Britons make sea change in eating habits

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The Independent Online
THE PLEASURE of letting a fresh oyster slip down your throat has long been a prelude to seduction. This image of sex and glamour has now become the catalyst for a British love affair with seafood which is reaching epic proportions.

In restaurants across the country, people are dining out on lobster and langoustine in preference to steak and chips. Some supermarket chains have doubled their range of exotic seafood, which is now their fastest growing retail fish sector, to keep up with a rise in sales rise of nearly 37 per cent in the last year.

Figures from the Seafish Industry Authority, which show that last year Britons consumed 2,800 tonnes of squid - compared with 1,200 tonnes in 1995 - and munched their way through enough mussels for 50 million plates of moules marinieres.

Supposed aphrodisiac qualities aside, the popularity of seafood can also be linked to foreign travel, cookery programmes on TV and health scares over beef.

Sainsbury's introduces spider crab and rock lobster to fish counters next month. A spokeswoman said customers were now more educated about seafood and prepared to splash out on luxuries, such as tiger prawns and scallops.

"The rise of the celebrity chef is having a huge influence on eating habits and has had an impact on sales. People are also travelling further and getting a taste for exotic food. As demand for these products increases it makes air freighting more viable which is not possible with small quantities. This ensures the seafood is completely fresh."

Tesco has doubled its product range over the last year to include Scottish squat lobster, razor clams and ready-made sushi. Marks and Spencer is planning to introduce sushi. "People are moving away from traditional white fish and choosing shellfish instead," said spokeswoman Sue Sadler. "They are becoming a lot more adventurous."

The number of specialist fish restaurants has doubled in London over the past year. A spokeswoman for Belgo said diners had become more sophisticated than they were six years ago, when it first introduced the concept of mussels and chips from Belgium. Its two restaurants now serve four tons of mussels a week, and three more branches are planned.

Livebait is another London restaurant which has outgrown its original premises and is opening up several new branches. Jasma Patel, Livebait's marketing manager, believes seafood has earned the respect of customers because it can be served fresher than ever.

"We have come a long way from the prawn cocktail, and our fruits de mer platter is now one of our most popular dishes. The seafood available is of a better quality than in the past because of better refrigeration. When people try it in a restaurant they want to be able then to buy it in a supermarket."

However, Clive Askew, who is assistant director of the Shellfish Association of Great Britain, sees the recent upsurge in demand as a renaissance rather than a complete change in British eating habits.

"A hundred years ago oysters were the food of the working classes and were so common that they were put in pies with steak long before kidneys.

"Supermarkets have woken up to the fact that there is a demand for fresh seafood again and there is a gap in the market with high-street fishmongers closing down. They are making it a lot easier for customers to eat seafood by vacuum-packing mussels, for example."

At Billingsgate Fish Market, London, Ray Brand, from R and G Shellfish, has seen sales of scallops rise from a couple of sacks a day to 20. He puts the seafood revolution down to people wanting to copy innovative television chefs.

"The other day the Two Fat Ladies were cooking hard-shell clams and the next morning people were coming in wanting to buy them. People realise seafood is healthy and are able to try it out on holiday. And if you eat oysters, then you don't need Viagra."