Day One of my trip back to the days when shopping was a social activity and food still had its head on. The supermarket is already a distant memory. I’ve left the car in the multi-storey and am strolling through the rain to the market, reusable bag (Soil Association logo facing out) in hand and I can’t remember when I’ve felt so excited about buying fresh fish.
The fishmonger, as leathery faced and smelly as I remember fishmongers of my youth, is shooing flies away from the open-jawed aliens of the deep whose body parts I’ve been happily grilling for the past 25 years without a clue to where they came from. Now, I’m going local. I’m thinking baked mackerel for lunch and a cod pie for supper. Remembering Jamie Oliver’s advice, I take a sniff. “Oh, no you don’t” says the fishmonger. “If you can’t see that it’s fresh by looking at it, you should go to the supermarket.” Horrified, I put it down quickly and ask sheepishly if he has a wet wipe. Fishmongers seem much friendlier in Sainsbury’s.
I feel a fraud, but he’s right; I am one of those Johnny-come-latelies who have watched too much Jamie and think we can save the world by shopping locally and seasonally. As I slope away, I want to stamp my foot and tell him about my childhood summers of crab filled rock-pools, of campside suppers, pulling our freshly-caught mussels from their shells and mopping up the sea-salty white wine sauce with a hunk of local bread, of barbecued mackerel swapped for next to nothing from the local fishermen bringing their boats in with that day’s catch. I want to tell him my family’s stories of the Saturday morning door to door visits by the women from Penclawdd who would carry their cockles in baskets perched on their heads.
The years between those bygone countryside summers and my city-based parenting have been largely shrink-wrapped instead of line-caught, and I’ve brought my kids up on a diet of Mediterranean goodness rather than local, seasonal produce. My kids’ idea of a coastline is The Brighton Pier and their relationship with animals is based on their eight rabbits, two hamsters, two cats and an ageing dog. My eldest is more likely to liberate a crab from Shoreham Fish Market than snap its claw and suck out the flesh. I blame the parents. Perhaps it’s time to take them fishing.
Ernie the Fish, whose little boat has been bringing home the catch from Newhaven for more years than he cares to remember, agrees to take us out. The September morning is a stunner, the sea a glassy green, and the kids are already telling me that this is the best day of their lives. I’ve done it; putting a few twenties in the palm of an old seagdog has awarded me the crown I gave my father for strapping crochet hooks to the old broomsticks we used to winkle out our crab dinner from those rock-pools, and I haven’t even got my feet wet. I sit smugly and watch my nature-girls and their gang of mates move like eels about the boat, studying Ernie as he prepares their rods, even picking up a wriggling ragworm and skewering it with their shiny hooks, eager to cast their line.
An hour later, the tide has turned. Our little boat which had been puttering on gentle waves for the first few miles is now rearing wildly on walls of water as if trying to dump the secret supermarket shoppers it has spotted within. My girls have long since crawled into little green-gilled balls and, mercifully, are sleeping through this freak storm, but their father is fighting with 12-year-old seasick Sam for the mackerel bucket after being hurled against the side of the boat. I think he may be concussed.
As our brutalised little army heads home, the sun shines again, and Ernie stoically suggests to the few of us still standing that we cast our rods and see if we can save the day. The low throb of the engine is the only sound as the worms wriggle and hooks glisten in the now dead calm of the English Channel - until Sam throws the last of his breakfast over the side. Suddenly the rods are bucking and bending, children are screaming as the sea comes alive with fish grabbing at Sam’s Coco-Pops, and my sleeping girls wake up wondering what happened to their perfect day. One of the dads clings to his five-year-old before his rod pulls him over the edge, and there are cheers now as mackerel after mackerel are reeled in and flung on deck.
Back home, gloves and aprons on, the girls watch solemnly as we gut the fish and lay them on the barbecue. As the skin toasts and shrinks to reveal the perfect white meaty flesh, I pass one to each of my little fishermen, my body language unable to quite conceal my empty hope. Politely they decline, skip off to grab a sandwich at someone else’s house, and I am left with 36 mackerels staring at me, wondering which of us has won.