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Fabulous fish – learning what to do with it

July 23, 2014

Learning what to do with fish - mycustardpie.comYou know me well enough by now – I struggle to be anything but honest. Try as I might to disguise, my true feelings are always writ large over my face. So at the risk of offending KP I must admit that I wasn’t that thrilled with the gift of a fish course. It took almost two years from receipt of voucher to arrival at the door of Manna from Devon, based in a house perched high above the Kingswear crossing to Dartmouth (Devon, UK). Taking a seat on the outside deck taking in the view of leafy branches and distant fields, with a cup of tea poured from a huge, bulbous white teapot, I discovered that there was a bread course taking place simultaneously. Further salt in the wound as I long to do a bread course.

Why was I so reluctant? Partly as KP wants to eat more fish, so this is one of those presents you give for yourself as well as the recipient (we’ve all done it). It just didn’t set my world on fire.

Standing round a large wooden table, Holly asked the seven of us to confess our fish-based skill hopes, wants and dreams and then we ‘met’ a variety of fish – all fresh from Brixham.

Learning what to do with fish -

Gurnard (behind), black sea bream (left) and monkfish tail (right)

Very early on I had an ‘aha’ moment when Holly classified the seemingly endless oceans of fish (in my mind) into white and oily, flat and round, plus shellfish/seafood. Thinking in simple terms rather than getting in knots about the name of the fish (often very difficult to determine at our fish markets in Dubai) instantly opened a door of exploration.

We gutted and filleted mackerel, brilliantly marked, shiny and ram rod firm. We were given clues to the freshness of fish – if you can see a finger print in the flesh then reject them, for instance.  Then was the turn of the triangular gurnard, tougher in skin and with a flotation sac that made us squeal with delight when Holly extracted and popped it. We picked meat out of lobster and learned how to deal with a cooked crab. We made homemade mayo and portioned monkfish tail. We inspected John Dory and cooked megrim sole a la meuniere in foamy butter so its skin became deliciously caramelised. We pan-fried mackerel and poached some in a homemade shell-fish stock with other fish to make a deeply savoury soup. We removed the scales of a beautiful black sea bass with a scaler, table knife and plastic bag). We didn’t all do every stage but there was enough hands on experience to give everyone a go and practice the main skills like filleting and skinning. Thrilled to be chosen to dissect squid for the first time, I chopped off its head, removed the guts (something I handled a lot throughout the day) and beak, scored the skin into diamonds, and portioned the tentacles.  Due to the gentlest of simmering, the squid was meltingly silky within the soup. Fish should be cooked at very high temperatures or very low and slow.

We had several breaks to eat the fruits of our labour: monkfish lightly cooked among stewed peppers, pan-fried mackerel fillets, fish soup with mayonnaise (and the lobster and crab), oven baked plaice and John Dory, sea bream en papilotte and more accompanied tea, coffee or wine (as preferred).

This is not some sterile kitchen; a dog wandered in now and then (not in the food prep area); a baby robin appeared on the deck; a tiny blue tit chick pecked at seeds on the window feeder; the bathroom has seen better days; this is a cookery school run by people who love to cook.  Holly, with quick wit and relaxed manner, passed on her frankly encyclopedic knowledge of fish and fish cookery in an unassuming way. Trained at Leith’s she admitted that growing up in Worcestershire, making a great fish finger sandwich formed the basis of her fish eating experience until she moved to Dartmouth a decade and a half ago. She was quick to acknowledge the role of local fish seller and his generosity of sharing information and passion for his product.

As delicious scents of bread baking wafted up from the basement and the other course members took their places at the table with a wooden tray of local cheese I didn’t feel at all envious. In fact I felt slightly superior in my new position as a fish gutter, scaler, skinner and squid decapitater. But above all, I left Manna from Devon with a new-found confidence to tackle any fish thrown at me. Actually please don’t throw fish … but show me the way to the fish market now.

A few moments of the day on (very bad) video, including making sole meuniere – you get the gist.

More information:

Do visit Manna from Devon and not just for fish cookery either.

Holly gave us a lot of background about how fish is caught, sold and exported in the UK (masses goes to Spain). They obtain their fish, via fishmonger Mark Lobb, from Brixham, one of the most important fishing ports in Europe and the UK’s largest fish market (now bigger than Billingsgate in London). Take a look at nearby Newlyn fish market and a Cornish seafood safari with Helen.

Jude shows you how to cook live lobster here.

Wander round some other fish markets –  start with  Morocco – courtesy of Urvashi and the fish market in Dubai (with me) and then visit a tuna museum with Helen.

I hope to bring you lots of new ideas for cooking with fish once I’m back in Dubai but in the meantime try Kavey’s recipe using firm white (sustainable) fish, chorizo and potatoes; Thai fish cakes and baked mackerel with red onion and rosemary on MCP.

Learning what to do with fish -

Looking down over Dartmouth

Do you eat fish? How confident are you about cooking it, what do you like to do with it and what do you find most challenging?


  1. July 23, 2014 2:43 pm

    There are some great online tutorials on youtube too, for things like filleting techniques

    • July 23, 2014 3:05 pm

      Good tip – it was good to get hands on experience and find out what you were doing right or wrong immediately.

  2. July 23, 2014 3:03 pm

    I’m glad it worked out so well for you with the fish course and you got so much from it! I’m confident cooking fish but not so confident with the preparation. I should probably do a course too!

    • July 23, 2014 3:06 pm

      Is it strange that I enjoyed gutting them?!

      • July 23, 2014 3:11 pm

        That’s the bit most people find most difficult. But great you felt confident to do it and I can see it would be very pleasing to accomplish it.

  3. daver001 permalink
    July 23, 2014 3:04 pm

    Been meaning to enroll in Stein’s fish school down in Padstow whenever I go back to Dartmoor, but Dartmouth is a closer drive. Such a beautiful little town too. I first went there as a teenager, doing sailing courses over a couple of Summers at the Royal Naval College, now sadly closing. Was last there a few years back, seeking out John Burton-Race’s The New Angel while it was still open – great food! On that trip, I also found the plaque which marks the last spot on which the Mayflower settlers stood before leaving England. So thanks, Sally, for inspiring me to seek out Dartmouth again – maybe I’ll even find time for the fish course!

    • July 23, 2014 3:09 pm

      Oh thank you for such an interesting comment Dave. Because I’m always on the other side of the moor I haven’t explored too much around Dartmouth. Visited Sharpham which is fantastic. Envy you your trip to The New Angel – always meant to go. I’m sure the Padstein courses are good (think I read about one by Helen from Food Stories recently) but as a small concern run by fanatical foodies MfD takes some beating. Happy summer memories…

  4. July 23, 2014 3:18 pm

    Thanks for the lovely pictures of the fish – we used to eat a lot of fish when we were living in Belfast, buying it fresh from the market on a Friday or Saturday. Unfortunately it’s not that easy to find it quite as fresh where we live now… I’m glad you enjoyed the experience in the end!

    • July 29, 2014 1:33 am

      I’m lucky to have several new fish markets which have opened near me recently. I can’t wait to get stuck in. Shame you are further away from the source now.

  5. July 23, 2014 5:00 pm

    I love fish, but I don’t eat enough of it because it is damn expensive here (even our lake fishes cost an arm and a leg)…

    A lovely course. Very interesting.

    I’d love to visit Devon.



    • July 29, 2014 1:33 am

      Everything costs an arm and a leg in Switzerland! Devon is a beautiful county – I think you’d love it Rosa.

  6. glamorous glutton permalink
    July 23, 2014 6:08 pm

    That sounds like a great day Sally. I’m usually the one gutting the fish as I’m the least squeamish, but I’ve no idea how to tackle a flat fish. I get the fishmonger to do most of the work, but it does feel like a cop out. Better look up Manna From Devon. GG

    • July 29, 2014 1:34 am

      Flat fish are usually gutted at sea. Picked up that little gem at MfD 🙂

  7. July 23, 2014 7:12 pm

    I would so love to be more confident dealing with fish straight off the counter rather than shrinkwrapped by the supermarket so I think I’d get a lot from this.

    Not been to that part of Devon since about 1999. My husband and I spent Easter in nearby Brixham and we went to Dartmouth one day on the bus! I think it’s more glam now 🙂

    • July 29, 2014 1:36 am

      Can somewhere be glam and earthy at the same time? I think that part of the world still remains rooted in reality (although Salcombe is a bit rarified!)

  8. nancy@jamjnr permalink
    July 23, 2014 9:04 pm

    I’d love to do a fish course like this and learn how to fillet and gut properly. I’m very envious it looks like a whole lot of fun.

    • July 29, 2014 1:36 am

      If you get the chance – do it. It’s not as difficult as it looks… although takes practice to do perfectly.

  9. July 23, 2014 9:38 pm

    What an absolutely fantastic looking course – I would love to do something like that. I don’t eat much fish these days since it feels a bit wrong, being so landlocked in the middle of Germany, but when I do, I always stick to fillets of the usual suspects. I would love to be a bit more confident about it.

    My dad fishes a lot, so when I’m visiting my folks back England we often eat wonderful fresh trout together, fillets either cooked all manner of ways or smoked, when he can locate his smoker in the shed. Heaven 🙂

    Really fab post, great photos and really interesting set of links you’ve offered too – thank you!

    • July 23, 2014 11:38 pm

      Fantastic comment too. A lot of trout are farmed. Not quite as keen on these. But home smoked ….

  10. July 23, 2014 11:17 pm

    A brilliant experience for sure. I would love to do a course like this but I am not too sure whether I’ll be able to handle all the chopping and the gutting etc… I am very confident about cooking fish, but perhaps not preparing them. I think I would be more comfortable buying the fish from fish market. But then a teacher like Holly makes all the difference. Am surprised that the aroma of the bread wafted through the strong fish smell… maybe the other bread making courses awaits your destiny!

    • July 23, 2014 11:36 pm

      Fresh fish doesn’t smell fishy. I loved the chopping and gutting and now will put the man with the wheelbarrow out of business 😄

      • July 25, 2014 9:54 pm

        Really? Then most of the fish that we deal with must not be that fresh!

  11. July 23, 2014 11:30 pm

    What a fantastic opportunity. So will you making more fish from now on? I now see where you learned about the superior quality of Omega 3 in fish! 😉

    • July 23, 2014 11:34 pm

      Ha ha. You are right on both counts

  12. Lauren Hairston permalink
    July 23, 2014 11:53 pm

    I’m totally going to try to work in one of these classes the next time I go to England (too late for this year’s holiday, alas). I definitely need the skills because I LOVE fish and I’d like to be more proficient with the prep work. (My husband tends to do most of the filleting/butchering in our house.) Of course, being hundreds (600, I think?) of miles from the ocean, most of our fish comes frozen in pre-prepped fillets.

    • July 29, 2014 1:38 am

      Goodness – I thought where I grew up was a long way from the sea (in Cheltenham our nearest beach was Western-super-Mare on the Bristol channel!

  13. July 24, 2014 12:35 am

    Love this post. I was so scared of fish until I did something similar but I love the three categories. Makes things so much less confusing!

    • July 29, 2014 1:39 am

      Definately a ‘ta da’ moment for me. With fish getting more expensive it’s easy to be scared of it.

  14. Theresa permalink
    July 24, 2014 1:38 am

    I would definitely say that seafood cookery is my weakest suit. Growing up in the middle of the US there wasn’t much opportunity to learn as a child so I have had to learn as opportunity has presented itself as an adult. In fact, most of my attempts have been as the result of somebody else’s blog posts! Thanks for a bit more insight on the topic. 😉

    • July 29, 2014 1:40 am

      Growing up on an island (albeit a big one) I never thought how it must be to live that far from the sea. Fascinated by your comment Theresa.

  15. July 24, 2014 2:22 am

    I would love to do a fish course! I’m confident cooking fish, but would love to learn to prepare fish like a pro. Filleting, scaling fish, shucking oysters, all that.

    • July 29, 2014 1:40 am

      Scaling was the least fun!!

      • July 29, 2014 1:52 am

        I just find it messy. Best done outside and still you’ll find scales in your hair later.

  16. July 24, 2014 3:49 am

    I grew up with my dad cleaning (freshwater) fish right in front of me all the time. So the guts and scaling and all don’t bother me much. I adore fish of all sorts, but it’s so fraught these days with the overfishing and other horribles that I just don’t do it at home. If I lived on a coast and knew my fisherman, I’d feel totally differently, I’m sure. But that’s just where I’ve drawn my (undoubtedly insignificant) line. Sally, I’ve been so enjoying your visit home on Instagram and here. Keep on posting!

    • July 29, 2014 1:42 am

      You are so right about the minefield of buying fish Michelle. I avoid salmon and try to eat sustainably – but the information is conflicting. We all have to do what we can though don’t we.
      Thanks for following on Insta 🙂

  17. July 24, 2014 5:59 am

    I never like the fish I cook. It grosses me out for some reason. I love fish eating out though? Weird I know.

  18. July 24, 2014 11:29 am

    Oh, I envy you this course. I love the view – it is something I remember from our visit and stay in Dartmouth., We went to an excellent fishmonger in the town and he had fantastic local fish which we cooked for dinner. I like the way you were taught about the shapes of fish 🙂

    • July 29, 2014 1:46 am

      Oh wow Tandy – must go back to Dartmouth soon….

  19. July 24, 2014 12:03 pm

    Lovely post. I’m from Mangalore, the coastal city of India where the cuisine is heavily based on seafood. My dad refuses to go a day without eating fish which is a staple every lunch at home. I’ve grown up on a diet which mainly consisted of seafood purchased fresh from the markets in U.A.E. Albeit not a varied variety, each fish was perfectly scaled, cut and cooked by my mom, and I’m glad to say after all these years I’ve learnt a few tips and tricks as well. I still feel “icky” when touching or cleaning a fish but I know the end result of the fish slowly boiling away in a coconut based gravy is all worth the effort.

    • July 29, 2014 1:47 am

      You know that a slimy fish is a good one though don’t you? Thanks for sharing this Jasmine… you’ve made me think about my own fishy childhood. This was mainly in batter from the fish and chip shop!

  20. ramblingtart permalink
    July 24, 2014 3:19 pm

    I love fish, but am only confident with the fish I grew up with: red snapper, tilapia, salmon. The fish in Australia is so strange and challenging to me. 🙂

    • July 29, 2014 1:48 am

      I would have thought that you would get those kinds of fish in Oz? My friend The Hedonista (Australian) talks about fish a lot – but I don’t recognise the names she uses at all!

  21. July 24, 2014 3:47 pm

    Nice post Sally (like always). I love fish, this post reminded me of my upbringing in Algiers by the Mediterranean sea. The fresh sardines, red mullet, whiting: marinated, grilled or slow cooking tajine. Spicy with chermoula or with a fresh homemade aioli on the side. So tasty and so good. Thank you so much for sharing, your experience 🙂

    • July 29, 2014 1:49 am

      Your fishy upbringing sounds a lot more inspiring than mine!

  22. July 24, 2014 5:00 pm

    I am heartened to hear that this wasn’t something you were looking forward to, and not feeling too confident about as I am the same. Growing up in Florida it was not uncommon for us to go out both fresh and ocean fishing (well, Gulf of Mexico) so I picked up techniques in teenage-hood (reluctant I’m sure). One top tip was to hold the fish with one hand inside of a clean garbage bag and thrust the other hand in to scale it – keeping the mess in the bag. But one wrong move and you descaled your hand! But it would be so good to get professional tips and to do it in such a relaxed and homely setting. Mostly I am lazy and will ask our excellent fishmonger to sort it all for me but freshly prepped makes such a difference and of course a lot cheaper than someone else going it for you. Bonus of all the ‘gubbins’ to make stock with too. Great links too, Sally.

    • July 29, 2014 1:50 am

      Actually we scaled the fish in exactly that way Kellie. The fish scaler saved your hand though. The benefit of having stock out of the trimmings is part of the appeal – nose to tail eating.

  23. July 25, 2014 8:01 am

    I wish I was knew how to cook fish. I always end up disappointed when I try. It seems like you learned so much here. Thank you for sharing your experiences with us!

  24. July 25, 2014 6:58 pm

    What an amazing course! I am trying to get better with fish, this would be just the learning experience I need!

  25. July 27, 2014 11:07 am

    What a fabulous course, I’m putting it on my wish list. I can do lobster, crab etc, but I’d love to understand more about fish themselves, I tend to cook the same old way.

    • July 29, 2014 1:51 am

      Loved your lobster post. I was really nervous about this bit – but not anymore

  26. July 28, 2014 6:09 pm

    I am often surprised at how hesitant people are to cook fish as if it is Really Difficult. In fact, it is super easy! It would be nice to know more about the different fish species and to get some fresh cooking ideas. One does tend to get into a rut…

    • July 29, 2014 1:52 am

      It’s the enormous variety of fish that’s off putting I think. Simple is best I think for cooking.

  27. July 28, 2014 9:55 pm

    My kids love fishing and I promised to cook the first big catch – after the initial fear of what I would find when I gutted one, it was surprising easy. And eating something we caught, although it was tiny, was a revelation to them. Love this post – thanks for sharing!

    • July 29, 2014 1:52 am

      I love eating what I catch – unfortunately very seasick!

  28. July 31, 2014 1:50 am

    Such a fun fish post, Sally! I loved reading it all! Great video too! 🙂 Cool! xxx
    I love fish a lot too & eat what is in season in Belgium. Some fishes are still very pricey!

  29. July 31, 2014 2:04 am

    I’m so glad you enjoyed it in the end! We do eat a bit of fish (probably not as much as we should) but I am completely and utterly rubbish at filleting. I end up with tiny pieces of mangled flesh and chopped up bits of bones. Sounds like I need to practice more!

  30. August 9, 2014 1:26 pm

    I’m a huge fan of shellfish – there’s always plaice for it at my table (sorry, couldn’t resist that terrible pun).

    One of the greatest joys for me is pairing shellfish with wine – the most divine combination I’ve found is lobster and chablis.

    I just ate breakfast but this post has made me very hungry again…


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