My Perfect Fish Supper with Nick Fisher co-author of The River Cottage Fish Book
PUBLISHED: 15:30 26 January 2010 | UPDATED: 16:08 20 February 2013
Nick Fisher co-author of The River Cottage Fish Book, embraces his inner hunter-gatherer with a cook-out on the beach for the family. Photos by Simon Wheeler
I'm not a beach person. Much as I'd love to be one of those guys who tans naturally, runs on hard pebbles as though they were shag pile, and dives in and out of the sea like a hyperactive porpoise, sun burns, pebbles hurt and saltwater makes my skin itchy. Most of all, I get bored.
I need to be doing something with a purpose, something like fishing or cooking, or at the very least, eating. So, a perfect family day out at the beach for my wife, Helen, and I and our four children has to incorporate a bucket barbecue, a bag of Dorset charcoal, a spinning rod, a couple of strings of mackerel feathers, a handful or two of bay leaves and fennel tops from the garden - and our swimming gear.
Choose Your Beach
Our favourite beaches are Cogden, Burton Bradstock, Eype and West Bay. Even though they're only a handful of miles apart, they each offer something different and incorporate their own individual additions to the basic beach experience. Cogden is best for fishing largely because it's likely to be the least inhabited. Fishing and swimming are never easy bedfellows - the combination of bare skin, flailing limbs and sharp, barbed hooks being flung around with unwieldy carbon fibre poles is not a happy one.
Burton Bradstock has the Hive Beach caf with the lure of freshly baked scones and ice creams, easy parking and people watching but with less room for fishing, although a short walk will usually find a clear spot.
For us, West Bay is the beach equivalent of going to the city. There are shops, kiosks, boat rides, mackerel trips and the harbour pier to explore, all of which help to entertain the family as well as providing an easier source of mackerel, rather than just relying on beach fishing. Casting from the pier, or better still booking a place on one of the excellent value one-hour mackerel trips, is a very good way of raising your odds at having something fresh and stripy to chuck on your hot coals.
And Eype... well, Eype is just lovely. More bay-like than any of the beaches on the Chesil side of West Bay, it has a cove-like feel, especially on the west end where some boulder-like rocks spill into the sea, providing a different fishing landscape and the chance of rock-growing baits like winkles, mussels and limpets.
Catching Your Supper
Most beach barbecue days can be divided into swimming fun, finding fish, cooking and eating. Swimming should be done at the hottest part of the day, which is never going to be the best time for beach fishing, partly because bright sunlight and huge amounts of inshore splashing and thrashing is going to scare the fish deeper out to sea.
The best beach fishing will nearly always happen early in the morning and early evening, which means that unless you caught some fish first thing and stashed them in a cool box chilled with ice blocks during the day, you are relying on catching your fish and cooking them as the sun goes down, which is a brave, admirable and romantic way to live your life, but not one I can afford with four hungry children and a fish-fanatical wife to feed!
As the sun dips into the sea, I make sure I have some fish ready and waiting (gutted with heads on, either in my cool box or keeping fresh in a bucket of seawater) before I light the coals. Fish catching and fish cooking at the same time is multi-tasking way beyond my reach. I'm a man. Doing one thing at a time is more than enough! Anyway, I'm more than happy to trot off during the swimming 'fun' part of the day, with a couple of my boys, to go out on a West Bay or Lyme Harbour mackerel trip. That way I know I have the fresh fish supplies primed and ready for the best bit of the day when the cooking and eating begins. If all else fails, a trip to the fishmongers will sort things.
Keep it Simple
My advice for beach barbecuing is keep it simple. Mackerel is the easiest fish to catch and easiest to cook over fire because of its naturally oily flesh. Mackerel is self-basting and doesn't dry out like white fish can. The only other thing I regularly barbie is hand-dived scallops, bought off a local diver or fishmonger. I'll cook two or three scallops and their corals in one half shell. Using the shell like a mini pan, with a mix of garlic, olive oil and maybe a slice or two of chorizo and fresh chilli, I'll serve them finger-scalding hot in the same shell they were cooked in. In the case of small children, I'll decant them into one of the spare, cool half shells.
You can also easily cook oysters, mussels or cockles on a barbie. Use a pair of tongs and place your oysters (flat side uppermost), mussels or cockles on the grill. Grill them until they pop open, remove from the grill with the tongs. As soon as they are cool enough to handle, open up the shells fully using an oyster knife if you're barbecuing oysters. The meat will be nicely poached in its own juices, or dress with a little olive oil and lemon juice or a dab of melted garlic butter.
With mackerel, I leave the heads on, which makes them easier to handle over the fire (they don't break up and it gives you something firm to grab with the tongs), and I stuff their gutted belly cavities with bay leaves and fresh fennel tops.
If I've remembered to bring my fish clamp grille, I'll line half a dozen mackerel side by side, sandwiched between the hinged grille sides, with a layer of bay leaves and fennel above and below them. These oily-scented leaves protect the skin from too much direct heat, and once they've all burned up, not only do they fill the beach with fabulous herby smells, little burnt flakes of the bay will stay attached to the fish flesh, which gives them an extra-delicious dimension.
If we bother to bring plates, we use the plastic kind that can be rinsed in the sea and taken home again, but most of the time I like to serve grilled mackerel on flat beach stones. It's a great game for the children too, sending them off to hunt for their own stone plate. Knives and forks never travel to the beach.
Grilled whole mackerel is best eaten like a fleshy corn on the cob using fingers and teeth to tease off the flakes of flesh. All I ever take, if I remember, is one sharp knife and a pair of tongs; mostly I forget these and have to use my fingers.
When it comes to the barbecue kit, I personally love bucket-shaped barbies because they burn so well and keep the heat off the pea shingle, which can split and ping around painfully if it gets too hot. I abhor disposable barbies; the coals are made of reconstructed coke-mush impregnated with evil ignition chemicals, and far too may people think 'disposable' means 'leave on the beach when you're finished'.
If you enjoy some summer barbecue fun, next time try an autumn or winter one when the beach is emptier, the fish are more plentiful and the barbie is a beautifully natural and warming addition to the cooler air temperature. The thing I like best about autumn or winter barbecues on the beach is that I don't even have to pretend that I might go in for a swim.
This fresh vibrant mix of summer herbs can be made in advance and taken down to the beach in a sealed tub. It really complements the rich flesh of fish like mackerel, sardines and trout, and can be smeared inside the fish before cooking or served as an accompaniment.
Generous bunch of flat-leafed parsley (tough stalks removed)
6-8 basil leaves
6-8 mint leaves
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
4 anchovy fillets
2 tsp capers, rinsed
1 tsp English mustard
juice 1/2 lemon (or to taste)
Put the herbs on a large chopping board and chop well. Chop and mash the garlic, anchovies and capers into a coarse paste. Bring the chopped herbs and anchovy mixture together and chop again. Put into a small mixing bowl and add the mustard, lemon juice and pepper to taste. Stir in just enough olive oil to make a thick green sauce. Taste and adjust the seasoning.
The scent of fresh grilled sardine on a warm evening need not be the preserve of a Mediterranean holiday, you can enjoy this delicious experience on a Dorset beach if you tap into the seasonal supply of plump Cornish sardines which are around from late July onwards. It's important to season these fish well and grill on a really high heat so they get that crisp salty skin that all sardines should have. Use a sandwich-style barbecue basket to avoid the problem of sticking as you turn the fish.
12 large, fresh Cornish sardines
1 tbsp olive oil
2 tsp chopped marjoram
1 tsp chopped thyme
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
Coarse (or flaky) salt and freshly ground black pepper
Lemon wedges (to serve)
Sardines have delicate flesh that will bruise and tear, so be careful when preparing them. You can rub off their soft, overlapping scales with your thumbnail. Use a stout pair of scissors to snip open the belly and trim off the fins. Pull out the guts and carefully tear out the gills. Wash gently in cold water or sea water and pat dry.
Mix the olive oil with the herbs and garlic (you can do this in advance and bring it with you in a sealed tub). Massage this mixture over the fish, rubbing a little inside the belly too. Sprinkle generously with coarse sea salt and pepper, and lightly oil the sardines before packing them into a barbecue basket. Cook the fish over very hot glowing embers for 2-3 minutes on each side (or until golden and crisp). Serve with lemon wedges and accompany with bread and a tomato salad.
Also works with herring, mackerel and scad.
Barbecued Red Mullet with Fennel
This recipe is ideal for late summer when fennel plants are overgrown and going to seed. Those leggy stalks are too fibrous for eating but are still full of aromatic oils, which perfume the fish as it cooks.
A bundle of overgrown fennel sticks, flower heads and all
4 red mullet, gutted
4 cloves of garlic, lightly crushed
4 bay leaves
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Take four 10cm lengths of the freshest fennel sticks and bash them with a rolling pin, or suitable beach stone, to release their flavour. Put a piece inside each red mullet along with a crushed clove of garlic, a bay leaf and some seasoning. Lightly brush the fish with oil and season the skin. Do this generously as the cooking will burn off a lot of the seasoning.
Spread the rest of the fennel sticks on the grill over a hot, ready-for-cooking, barbecue. Lay the mullet over the steaming fennel stems. As the fish cooks the fennel will first steam and then burn, infusing the fish with its flavour. Cook for 6-7 minutes on each side, until the skin is crisp and the flesh opaque.
Serve steaming hot with minted new potatoes and a salad. A dish of paper-thin slices of fennel bulbs dressed with orange juice and olive oil will echo and enhance the fennel notes in the fish.
Also works with grey mullet, mackerel, scad, black bream, sea bass, gurnard and trout.
Nick Fisher is co-author of The River Cottage Fish Book.
All recipes taken from The River Cottage Fish Book by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Nick Fisher, published by Bloomsbury at 30. www.rivercottage.net