Buying fish can be a daunting process, especially if you’re not sure what you are looking for. On top of that, making sure the fish you buy is fresh can seem like an added obstacle. The good news is that by following the steps below, and with a quick trip to your local fishmonger, you’ll be able to pick the good from the bad in no time.

To give you the best advice available we’ve gathered the help of the experts and asked our local Cornish fishmongers to share their top tips on how they make sure you’re buying delicious, fresh fish.

Seabourne fish display

Fishmongers take pride in their beautifully arranged fish displays. This one from Seabourne Fish centers on a spread of fresh, top quality mackerel.

Following these steps will help to revolutionise the taste of your seafood suppers: most people realise how amazing fresh fish is once they’ve tried it, and never go back. Buying from your local fishmonger will also give you access to more variety than supermarkets and the opportunity to discover new tasty fish to try in recipes.

Here’s what they recommend you look out for:

1. The skin

The appearance of a fish’s skin can tell you a lot about how fresh it is. 

‘The skin should shine… Over time the skin dries out if it’s been there a while.’ explains John from Quayside Fish. A bright, wet, glossy fish with a metallic sheen and smooth surface is a good indication that it’s fresh. Avoid fish that look dry, dull and wrinkly – this is a good indication it is old and the flesh has become soft.

2. The gills

John says the gills should be ‘lovely and red. If they’re brown or black, then they’re past their best’.To add to this, keep an eye out for blood on the gills – this is also a good sign that it was caught recently.

3. The smell

Contrary to belief, ‘fresh fish doesn’t smell fishy’, John says: ‘so if your fish smells fishy, it’s probably not fresh.’ John’s customers always remark how nice his shop smells: ‘a lady came in today and said ‘what a lovely smell’, and that’s because the premises don’t smell of fish!


4. The touch test

‘Rigor Mortis in the fish is always a very very good indicator that it’s nice and fresh.’ explains David from Seabourne Fish. By firmly pressing your fingers over the fish’s skin, should see the flesh spring back and your fingerprints disappear. If they don’t and the indent remains, this usually means the fish is old and the flesh has become soft.
However, remember to consider the species when pushing your finger straight into a naturally soft fish! As John explains ‘Depending on the time of year and fish, generally [the touch test] is a good guide – but not always. When it’s slinky, it doesn’t bounce back.’

When a fishmonger refers to a fish being ‘slinky’, this means it has particularly soft flesh. This can happen to species around spawning season when the fish are eating less. Remember that you can always ask your fishmonger for advice if you’re unsure.

5. The eyes

Eyes on a freshly caught fish should be bright and clear. Usually, if the eyes look cloudy or glazed over then the fish has passed its best. However, as David from Seabourne Fish points out, sometimes a fish ‘might have a cloudy eye because it’s been damaged in some way.’ So what do we advise? If the eyes are cloudy, check the fish for damage before making your final decision.

Fresh fish on the quayside

Produce in wet fish shops has often come straight from the local fish market – landed on the same day!

So there you have it – a pocket guide to top quality seafood. Buying your fish locally from fishmongers will always land you a fresher catch than buying from supermarkets – not least because the fish usually goes straight there from the fish market.

In fact, most fishmongers sell fish landed that day – often knowing the fisherman and even the exact boat that has caught your fresh fish or shellfish. ‘I get fish landed directly from the fishermen… I can let customers know it was caught by the blue boat on the harbour on the right-hand side and the customers can go and see the boat which landed the fish to me’, John told us.

‘The best fish I’ve ever tasted’

As well as getting you the freshest, highest quality fish, buying from your local fishmonger has social benefits, too. As David explains, ‘you’re not only supporting your local fishmonger, but also the fishermen that supply your local fishmonger. Here in Falmouth, we use around six different individual boats and always aim to give them a very fair price. By supporting us, it’s a knock-on effect, supporting the local fishing community – which is what it’s all about.’ 

Fresh fish and the feel-good factor of supporting local business… can it get any better? Well, it’s certainly worth a try. As one of John’s customers remarked, the fish he bought from him was ‘the best fish he had ever tasted’.

Are there any other tips for choosing fresh fish that we should know about?

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