Victoria Townsend is Head of Retail and Innovation at Ocean Fish, the company responsible for buying the most fish from South-west markets and processing up to 30 species per day. We chatted to her about the secret world of processing, Ocean Fish’s work in ‘telling the story’ of British fish, and their mission to get British retailers on board with the wonderful species available in our own waters.
Ocean Fish is owned by the Lakeman family, who have been fishing out of Cornish ports for 400 years. They are deeply rooted in the Cornish fishing community, Victoria tells us, and are defined by a vital, dynamic connection with the catching sector. ‘From Andrew Lakeman’s aunts darning nets on the docks, watching the men come in from fishing and waiting to help them load their catch… that basic level of connection between catch, processing and customer has evolved, but it’s never gone away.’
Every morning, Ocean Fish buy fresh, locally-caught produce at Newlyn market, where their own boats land – and the speed at which this fish arrives with customers is no small feat – usually within 24 hours of landing! The processing factory is only one hour from all South-west markets, which means the fish is incredibly fresh upon arrival.
‘Processing is so varied,’ says Victoria. ‘Because the South-west is a mixed fishery – and we import some species from abroad – our filleters have to be incredibly skilled’. When processing, one has to foster a deep understanding of each fish – in the case of Ocean Fish, that’s 30 species! ‘One minute the team are filleting a flat fish like lemon sole, the next they’re gutting a round fish like hake, then cuttlefish… it’s so impressive.’
The fish are then shipped off to customers, both in wholesale and retail. Within retail, Ocean Fish supply large multiples, independents and online businesses.
Steeped in local, traditional knowledge and emboldened by a love for Cornish fish, Ocean Fish’s retail vision is to ‘grow the South-west offering in the retail world’, Victoria explains. ‘It’s quite tricky, because retailers always want the ‘top five’: cod, haddock, prawns, salmon and tuna.’
‘It’s a bit odd,’ she says, ‘we export Cornish fish out to places like Singapore – they love the story, they love the quality… but British retailers have not traditionally been so interested. We’ve got 30-odd species landing daily in Newlyn, it’s so important that Seafood Cornwall continues to shout about it. It’s about trying to convince the rest of the UK, outside of Cornwall, to try something different and support British fish.’
Despite the visible changes happening on a small scale, with individuals beginning to buy fish directly from fishermen through schemes like Fish To Your Door, Victoria believes that ‘until a major retailer gets on board with Southwest fish, in a pre-pack format, we’re not going to change the way that the British public eat fish.’
There are, of course, challenges to getting seasonal, British fish as a regular fixture in high-street stores; it would quite literally mean an overhaul of our expectations and attitudes. Unlike a lot of other countries, the food on offer in the UK tends to be available all-year-round, rather than aligning with seasonality. And fishing – as one of the last remaining industries that hunts wild food and is at the direct effect of nature – is all about seasonality and weather.
‘Retail is always going to be hard with a wild migratory species,’ Victoria explains. ‘The retailer might want 6000 packs of 100% fresh, South-west species, and I’ll say ‘no problem!’… and then the wind blows. And there’s no fish.’
Ocean Fish – like many processors – straddle the two worlds of sourcing and consuming. They maintain a strong, historic link with the fishing industry in Newlyn and Mevagissey, whilst also making sure that there’s customers at the other end – as Victoria says, ‘there’s no point catching fish if nobody wants to eat it!’ Part of this work involves promoting under-loved, local species, her favourite being Megrim, or as Ocean Fish like to call it, Cornish Sole. But that’s a whole different kettle of fish. Keep an eye on our blogs for more about this under-appreciated, under-valued species that – we think – will one day take the seafood industry by storm.
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