Why the shrink-wrapped version of reality hurts

Annalisa Barbieri
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The Independent Online

Shopping IS becoming increasingly difficult, especially when one has non-meat dinner guests coming round or, doubly, triply difficult, a non-meat eating boyfriend. There now seem to be so many fish one can't eat, due to moral or ecological reasons that I'm not sure what to buy any more. My hand hovered over a packet of cod fish fingers in the supermarket (for the freezer, not my guests) as my conscience said "cod is endangered". I looked around for haddock alternatives, but there were none. And anyway, haddock is going the same way as cod.

Shopping IS becoming increasingly difficult, especially when one has non-meat dinner guests coming round or, doubly, triply difficult, a non-meat eating boyfriend. There now seem to be so many fish one can't eat, due to moral or ecological reasons that I'm not sure what to buy any more. My hand hovered over a packet of cod fish fingers in the supermarket (for the freezer, not my guests) as my conscience said "cod is endangered". I looked around for haddock alternatives, but there were none. And anyway, haddock is going the same way as cod.

At the fish counter there was some lovely organic-looking salmon which was lovely looking because it wasn't orange like non-organic farmed salmon (organic salmon is still farmed, though). I couldn't buy it anyway, organic or no, since regular readers will know that I don't eat salmon, wild or farmed, and I would never serve it. But there was lots of salmon for sale, since salmon is now dragged out for any semi-posh occasion.

There was squid, which so far as I know, I could eat, but you can never tell with dinner guests if they're going to be pathetic and squeamish and go "ooh, tentacles, is that octopus?" So that was out. Whitebait, which I love, is out because so many people have a problem with munching fish heads, even when they are small and delicious. Then there were various flat white fish which would be tasty, but I knew would involve fancy accompaniments/sauces to make them look palatable, and quite frankly I come from the Italian peasant style of cooking where we serve food to look honest. So the tasty-but-boring-to-look-at flat white fish were left to glisten in the fishmonger's fridge.

Tuna is what I always end up buying and I'm getting sick of it. I avoid reading press releases about tuna because I'm sure they will tell me it's endangered and then I won't be able to buy that any more and then I'll be really stuck. However, even this head-in-sand approach has allowed news to filter through that certain tuna - the bigeye for one, much sort after in Japan for sushi - is on the critical list.

Some seabass - often labelled Antarctic sea bass here - is also bad news. These are also known as Patagonian toothfish or "white gold'" because they are so valuable (£3,000 a ton). Like many other fish, they are now much fished for by illegal boats (from which a quarter of global catches now come) and if this continues the toothfish will be extinct in a couple of years.

Swordfish is also now out since I read of a chef that doesn't eat it, and says his fish supplier doesn't eat it either, because swordfish are often riddled with three-foot tapeworms, and once you've seen one of these babies you never touch swordfish again. Now I conjure up the thought of a parasite-riddled swordfish when I'm feeling peckish in between meals. Readers, I've lost half a stone.

So we're left with trout - rainbow trout, not indigenous to these isles - which is also farmed. And I can't buy that because I know that I could catch a "wild" rainbow trout that has at least had some sort of life in a lake and it will be so much better than the rubbish sold in shops. But one doesn't always have time to go fishing before dinner, tant pis.

It's difficult not to get depressed. Things may change - a company in Scotland is trying to farm cod for instance - but the more I learn about fish, those great barometers of the state of the earth, the less I can eat them. If only more of us took responsibility for our own food - grew it, caught it and dealt with the reality of it all, instead of seeing just the sanitised, head-chopped-off, shrink-wrapped version of reality we like to protect ourselves with, things might not have got to this state.

For ages, eating meat has been regarded by some as just about the most awful thing you can do, while eating fish was regarded as OK (yes, yes vegetarians, I hear you, I know you eat neither and that would be the answer, but the whole world will never turn veggie). Fish has always been regarded as better and healthier and somehow more "OK" than meat. But while things have changed radically in the meat world - free range pork, beef and lamb are widely available - with fish, people are happy to put any old rubbish in their mouths, with little regard to where it came from or in what state it was kept. This is what happens when nature doesn't give you eyelashes and big doleful eyes. No one thinks you're worth fighting for.

a.barbieri@independent.co.uk

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