A sole by any other name

It’s always a delight when there’s one particular dish on the menu that turns out to be a huge hit and I’m especially pleased that August 2011’s most popular main course is our Cornish Sole with Lemon Mash. Looking back through all the orders that we’ve taken over the past ten days, we were chuffed to discover that only one table had not included at least one order. Obviously, I’m pleased when any dish sells well but the popularity of this particular dish is gratifying on a number of levels.

As a nation, the UK spends nearly £3bn per year on fish but over 50% of that is from just three species – Cod, Tuna (tinned, mostly) and Salmon (farmed, mostly), all of which have huge environmental concerns attached to them. At The Dun Cow, we have avoided all of this unholy trinity and we will continue to do so. We’re determined that the fish that we cook and sell should be from sustainable sources and key to that aim is to promote less familiar species; particularly as it also means that we’re giving our customers far more interesting, varied and – above all – tasty experience.

The “Cornish Sole” is a great example. To me the name “Cornish Sole” conjured images of all-night dance parties in Redruth but it is in fact the name that the fish marketing industry has chosen to re-brand Megrim, in the belief that this apparently strange and unfamiliar name was putting off the fish-buying public. Patronising? Perhaps, but if it works, who cares.

Megrim is abundant all year round (except in March & April when they are busy spawning) and so may well become a regular feature at The Dun Cow. It is a loose-textured flat fish with a sweet, clean flavour; very popular in Cornwall and Wales, where it is landed and where canny local shoppers already realise that it’s just as good as Dover or Lemon Sole but at a fraction of the price.  The only objection that I can see that fashionable restaurants with pretensions to fine dining may have against Megrim is that it simply isn’t as pretty as other members of the Plaice & Sole family, but as we value flavour and value far above presentation, that’s fine by us.

Any Megrim caught by Cornish fishermen that are not eaten locally or discarded are typically exported to the fish-loving diners of France, where it’s known as “cardine” or Spain, where they’ve been appreciating British caught “gallos” for many years.

So, is it possible for us all to start loving Megrim, Black Bream (or “Sea Bream” as it’s now marketed) and the other neglected species? Will they ever take the place of familiar, expensive and over-fished or farmed favourites like Sea Bass? Yes, it certainly is possible, for I don’t believe that there is any other food quite as subject to fad and fashion as fish. Although we might assume that the fish species that we buy now are the same as they were 10, 20 or 30 years ago, they most certainly are not. It’s not so long ago that fishermen regarded Sea Bass as fit only for baiting lobster pots and as for Monkfish, they couldn’t give it away. Indeed, for many years, Monkfish was routinely cut up into bite size chunks, covered in luminous bread crumbs, deep-fried and sold as “Scampi”.

So, can simply re-naming a fish change its popularity? Thankfully, the scary looking and sounding Monkfish has re-established itself as a true delicacy, whilst the various unidentified frying objects known as Scampi are now rightly regarded with suspicion and contempt. Other examples do suggest however that we do sometimes need a little nudge from the branding experts to remind us how good something is. Dogfish have always been Rock Salmon as far as fish and chip shops are concerned and “Cornish Sardines”, now also a regular feature on restaurant menus, sell far better than the humble Pilchard used to.

Ironically, it was suggested a few weeks ago by one visitor that we would do well to have Scampi on the menu. Inevitably, there are customers that simply don’t get what we’re offering at The Dun Cow. Perhaps they are put off by the word Megrim. Luckily for them, there are plenty of pubs within a short distance that do provide exactly what they’re comfortable with and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, the fact that so many of our customers are joining us in celebrating this delightful, simple, authentic dish reminds me of why we bought The Dun Cow. Thank You.