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
Travel
travel
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show
tvBig Bang Theory filming delayed by contract dispute over actors' pay
Sport
England celebrate a wicket for Moeen Ali
sportMoeen Ali stars with five wickets as Cook's men level India series
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Voices
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations is an offensive act, says Simon Kelner
News
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Travel
travel
News
Robyn Lawley
people
News
people
News
i100  ... he was into holy war way before it was on trend
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmThe film is surprisingly witty, but could do with taking itself more seriously, says Geoffrey Macnab
News
people
Life and Style
food + drinkVegetarians enjoy food as much as anyone else, writes Susan Elkin
Life and Style
lifeDon't get caught up on climaxing
Life and Style
tech
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

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

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

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Day In a Page

    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

    Spanx launches range of jeans

    The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

    Commonwealth Games

    David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

    Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star