With fish prices remaining stubbornly high, getting the best from each fish occupies the minds of experienced as well as newcomers to the industry. We speak to distributors and friers in the north and the south of Britain to gain an insight into the business of choosing fish
The fish and chip industry throws up so many regional variations on fish used and how it is prepared, and it certainly matters where your shop is based as to whether cod or haddock is your customers’ preference. Ray Clutterbrook, sales director at XpressFish, which distributes across the North and Midlands from its Yorkshire base, explains: “Historically, haddock hotspots are in cities and towns adjacent to shipping ports such as Hull and Leeds in the north where haddock tended to be cheaper. Cod was always in greater demand and brought higher prices, thus finding its way to the more affluent south.”
Over the last 30 years in the north, Ray has seen portion sizes and quality expectations rise. He continues: “Small fillets under 5oz were the norm, particularly in seaside resorts such as Bridlington, Scarborough and Hornsea where individual quick frozen (IQF fillets) were traditionally in high demand. In this period, portion sizes have grown significantly and FAS (frozen at sea) has largely replaced IQF as standards in the fish and chip industry continue to improve each year. However, a combination of recent record high fish and potato prices, added to the effects of spiralling staff and utilities costs, has seen reduced portion sizes to keep costs down and help margins.”
TRADITIONAL FAS SIZES
• 3-5oz is a small portion size often offered with a children’s meal.
• 5-8oz is classed as an average size for an adult or a large portion for the older generation
• 8-16oz can be cut to produce smaller portions or sold as larger fish, so this also is a popular size with friers.
• 16-32oz is used to produce the latter sizes and to gain the most economical sizes possible for an establishment, however, this can also be used as a “whopper” in some establishments and is a regional variant. It can be very difficult to cut to the correct portions, so only experienced friers tend to buy this size and above.
• 32oz+ is the “OMG” size. It produces extremely chunky fish portions and needs to be handled very carefully when portioning.
The size of fillets shops use tend to be dependent on the skills and experience of the frier, with Ray adding: “For convenience, skinless and boneless full fillets can be simply defrosted and fried. However, this product tends to cost more and suits high end, high volume restaurants able to charge a premium. By cutting down larger fillets, however, friers are able to produce more cost effective portions. The larger the fillet, say 16-32oz, the chunkier the portion. On the flip side, some will prefer smaller fillets, say 5-8oz which may appear larger as the fish is thinner. It’s an old saying in the food industry but we all eat with our eyes!”
Variations in fish and chip shops across the UK are part of the success of the industry. Martin Brown, director at Unique Seafood in Orpington, Kent, reflects on the importance of each shop making the most of their own individual opportunities.
“Every shop is different in what they use and their reasons for it. For example, shops that switch between fresh and frozen will tend to use the 32oz+. Shops that are 100% frozen will use mainly 8-16oz and 16-32oz, some may use 5-8oz, which they will sell whole after pin boning. Very few use 3-5oz as it’s just too small for fish and chips in the UK where we are accustomed to decent portions.”
HADDOCK CUBES ARE A CUT ABOVE
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Martin is noting a growing trend towards tighter graded FAS, 6-8oz, 8-10oz and 10-12oz which are nearly always skinless and boneless and carry a premium in price, especially over the past year when this has been in very short supply. He adds: “The great advantage for shops using tighter grading is they have no preparation time; whether a bigger chippy or a small operation, they can simply defrost and cook the fillets with the assurance the size will be consistent and they can keep operating costs under control.”
Martin is keen to point out that not only does FAS have the benefit of a long shelflife - 18 to 24 months from production - but, being block frozen, it takes up a lot less freezer space compared to IQF. He adds: “IQF allows customers to literally select the quantity fillets required at any time, though there aren’t many shops using IQF, with coastal resort friers who rely on a shorter busier season more likely to buy it than a shop with a loyal customer base week-in, week-out. IQF fillets do, however, allow shop owners to know if using a count pack exactly how many fillets they will get per box.”
For over 21 years, Whitehead’s Fish & Chips on the Yorkshire Coast has been attracting customers from across the north, especially during the tourist season. Owner Geoff Whitehead uses a variation of FAS sizes, but says his most popular by far is 8-10oz skinless and boneless haddock.
Choosing FAS over fresh, Geoff prefers the control he has over the volume of fish on any specific day, adding: “For me, FAS has a better shelflife whilst still maintaining the fresh-caught taste when cooked. Fresh fish comes in boxes packed in ice and is already a number of days old before it is delivered to the shop whereas FAS is frozen within four hours to preserve the fresh taste. If you are close to a fish market, fresh might be an option, but for me it’s definitely FAS.”
In the South, down in Ashford, Kent, Catch Fish & Chips manager Kevin Hill says his main buy is 8-16oz cod, which he cuts and sells as large 8-9oz portions, and 16-32oz which is mostly cut to standard 5-6oz portions. All fish here is skinless and boneless except haddock, which is bought with the pin bone in and removed when cutting to size. There is no question in Kevin’s mind that the quality of frozen at sea slabs is superior.
Potential for further price increases, shops warned
Fish prices are approximately 30-40% higher than they were this time last year, and half of that rise has been since the start of the year. It’s a result of three main factors - quotas being reduced, meaning less to catch, new markets - countries that didn’t traditionally buy cod and haddock in large volumes are now doing so and have been willing to pay higher prices than the UK - and finally, Brexit which with the weakening of Sterling is seeing UK importers having to pay more to compete with other countries, as well as having to compensate for an unfavourable currency exchange rate.
Bobby Joyce, national sales manager at Smales, says friers shouldn’t rule out further increases, adding: “With quotas for 2020 still to be confirmed, it is hoped that cod quotas will remain the same, or very similar, and haddock quotas may even increase slightly. This offers some level of stability, which is very welcome, but at this stage there is still potential for further price increases towards the end of 2019 as trawlers complete their quotas.
“For the first quarter of 2020 we are predicting prices to be at similar levels to where they are at the end of this year. Of course, a change in the demand from other markets or a change to the value of sterling can have a meaningful impact on this, but that is impossible to predict - especially the Brexit outcome!”
“The UK fish and chip sector remains a very important and valued market for the quota holders and they will continue to be committed, sustainable suppliers of one half of our iconic national dish, but, as always, the fish they provide is a wild, hunted commodity with variations in market value.”
VEGAN FISH GOUJONS
Made from soya and wheat protein and coated in a lemon and parsley crispy crumb, Linda McCartney’s new Vegetarian Fish Goujons are ready to pop in the oven at a moment’s notice for vegans and vegetarians.
Central Foods 01604 858522 www.centralfoods.co.uk