Fresh fish is taken off Spanish menus after parasite alert

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Britons who go to Spain expecting to enjoy an essential ingredient of the famous Mediterranean diet will be disappointed: fresh fish is off the menu.

Freshly caught sardines and hake will no longer be dish of the day. Diners will have to make do with the frozen variety instead.

A government decree introduced this week has forced all restaurants to freeze fish and shellfish for up to 24 hours to try to combat a worm-like parasite called anisakis, which can harm humans.

But the move has brought Spain's leading chefs to boiling point. Juan Mari Arzak, Martin Berasategui, Sergi Arola and Pedro Subijana, among others, have claimed that the ruling is an over-reaction to the problem and that Mediterranean fish are not the main carrier of the parasite.

Arzak and Berasategui, who are three-star Michelin chefs with restaurants in the Basque country, said: "This is an exaggeration brought in by people who do not know how cooking really works.

"This is going to have a huge impact on the restaurant industry. The main fish which are infected are not Mediterranean, but from the North Atlantic."

The chefs say that "white fish" such as hake or sardines, which is popular in Spanish restaurants, loses its taste if it is frozen.

Madrid introduced the measure after the Spanish Food Security Agency found that 36 per cent of fish captured in Spanish waters in 2005 had been infected by anisakis. The parasite can infect humans with an illness causing violent vomiting and stomach pains. It lives in the guts of fish and shellfish and can be passed on to whales and dolphins.

Humans are at risk when they eat uncooked or lightly cooked fish or raw shellfish, typically found in sushi restaurants. Anisakis has been found in Scandinavia, Japan and the Netherlands, where raw or lightly done fish is commonly served.

The only reliable way to kill the parasite is to freeze the fish and shellfish for at least 24 hours at minus 20C.

Spain's Deputy Prime Minister, Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega, said: "This problem is especially important for our country because it is one of the biggest consumers of fish in the world."

But already a campaign run by angry chefs and restaurateurs, called Furious Gastronomy, has started against the government's measure.

Alberto Chicote, a chef at the Madrid restaurant Pandelujo, said: "We have worked for years to convince people that lightly cooked fish is the way it should be served to preserve the taste. Now we will lose respect for fish which is eaten deeply frozen and has little or no taste.

"I hope that when a client returns a frozen fish dish which has no taste, the government will meet the bill for this."

Ricardo Sanz, chef at the sushi restaurant Kabuki in Madrid, said: "The problem lies with fish from the North Atlantic, not mainly with fish from the Mediterranean. This will end much of modern cooking."