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Ugly fish, tasty dish: chefs extol the sustainable virtues of the gurnard

If the seabed had mirrors, the gurnard would surely swim by without a glance. Throughout history, the public has felt the same way: trawlers catching gurnard in their nets tossed it back into the sea; lobstermen used it to bait their pots.

Recently, though, chefs have championed this most ugly of fish and it is being served up by cooks seeking sustainable alternatives to overfished species.

The first signs that the fish was becoming a favourite came last year when its price leapt from 25p a kilogramme to £4. Sales figures this week show sales of gurnard have jumped from £17,000 in the year to July 2007 to £181,000 for the same period this year, a rise of more than 1,000 per cent.

Although from a low base, the surge suggests that cooks are heeding the message to give under-pressure fish a break and experiment with lesser-known species such as sprats, pilchards and pollack.

Where gurnard differs from some of these alternatives is that it is especially tasty, according to food critics.

"Most of the substitute fish are garbage. But here we have a real hero – it's got a stunning flavour and a good texture," said Terry Durack, The Independent on Sunday's restaurant reviewer.

AA Gill of The Sunday Times described gurnard as "the Amy Winehouse of battered fish" because it provided "a sonorous bluesy mouthful". Celebrity chefs, too, are enthusiastic. Rick Stein, who serves gurnard cooked in beef dripping at his fish and chip shop in Padstow, has a recipe for gurnard with sweet and sour onions in his book Rick Stein's Mediterranean Escapes.

Samantha Clark of Moro recommends gurnard with sweet onions, ginger and saffron, while Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall cooks gurnard whole with winter vegetables, because "it's cheap, delicious and looks amusing".

Gurnard is a bottom-dweller that uses its legs to stir up food on the seabed. Three species swim in British waters: red; grey, and yellow (also called tub). Until recently, if used gastronomically, it was slipped invisibly into Mediterranean fish stews, stocks or soups. "Since being championed by celebrity chefs such as Rick Stein and Tom Aikens, gurnard has been appearing on menus at top restaurants all around the country," said Philip MacMullen, of Seafish, the seafood industry body, which released the sales figures.

"This backs up other research showing that consumers are becoming more confident in trying alternative seafood, which takes the pressure off more traditional species," he said.

The rise of gurnard has not been universally popular, however. In a recent interview with the BBC, Rick Stein remarked: "A lobster fisherman had a go at me for having gurnard on my menu. It used to be lobster bait but he said he can't afford to put it in the pots anymore because I've made it too expensive."

Gourmet gurnard

Spiced gurnard with broad beans, feta and dill. Serves 2:

Ingredients: 4 x 100g gurnard fillets, flour for dusting, 1 tsp smoked paprika, 1 tsp dried mint, sea salt and pepper, 2 tbsp olive oil. For the broad beans: 300g fresh or frozen broad beans, podded, 3 tbsp natural yoghurt, 100g feta cheese, diced,2 tbsp chopped fresh dill, half tsp dried mint, half tsp smoked paprika, half a red onion, finely sliced

Mix the flour, paprika, mint, sea salt and pepper on a dinner plate.

Heat the olive oil in a large non-stick fry pan.

Coat the fish in the spiced flour and fry skin-side down for 5 minutes until golden.

Turn and briefly cook the other side.

In the meantime, cook the broad beans in salted simmering water for 4 minutes and drain the fluid.

Return to the pan (off the heat) and lightly toss with yoghurt, feta, dill, mint, paprika, sea salt and pepper.

Serve the fish on the broad beans and scatter the plate with red onion.