you can look a fish in the eye) should fill the whole of its ocular cavity (it shrinks progressively as the fish goes off); its pupil should be large and black, while the iris, which in life is golden yellow, should not look bloodshot (exception made here for trout, bream and dentex which are red-eyed).

The belly should be neither swollen nor soft; it should be free of spots, whether grey, red, black or green.

The anus (forgive me) should be shut tight; the viscera should be clean, smooth and shiny. Lateral fins should be tight to the body; the backbone and its surrounding flesh one.

Smell is an excellent guide, when the nose is not being tricked by the fish being surrounded with seaweed or other marine odours. If a fish smells at all acid or disagreeable, pass it by. A fresh fish smells of the sea and seaweed, and the tell-tale spot for putrefaction lies in the gills, which should not smell too strongly. They are the first parts of a fish to show discoloration and to dry out.

In short, when buying fish or shown a 'fresh' fish in a restaurant, do not hesitate to become a pathologist; use your eyes and your nose. If we all did that, and refused fish that was not fresh, our supply would rapidly improve.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Arts and Entertainment
booksPhotographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years - but he says it wasn’t all fun and games...
News
i100
Sport
Aguero - who single-handedly has kept City's Champions League dreams alive - celebrates his dramatic late winner
footballManchester City 3 Bayern Munich 2: Argentine's late hat-rick sees home side snatch vital victory
News
Muhammad Ali pictured in better health in 2006
peopleBut he has enjoyed publicity from his alleged near-death experience
Arts and Entertainment
Tony breaks into Ian Garrett's yacht and makes a shocking discovery
TVReview: Revelations continue to make this drama a tough watch
News
news
News
peopleSinger tells The Independent what life is like in rehab in an exclusive video interview
News
The assumption that women are not as competent in leadership positions as men are leads to increased stress in the workplace
science... and it's down to gender stereotypes
Arts and Entertainment
Inner sanctum: Tove Jansson and friends in her studio in 1992
booksWhat was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Singer songwriter Bob Dylan performs on stage
films
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Investigo: Financial reporting Accountant

    £40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits : Investigo: One of the fastest growing g...

    Sphere Digital Recruitment: CRM Executive – Global Travel Brand – Luton – £25k

    25,000: Sphere Digital Recruitment: CRM Executive – Global Travel Brand – Luto...

    Investigo: Group Financial Controller

    £50000 - £55000 per annum: Investigo: A growing group of top end restaurants l...

    Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

    £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Excellent opportunities are available for par...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
    Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

    24-Hour party person

    Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
    Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

    A taste for rebellion

    US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
    Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

    Colouring books for adults

    How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
    Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
    Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

    Call me Ed Mozart

    Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
    10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
    Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
    'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

    'I am a paedophile'

    Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
    Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

    From a lost deposit to victory

    Green Party on the march in Bristol
    Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

    Winter blunderlands

    Putting the grot into grotto
    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

    London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital