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There is nothing quite as wonderful as fish at its freshest; bright clear eyes, firm flesh with lovely shimmery scales, bright red gills covered with clear slime and a fresh odour, and belly walls intact. Fish is packed with essential vitamins and minerals and prepared and served simply, perhaps with a salad and some new potatoes, it makes a healthy, delicious and nutritious lunch or supper. Fresh fish is also very versatile – marinate it and serve it raw in sushi or ceviche, poach it, roast it, stuff the belly with herbs and grill or bake it, steam it, barbecue it, curry it, pan fry it, the possibilities are endless

In Ramsgate and Broadstairs, where I live, fresh fish from the fishmongers is high quality, competitively priced compared to the supermarkets with a good variety to choose from despite all the bureaucracy, fish quotas and declining fish stocks which have battered the British fishing industry over the decades; let’s not get on to the politics of that here just yet, suffice to say that UK fishing rights are currently taking centre stage in negotiations with the EU regarding any Brexit deal we might strike and the future of our fishermen’s livelihood, and that of the fish that swim in our seas, are being fought for tooth and nail.

I shop mostly at the two remaining local fishmongers, either Fruit de Mer of 10 The Broadway, Broadstairs who have 15 or 16 day boats, or Cannons stall on a Friday or Saturday at Ramsgate Harbour. At one time, fishmongers in Thanet were plentiful – in Ramsgate alone, there used to be 8 wet fish shops – but one by one they shut up shop as the once-buoyant industry became ever more unpredictable and constrained by red tape, fishing quotas and climate change and, more generally in the economic stakes, Thanet got left behind.

Owned by Jason Llewellyn, Fruits de Mer are the last remaining fishmongers in Broadstairs. Jason began working there at the age of 11 and when he was 17 he bought out the business. Fruits de Mer are renowned suppliers of high-quality fresh fish and shellfish in the south-east of England and are one of the finest in the country. They source sashimi-grade fresh fish and shellfish daily from the clear waters around the Thanet coastline. Their catch is sourced and landed in an ethical and sustainable way and arrives within hours at the shop where the high quality lobsters and crabs are prepared, cooked and dressed to order.

All their fishing boats are under 10 metres and each boat fishes either single-handedly or with only one extra crew member. Dedicated potting boats target the local shellfish, while the netting and lining boats target the array of fish including bass, turbot, brill, skate and gurnard, the focus always being on what species are in season.

Fruits de Mer supply some 200 fine dining establishments and public houses throughout Kent, as well as Michelin-starred restaurants, with the most amazing fish including line-caught bass, turbot, brill and Dover sole. They have also supplied Buckingham Palace and major international events, including The Monte Carlo Grand Prix, and various television programmes such as The Great British Menu. However, what isn’t reserved for the shop and its regular customers will often land on European tables every day.

Situated opposite the Clock Tower and often served by Michael Penn (who himself once owned a fish shop), Cannons Fishmongers and Seafood Stall on Ramsgate Harbour Parade are a family-owned business established in the late 1880s and are the only remaining fishmongers in Ramsgate. They sell quality fresh local fish and shellfish and offer pre-ordered shellfish platters for £30 comprising whole lobster, dressed crab, oysters, langoustines, crevettes and shell-on prawns, and are proud to supply many of the businesses in the area. Specialities on the stall include local lobsters and crabs, but the locally caught fish including sea bass, cod, skate and haddock I also highly recommend. Again, a fresh and sustainably-sourced catch is key and arrives on the stall within hours of being landed. Now in his mid-seventies, Michael has been a fishmonger for over 40 years and went to work at Cannon’s 14 years ago when his own shop closed. He once told me that he could not contemplate retirement as he would get bored and selling fish keeps him feeling young at heart.

Brill (scophthalmus rhombus)is a flat fish in the turbot family but without the fancy turbot prices and is often found in deeper waters in the English Channel. Similar in taste and appearance to turbot, brill has a distinctive light brown skin with white, black and grey speckles all over the body and beautiful creamy white flesh on the underside. It has a sweet taste and firm texture and is amazing either pan fried or grilled. Brill will feed on fish but mostly prawns, crustaceans and marine worms and can reach up to 3ft long and 20 lb in weight.

During the spring, fully-grown brill do venture into shallower water to spawn in sandy or muddy ground and may also live on shingle seabeds. They are not fussy eaters and will interchange between scavenging and hunting. They will search the seabed for any marine worms, invertebrates, lobsters, crabs, prawns and will also hunt any low-lying fish and sand eels. Because of their likeness to turbot, the two species are often confused, however turbot have a rounder body shape and rougher skin whereas brill are more elongated and are smoother. Often trawled, brill are a species on the IUCN list of Least Concern as the commercial pressure on this sea fish is not regarded as a cause for worry.

The best time to target brill is in the spring when it is in season, although boat anglers are able to catch the fish pretty often because of the deeper, offshore water they prefer, anything from 10 metres to 100 metres deep. Most shore anglers will only catch brill during the spring breeding season when they are in range at a distance over sandy or shingle sea beds. The best way to maximise the distance of casts is by using clipped down rigs with hooks 1/0 – 2/0 in size to enable larger specimens to be caught, but smaller brill are still able to fit the hook into their mouth, tempted by a bait of mackerel strip, peeler crab, squid and worm when the fish is present and feeding.

The brill I used for my recipe comprised two large fillets from Fruits de Mer in Broadstairs. which I bought and cooked in early May along with a good handful of samphire from the same place, plus a side of wilted sea beet (wild spinach) foraged from Pegwell Bay.

INGREDIENTS (Serves 2)

  • 2 large local fillets of brill, skin on
  • Handful of Samphire
  • Sea beet or spinach
  • Unsalted butter
  • Zest and juice of half a lemon
  • Sea salt and freshly-ground black pepper

Rinse the fillets of brill in clean, cold running water and pat dry on kitchen paper. Season with sea salt and freshly ground pepper and set aside.

Meanwhile pick the tough stalks off the foraged sea beet, or alternatively a regular bag of spinach, place in a colander and wash well under cold running water. Shake well and set aside.

Place the bunch of samphire in a colander and rinse well under cold running water. Shake well and set aside.

Place a skillet on a medium heat, add a generous knob of butter and a little olive oil to the pan. The olive oil will prevent the butter from burning. When the butter has melted and starts to sizzle, place the brill fillets in the skillet one by one, skin side down, holding each fillet by the tail and placing it gently in the pan away from you to avoid splashes and scalding. Cook the fillets for 2-3 minutes on each side, flipping over when the skin side down starts to look crispy and the flesh opaque. To check, gently ease a fish slice or palette knife underneath the fillet, turn the fillet over and cook for another 2-3 minutes. Remove the brill fillets from the skillet and place on absorbent kitchen paper or a j-cloth while you make the sauce.

Meanwhile place a saucepan or skillet over a medium heat and then add a drop of salted water. Once it starts to simmer, add the spinach leaves and wilt down for about 30 seconds. Remove from the heat.

To make the sauce for the fish, add more butter to the skillet and toss in the samphire turning quickly and add the zest and juice of half a lemon and season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Toss the samphire again and remove from the heat.

To plate up, remove the wilted spinach leaves from the pan and place some in the centre of each plate. Place a brill fillet on the spinach, skin side down, and then spoon the samphire and the lemon butter mixture over the top of the fish. Serve with buttered new potatoes or a generous spoon of creamy mashed potatoes.

NOTES – Brill is also delicious served with a lobster sauce or gremolata or baked whole with green pesto.