Raymond Blanc’s eyes sparkle as he remembers an old love. “My first fish was a big tench and I kissed her.” Laughing with seductive Gallic passion, he recalls picking the animal out of the water and caressing it with joy. “I knew it was a she because she had those sparkling lips!” he adds. “I was so happy, but I ate her immediately.” Ooh la la.
Since his early days catching his dinner in the stream near his childhood home, the colourful chef has lost none of his devotion to fish. It is a subject that raises anger as much as pleasure within him, however. Blanc – who was the first high-end restauranteur to certify that every salmon or tuna, haddock or plaice on his menu at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons in Oxford had been caught sustainably – has been leading a campaign against overfishing for years. Believing that converting consumers, politicians, fishermen and cooks to responsible use of the seas and rivers is essential if we are not to risk pushing our fish stocks to extinction, he says it is his mission to fight against “intensive harvesting of the seas, the damage, the extraordinary mindless voracious appetite of fishing everything, so you have nets dragging, killing every single life from the sea floor”.
It is very much a live issue. Talks are being held today at the European Union about possible changes to the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy – whose rules on quotas are commonly held to blame for the problems – with the Scottish Fisheries Secretary, Richard Lochhead, warning that as much as £1bn-worth of fish could be wastefully thrown back dead into the sea by the combined European fleet over the next ten years unless action is taken.
As public awareness of the problem has increased over the past two years, the situation has improved somewhat. The availability of fish and seafood products certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council increased by 41 per cent in British shops last year. And last month Blanc helped judge the Sustainable Fish category at the Sustainable City Awards, organised by the City of London Corporation. This prize recognises the efforts British restaurants are making to ensure their fish suppliers are ethically sound, won by the chain Feng Sushi.
But the problem is far from solved. Overfishing and the practice of throwing dead fish back into the ocean – in order to contrive to keep within EU quotas – still continue, with potentially devastating consequences.
Only last month MPs on the environment and rural affairs committee called for fish discarding to be allowed to continue until 2020. That was despite the Common Fisheries Policy recently being branded as a “catastrophic” failure in the European Parliament following a report stating that 90 per cent of fish stocks are overfished.
Blanc is far from alone in campaigning for sustainability in the industry – the TV chef High Fearnley-Whittingstall recently calling for people to bombard the EU with messages on Twitter calling for reform – but he has long been one of its leading proponents.
“Take a government, any government, French or English – they look to the short term, to be re-elected for the wrong reasons,” says Blanc, admitting he is “frustrated” at the challenge of coaxing real action out of politicians. “Everything we do in life is for the short term and that can be very dangerous because we suck the animals alive out of the seas for short term gratification. We just harvest everything, by every single murderous method, not only killing the fish but all the breeding ground on the sea floor.”
“Every nation is fighting its own ground to increase the quotas and that is wrong because in the long term they will go to the wall,” he adds with disdain. “It’s called national interest and it is the most disgusting thing on Earth. National interests are to the detriment of their own people in the long term.”
Just as Blanc cannot disguise his pure love for food, nor is he a man who can hide his disgust when things do not satisfy him. He believes part of the reason that things were allowed to get so bad in the fishing industry is that Britain had stopped caring about the quality of what was being served up. And his memory of his first taste of British fish and chips, ordered on the ferry from Calais to Dover when he first came to the UK in 1972, provokes another outpouring of emotion.
“The fish arrived in 10 seconds. I couldn’t believe how fast it was. Normally it takes five or ten minutes, but no – bang, bang! I could smell it and I started to cough because there was so much vinegar on the chips, and the chips were a terrible grey, but mostly what shocked me was when I saw a square fish on my plate – I’ve never seen a square fish. I couldn’t believe it, it was a disaster!”
It was a foretaste of what he would encounter in the ports and fishmarkets too.
“I had fights with fishmongers.” The laugh has gone now; he is deadly serious. “I would take their fish and I would throw it away,” he says forcefully, recalling that the produce was in such a bad state that he could “smell it from 50 yards away”.
A renaissance in fine cuisine and food education in the UK means he no longer gets in punch-ups at Billingsgate fish market. Some of the credit for this undoubtedly belongs to campaigning TV chefs such as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Jamie Oliver and Blanc himself. That’s not to say that he thinks all his counterparts have made such a valuable contribution.
“What Hugh Whittingstall is doing – sorry, his name, I always mess it up because it’s quite a mouthful for a Frenchman – is fantastic,” he says. “Rather than beating up somebody on television, sensationalising violence, and devaluing food to millions of people, I’d rather see a chef like Whittingstall or Jamie.”
Violence? Could he hinting at his old rival Gordon Ramsay perhaps? “I never get personal with anyone,” replies Blanc. Yet Ramsay seems to epitomise everything he just said he didn’t like. “Well, maybe so…” he says with a broad smile that breaks into a laugh in seeming admittance at being caught, “I had no idea!” You can’t fool us, Raymond.