Saturday, January 22, 2011

Fish And Cheap Publicity For Celebrity Chefs

When Channel 4 launched its Big Fish Fight, I was going to write a blog about how Hugh, Gordon, Heston, and Jamie had as much chance of changing a nation’s eating habits as a chihuahua on a Korean lifeboat. And perhaps I should have done, because however successful their TV mission has been to persuade people not to turn their noses up at unfamiliar fish, how long will it last?

The main obstacle, I figure, is that even though the British are an island race (in fact, I was called an ‘island monkey’ the other day by a disgruntled German) they are on the whole squeamish, extremely fussy and amazingly unadventurous about fish. In fact, Britons tend to eat just three – cod, salmon and tuna (the trio account for a staggering 42% of all fish sales in the UK).

Also, the people watching pretty much fell into the minority who already ate sustainable fish like gurnard, sprats, mussels, dab and flounder, and therefore the message would be lost on the larger – less foodie – audience.

And besides, hadn’t we seen all this before?

Back in the early 80s, when Keith Floyd - the man who unwittingly spawned the celebrity chef phenomenon - did his brilliant Floyd On Fish shows, he tried to change the nation’s eating habits by deploring how vastly underrated species like red mullet and gurnard were and how they had to be flogged to France or put in crab pots because the Brits just wouldn’t eat them. His show got millions of viewers, but little changed.

There were similar messages over the years from other TV chefs, and then Charles Clover’s must-read book on overfishing, and the disastrous state of fish stocks, came out and was largely ignored. End of the Line was later made into a film and received strong backing on the web from Stephen Fry and the like, but still nothing.

But, this time, had I underestimated the appeal of vastly-overhyped TV chefs and the sheep-like, post-X Factor susceptibility of the public?

Did I begrudgingly have to take my hat off to Jammy Oliver and co for their incredible success? It would rub even more salt knowing they are only spouting the message because it is good for their media image (especially Ramsay who has been criticised in the past for putting blue fin tuna on the menu) and would probably plug whale meat if they thought there was a few quid in it.

But wasn't this fish campaign so much more powerful than previous ones? You had to admit everyone was talking about it - why Gordon had petrol poured all over his lovely hair by shark gangsters for God's sake!

The impact was hard to argue with, it seemed. First Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s fishy sermon appeared in The Sun of all places, and therefore reached a far larger audience than just foodies.

And then I got into a black cab, and after a short conversation about what I did for a living, the driver turned to me and said something like (I'd had a bit to drink): “D’you know, I had one of them Mack Baps in my chippy the other day, you know the ones those chefs are banging on about, because they think they’re sustaining or something. Real surprise it was. Thought I was going to have to spit it in the bin. But it was fucking lovely!”

If black cab drivers were talking about the virtues of sustainable fish when they would normally be ranting about how all homosexuals should be shot, then the message had truly got out.

Indeed, Sainsbury’s reported a 167% leap in pollock sales last week, and at Tesco, sales of whiting, sardines, coley, crab and sprats were up between 25% and 45%.

Don Tyler, chairman of the London Fish Merchants' Association, said: “Retailers I have spoken to have had a very, very good week. There’s no doubt that the publicity has led the public to be more adventurous.”

He added: “We were very concerned about the publicity over fish getting thrown over board but the campaign has attracted favourable attention to the trade.”

Steve Herbert, of WJ Herbert & Sons in Wood Green, north London, said: “It’s been a good week. Lots of people have been coming up asking about the TV show. There’s been a hell of a lot more coley sold. That had been dropping off.”

So was everything rosy? Would the sea beds stop being ravaged? Would our grandchildren be able to enjoy fish too (well salmon, cod and tuna at least)? Would sharks get their fins back? No, not really. “We have seen a rise in sales after TV shows before and then it drops away,” Herbert cautioned.

So although the campaign's initial success has to be applauded, it really depends how much of a middle-class fad it proves to be. But whatever the outcome, the praise should go to the crew, not Hugh Long-Name and his media slut chums, who give far less of a damn about fish stocks than their own rising stock. Or as Hermano Primero, one half of the splendid Dos Hermanos food blog, brilliantly put it: "The only reason these wankers get involved is to push their brands...if they really want to help the world, they could start by breeding a bit less."

Another thing that rankles is trying to convince people that some sustainable fish are just as good as the old favourites. I saw a programme the other day where Oliver insisted that pouting “was just as good as cod”. This is nowhere near the truth. If you go down that route, people will try them and go back to the pukka fish, you great lisping twat Jamie!

There ARE some fantastic guilt-free fish like mackerel, crab, mussels, pollock, squid - and the best of the lot for my money, sardines (especially when they are scorched over a fire in Portugal and served with a simple salad, vinegar, sea salt, olive oil, and cold boiled potatoes).

But as for the others, like coley, pouting and whiting and so on, the supermarkets should just play on ignorance and rebrand them as “white fish”. It worked brilliantly when they cut the monstrous heads off angler fish and renamed them monkfish. Although, it didn’t work so well when they rebranded pollock as Colin, but then Colin is a pretty stupid name for a fish.

There is nothing fraudulent about it and people won’t know what it is anyway, as long as it's filleted. They’ve been getting away with it for years in fish and chip shops – a recent Dispatches investigation revealed how widespread it is for businesses to pass off cheap fish like tilapia as far more expensive haddock or cod. And it is even more widespread in the North, where fish and chip shops traditionally serve fish skinless, meaning the species is even less identifiable.

So if people can't tell when they specifically ask for cod, why should they be bothered what the "white fish" is when they are making a fish pie or something? Advertising it as pouting and pretending it's as good as cod isn't going to help anyone.

Call me cynical, but with the fickleness of the public and the long-term success of previous campaigns, the only winners will be the celebrity chefs themselves. And with all the expensive puff involved in Channel 4's taxpayer-funded series, didn't they get a huge amount of brand promotion for very little input? Just how many turkey baisters and fish cookbooks will they sell on the back of that? For them it really was fish and cheap publicity.


Anonymous said...

You can download a guide to sustainable fish from the Marine Conservation Society's website:

Northern Snippet said...

We've been trying to buy all sustainable fish for over two years.The other day we put our usual order in for some Coley(which BTW isn't as grey and slimy as its reputation if you buy fresh stuff not frozen,though admittedly not as white and lovely as Cod).
Next day the fish order arrives and Chef is puzzled to see we've been sent Cod as a substitute,at the same price.In his time warp kitchen bubble,unaware of the outside world he wondered WTF?'Oh' I say 'it'll be because of that HFW fishfight thing.'
'That's a bit embarrassing we cant put Cod on now when we've made a point of not buying it for over 2 years...'he said
I'm ashamed to admit this, but we passed the Cod off as Coley,and no one said anything..went like HOT CAKES.

Next we'll see a big rise in the prices of these cheaper fish.

Lennie Nash said...

Thanks anonymous, looked at the site. Very useful. The actual PDF file of fish to eat and avoid is here....

Many thanks,


Lennie Nash said...

Dear Northern Snippet,

That's a fntastic story. Worth a blog in its own right. Having to pass cod off as coley! I love it, and it's the same price.

I hear you about the coley. It does go grey and unappetising when frozen (which I suppose is when most people first encountered it ie. in blocks). But is much better fresh. I think it makes a great curry, because it' so meaty and takes a strong flavour well. In fact, a lot of my student days were spent eating red-hot coley curry and rice. It was delicious.

Thanks for the comment. I love hearing your tales.

Take care,


Anonymous said...

An outstanding piece of writing Mr Nash. Whilst it is a noble cause, even Jammy Oliver rolled his eyes when he mentioned GR's contribution. Personally I think that you've missed a trick in the fact that Hugh F-W is actually trying to fight the battle on many fronts. A change in fishing policy & a change in attitudes. Although the former is easier to change than the later, politicians have to be shown that this is public lead (all be it via sleb chefs).

Lennie Nash said...

Dear Anonymous,

Thanks for your comment. I saw Oliver roll his eyes too. Seemed to say it all about Ramsay's attitude towards something he has never made a point of caring about before.

As for Hugh Long-Name, I may have been a bit unfair, as out of the four he does actually seem to care and has been involved in the message long before the Big Fish Fight.

But the way he runs his River Cottage emporium and ridiculously expensive courses attached to it, I do feel he is chiefly concerned with making money.

And by being involved with Ramsay and co he just ups his profile and therefore makes more money on his River Cottage brand.

Just my view though,


mrsnesbitt said...

What goes around comes around! HFW comes from a legal background and I think this was reflected in the way he tackled the many issues linked to the farming practices we are seeing today. JO however went about his school dinner campaign in a rather "Jack the laddish" way if you ask me. I agree with what you say re the cost of eating/attending courses with HFW and in my view it brings about a rather snobbish approach to eating practices. We are up North in anycase so being ignorant we wouldn't know - ofcourse if it was black pudding it would be another matter. As a wee lad hubby caight and cooked mackerel...need I say more. Enjoyed reading your blog! If you ever venture into the world of pork pies give me a shout! I have a wealth of knowledge and contacts.