“Would you like the head?” the fishmonger asks as he fillets a coley for me. Absolutely. As someone who loves value for money and hates food waste, taking the fish head home is a no-brainer.
It’s the end of the day though, and the box of discarded fish heads under the workbench is overflowing. The truth is that we’re a nation who prefer neat fillets over a fish which is going to stare back at us from the plate. So, every day flavoursome and nutrient-rich fish heads are chucked. “If we’re filleting 100kg of cod, nearly 50kg of heads, guts and bones end up going to landfill” explains Sonny Elliot from Hasting’s Rock-A-Nore Fisheries.
Fish offal has never played a big part in Britain’s culinary history, and in all truth, an about-turn seems unlikely. But taking home a fish head to boil it into a stock is a good half-way-house. Not only does it help capture some of the otherwise lost flavour and nutrients, but a stock uses fish offal in a way which sufficiently distances the end product from its roots. Stock has no eyeballs, no bones.
Many other nations are far less squeamish when it comes to fish heads though. In Nigeria, fishermen manually remove the tongue, gill-covers and cheeks, and salt them on board the fishing boats. In Iceland, specialist machinery has been developed to process by-products. A cleaver splits open the fish head, while another processor removes the gills, and then pulls away the tongue and cheeks.
Cod tongue is a regional specialty in parts of Spain, Scandinavia and North American maritime communities, like Newfoundland. There’s kabuto yaki, the Japanese centrepiece of a grilled tropical fish head, and Portugal’s national dish, fish head soup. The Yup’ik people – who live in the Alaskan and Siberian wilds – still ferment fish heads in barrels buried in the hard earth, turning them into a delicacy known as ‘Tepa’.British cooks have always approached fish heads with less enthusiasm though. Sardine heads play a purely ornamental role in Cornwall’s Stargazy Pie. Then there’s the dreaded Hebridean dish, Crappit Heid, which really is as unappetising as it sounds. A big fish head is stuffed with oats, suet, onion and pepper, and then boiled in seawater. The dish’s roots have been traced back to eighteenth century coastal communities round Caithness, where it was cooked by poor fishing families who had sold off the best cuts. However you look at it, Crappit Heid is a dish eaten out of necessity. Not relished, like other fish head dishes round the world.
When buying a whole fish, it’s worth remembering that the weight of the head is often included in the final price. And a fish head is a big thing – we’re not dealing with a tiny chicken-sized head perched atop of a scrawny neck. On average, a cod’s head makes up 21% of its whole body weight. That’s one fifth of the cost which often ends up in the fishmonger’s bin.
Not only does it seem wasteful discarding a fish head, but buying fish stock is expensive business. Pre-made fish stock comes in round the £2.50 mark for half a litre. When it only takes half an hour to make, it seems crazy not to do it yourself. Especially in a dish where fish stock is the main component – like a chowder or bouillabaisse – and the quality of the stock will dictate the dish’s success.
When it comes to making fish stock the main thing to bear in mind is that the fish head and bones require neither the cooking length nor the cooking temperature of meat stocks. Any more than half an hour at a gentle simmer, and a fish stock will be in danger of turning bitter, or taking on a chalky flavour as the calcium salts in the fish bones start to dissolve into the stock. If, after half an hour of gentle simmering, the stock is not as strongly-flavoured as you’d hoped, then strain it and reduce the strained-stock to concentrate the flavour.
The best trimmings are fish heads, tail, skin and bones. Gills and guts can turn a stock bitter, so leave them out. When it comes to picking a fish, most chefs recommend white fish, and veer away from oily fish like salmon. Nathan Outlaw recommends turbot, brill or sole, while Rick Stein adds plaice to the list.
Because the cooking time for a fish stock is so short, it’s helpful to cut the vegetables quite small, so that as much flavour can be extracted during the half hour of simmering. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall even suggests grating or shredding vegetables. The usual suspects appear in a straightforward fish stock: onion, celery, carrots, a couple of bayleaves. Interestingly, Rick Stein adds button mushrooms to his fish stock recipe, while other additions might range from a sliced fennel bulb to a couple of bruised garlic cloves.
Though the standard technique is to simmer all the ingredients for 25-35 minutes there are a few variations. Steve Pini, executive chef for The Fishmongers’ Company, cooks the onion, celery and carrot before adding the fish trimmings and water. For his ‘Roasted Fish Stock’, Mitch Tonks takes the radical route of blasting his fish trimmings in a hot oven for 30 minutes before transferring them to the stock pot.
Whichever route you choose to go down, take heed of these wise words from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall: ” The golden rule: all the fish trimmings must be scrupulously fresh (or fresh when they were frozen). A fish that only just passes the ‘sniff test’ might have fillets that are just about worthy of the frying pan, but its bones will not be worthy of the stock pot.”
Makes 1 litre
500g-2kg fish trimmings, rinsed in cold water
1.5 litres of water
250ml white wine (optional, but preferable)
1 small onion, sliced
2 celery sticks, sliced
1 large carrot, sliced
1 teaspoon of black or white peppercorns
2 bay leaves
sprigs of tarragon (or other aromatic herbs)
1. Put all the ingredients in a pan, and bring up to a gentle simmer.
2. Simmer for 25-30 minutes, using a slotted spoon to remove any scum which occasionally forms on the surface.
3. Strain through a sieve or muslin. Cool, chill and use within 3 days, or freeze.
Once you’ve made your fish stock, then you can use it for paellas, risotto, fish pies, chowders and bouillabaisse. Don’t feel restricted to using it in fish-only dishes. A robust fish stock will make a delicious base for a pea soup or a miso broth, for example.
This recipe takes inspiration from Tartare sauce – the classic accompaniment to fish and chips. It has a lovely salty-sourness from the gherkins, which is balanced by the creamy rich stock.
‘Cream of Tartare’
4 shallots, finely diced
2 garlic cloves, crushed
2 tbsp vinegar juice from gherkin jar
2 gherkins, diced
800ml fish stock
2 tsp grainy mustard
2 coley fillets
50g green beans, sliced at 2cm
50g smoked lardon
1. Heat the knob of butter in the pan, cook the shallots and garlic for 1 minute. Add the gherkin juice and let everything bubble away gently for another minute.
2. Put the gherkins in the pan. Pour the fish stock over everything, and then stir in the mustard and cream.
3. Meanwhile, start frying the lardons in a separate pan until lovely and crispy.
4. Gently place coley fillets in the stock, which should be bubbling away at a light simmer.
5. Cook for 3-4 minutes, depending on the size of the fillet. Add the beans to the cooking liquid 1 minute before the fish is done.
6. Divide the creamy-stock between two bowls. Place one poached coley fillet in each bowl, and garnish with the crispy lardons.