The sustainable food argument is flawed – we just need more variety

Head chef, Paternoster Chop House

The recent news that the Marine Conservation Society has removed mackerel and gurnard from its list of “sustainable” fish is an ironic sign of the times.

Responsible diners avoid some foods in a bid to protect a species, only to find that everyone else has done the same and now their new favourite is on the watch list. In recent years, this quest to eat “sustainably” has led to less common fish coming to the fore, such as pollack and ling instead of cod and haddock. But now pollack is more expensive than cod and is being threatened in much the same way. And just 10 years ago, gurnard was practically given away for bait, whereas now it is so sought after that it commands as high a price as red mullet.

Of course, there has to be a balance and restaurants and supermarkets have started to do their bit to introduce more variety. However, this throws up a tricky problem for the diner: are all of these “new” options as nice to eat as the old favourites?

There was a phase a few years ago of serving squirrel on London menus, hailed as the new sustainable meat choice – a free-range, plentiful source of protein that would reduce our reliance on intensively farmed meats and doubled as pest control. In the case of squirrel, I’d say that there’s a reason why no-one eats them – they are dry, tough and unpalatable no matter what you do with them.

My point is: if you want to eat well, it’s really important to get to understand the best way to use whatever new ingredient you are trying.

As far as fish goes, trout can easily be substituted for salmon, but ling, for example, which is a member of the cod family, is actually quite different to cod. Although it works well battered for fish and chips, it would be horrible if you just pan-fried it as the meat is much firmer and has an earthy flavour. Dogfish is good smoked, a bit like eel, or used in a stew but is pretty much inedible done any other way, and the only thing to do with wrasse or coley is make fishcakes out of them.

Ultimately, nothing is sustainable if demand becomes too high, so a bit more variety on our plates should be encouraged. But there are other ways to eat more sustainably too: choosing seasonally, buying from day-boat fishermen, talking to suppliers about what they have, rather than what you want, and reducing wastage as far as possible. That way we might not have to resort to eating squirrel.