On fish

Last week, I cooked for my boyfriend’s mother for the first time.

She is Greek. He is an only child. I was suitably terrified.

We were in Athens, so I spent the morning traipsing around the Varvakios market, wandering the bloodied alleys between glass fronted fluorescent butchers’ stalls, prodding rows of glistening bream, being winked at by gregarious fishmongers.

I settled on Martha, a buxom Romanian with a hiccupy laugh, a damp store sign celebrating her love for Obelix, and the only trout in the market. “From the North”, she nodded vigourously.

The fish looked perfect: clear glassed eyes, bright red gills, unbroken mottled skin, fat and happy. I bought two.

That night, gulping a calming Aperol spritz, I rolled out some old favourites: grilled strips of zucchini and halloumi, with lashings of lemon zest olive oil and triple-washed basil from the dusty inner-city balcony (home-grown, more charming). An vaguely Middle Eastern roast sweet potato salad with fresh figs and crumbled chevre, chilli and a stovetop balsamic reduction.

Everyone made the right noises while eating.

Just wait for the main, Yiannis told his mother, it’s a surprise.

I’d decided to roast the trout, rubbed with sea salt and black pepper and crushed local oregano, and when the skin started going crispy on top, I toasted crushed almonds and threw them over with a handful of fresh pomegranate. I was terribly pleased with myself.

Then I served it.

Damn you, Martha.

Rather than flaking gracefully, the flesh squidged under a fork, quietly melding into a pale, moist, amalgous catastrophe, its bone so gelatinous you could bend it like a leotard-wearing Chinese acrobat.

There’s something wrong with this trout, I said. Its texture is a bit funny.

Yes, I was told nonchalantly, it’s Greek.

Effie pushed it around with her fork, commented on how perfect the couscous was, and hoped I didn’t notice the small mound of trout left on her plate.

It turns out, from the endless rows of fresh, wild saltwater fish, sustainably-caught by wrinkled fishermen, I’d bought farmed trout.

Don’t misunderstand me, I take a stand against overfishing - hell, I spent two weeks getting dramamine shots from an over-tanned Spanish doctor on a Greenpeace boat in the middle of the Indian Ocean - but there’s something remarkably creepy about fish farmed so intensively it has mutated into swimming trout-flavoured mush.

The industrialisation of our fish and food and, well, everything, isn’t just something happening in the Northern Greece’s horror-story lakes. It is happening in our freezers, because we let it.

Various people constantly tell me they can only eat fish when it doesn’t look like fish.

How did we get so distanced from our food?

An English ex-boyfriend used to build a menu-fortress around my plate every time I ordered a whole fish, so he could stomach his own dinner.

A couple of weeks ago, Pascal, our apartment block cat, turned his nose up at a chunk of monkfish, presumably because he couldn’t work out what it was.

At Woolworths, you can buy sustainably-farmed/sustainably-caught/so-happy-when-it-was-killed hake neatly frozen into perfectly oblong plastic fish popsicles. I opened a box of them the other day and considered their similarity in appearance to the sustenance in post-apocalyptic movies where they’ve worked out how to manufacture food out of old newspapers.

When I was a little girl, we used to choose our fish in wet markets - delicate pomfret, meaty groupers, barramundi - from those swimming around in scratched plastic buckets. Skinless, boneless chunks of meat were not to be trusted.

Now, every time I go to my Dunkeld fishmonger, he looks never fails to look astonished when I ask for fish heads, shaking his head with a sort of confused sorrow.

How does he think anyone makes bouillabaisse?

In Southeast Asia, fish heads are prized, their delicate cheeks something to be fought over with matronly aunts when steamed with ginger, or thrown into a fragrant curry, with galangal and okra.

Be brave. Buy something caught and killed in the last 48 hours, that still has a head. Eat a fish that looks like a fish. See if it tastes any different.

Fisherman’s Deli, 011 325 2577
Text a fish to SASSI’s FishMS, and they’ll tell you if it’s a sustainable variety for SA, 079 499 8795