Caroline Rye: the urban fishwife

Expanding our vision of seafood beyond the overfished “big five”.

Fishing has been an important part of Scottish life since ancient times, and the country was already exporting herring and salmon to continental Europe in the medieval period. And while Scotland accounts for just 8% of the UK’s population, it lands around two thirds of its overall fish catch! Increasingly, however, British consumers tend to focus on just five species—cod, salmon, tuna, haddock and prawns—which account for as much as three quarters of all the fish eaten. On a one-woman mission to change our attitude toward seafood is chef, blogger and activist Caroline Rye, also known as the Urban Fishwife, a breath of fresh sea air at Slow Fish 2019.

Filleting some halibut at the Slow Food stand at Edinburgh Farmers’ Market. Photo: Caroline Rye

Slow Food: What is the Urban Fishwife and why did you start it?

Caroline Rye: I started the Urban Fishwife blog in Edinburgh in 2017 because I wanted to do more to promote seafood to consumers; I hear so often that people are scared of cooking fish, they don’t know what to do with it! Edinburgh has a proud history of the fishwives who sold the catch door to door from the creels on their backs; I like to think I am continuing that tradition in a modern way!

Our relationship with seafood in the UK shows how removed we are from our food and where it comes from. I wanted to tell the stories of our seafood and the people that produce it, but I also wanted to show how easy and accessible it is to cook at home. If you can teach people some basic kitchen skills it can open up a whole new world to them. It’s just about building confidence.

Creel caught from Scotland’s icy waters. Photo: Caroline Rye

SF: Your main project on the blog is called Neptune’s Bounty. What can you tell us about it?

CR: It’s a challenge I set myself to eat 52 different species, a different one each week, to show what you can do with seafood beyond the so-called ‘big 5’, much of which is imported and/or farmed. We’ve got nearly 100 edible species in the waters around the UK so it’s absolutely crazy that we only eat these five. It’s essential that we eat a wider variety to help reduce the pressure on overfished stocks. Many of these lesser-known species are caught as bycatch but if there was more demand for them on the market then both fishers and fish stocks would benefit. I also wanted to show how delicious all these different types of fish are, what a pleasure to cook and eat; we’re missing out on so many flavors if we just eat the same things all the time!

SF: How is the challenge going so far?

CR: I’ve been trying to plan in advance what species to feature as I want to show how seafood is seasonal, but sometimes it just depends what I can find in the fishmongers or at the fish counter. So that’s been a challenge. There are a couple of species that have finished for the season now so I’ll have to wait till they are available again to feature them or find an alternative. I’ve cooked witch which is a kind of flatfish, not dissimilar to sole or megrim, and pollock, which is one of the most sustainable species according to the latest Marine Conservation Society’s Good Fish Guide. I’ve got some good ones coming up including a variation on eggs benedict with whiting!

SF: What can we expect from you at Slow Fish 2019?

CR: I’ll be sharing my experiences with Neptune’s Bounty and giving some practical tips to help inspire others to try it for themselves. I’ll also be doing an educational session for students talking about food writing, blogging and photography with seafood in mind. I’ll also be presenting a Cooking School event at the Chefs’ Alliance Kitchen, creating two dishes that showcase really good seafood, cooked simply and absolutely full of flavor, in line with my Neptune’s Bounty approach and using Ark of Taste products in my recipes.

Plaice goujons with parsley and Parmesan. Photo: Caroline Rye

I want to show people that seafood can be really easy and fun to cook; you don’t need to be an expert chef, have a kitchen full of equipment or even know how to fillet or skin a fish—though those are great skills to learn! You just need to be inquisitive about what you buy and some have basic kitchen skills. It’s about making it accessible for all and removing some of the fear around fish.

SF: Finally, what does Slow Food mean to you?

CR: Slow Food is very important to me as an ethos. One of the biggest things for me is that it’s about the pleasure of food and conviviality as much as anything else. That for me is at the heart of a good meal, everyone gathered around the table enjoying good food and company.

you can check out Caroline’s blog The Urban Fishwife and follow her on Instagram! And if you’re feeling adventurous, try cooking her Eggs Ecosse yourself!

by Jack Coulton

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