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‘Fish Butchery’ book review

THIS renowned phrase, “give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime,” might as well have been minted from the enterprising acumen of Josh Niland, the Sydney, Australia-based seafood chef who’s all about sustainability and an approach with zero tolerance for wastage!

The Maitland, New South Wales born and raised native is a proponent of fish as a basis of a value chain which reaches nautical miles beyond the all familiar ubiquitousness as presented in the English offering of fish ‘n’ chips (even this claim is disputed, as a counter argument traces it to 15th century Portugal) or in the case of a South Africans tradition, on Easter weekend plates atop household tables!

Diagnosed with a Wilms tumour (a rare kidney cancer which mainly affects children) at age eight – whilst recovering after enduring two years of chemotherapy, found comfort in food and developed a deep interest in it – enough to become a leading gastronome!

Now 34-year-old at the time of the release of this, his latest cookery book, Niland had initially ventured into his niche market with the opening of the Sydney-based fish eatery, Saint Peter in 2016 and within 18 months, had deemed it necessary to open another business – a fish shop, in his words, “which would extend beyond a restaurant experience in pursuit of greater standards.”

Hatched from a building which previously served as a hair salon in the district of Paddington – some 5,4 km from the Sydney CBD – the advent of the new operation named Fish Butchery came to redefine how consumers of fish from his home country and onto Singapore would be uncalculated with an awareness and appreciation of the whole value proposition of the comestible, beyond habitual indulgence of it!

Essentially a retail market concept offering sustainable fish species, Niland’s fish butchery was brought into being borne of the intent to manifest basic and complex techniques geared towards extracting value from a whole fish – in his and team’s approach.

The innovative chef-restaurateurauthor (this read is even written by him) defined said techniques as butchery cuts, dry-ageing, charcuterie and a range of value-added products which could emanate from a whole fish.

The everyday descriptions, catch, cut and craft form the spine of not only Niland’s unique approach to his career – which sets him apart from hordes of seafood cooks – but that of the book as well in a literary suffusing of crisp black font text on neat white pages complimented by the accompaniment of the most sumptuously kaleidoscopic imagery and illustrations courtesy of fellow contributors, viz, photographer, Rob Palmer and illustrator, Reg Mombassa, respectively!

Given the amount of information, knowledge and previously-unimagined-ideas contained in this delightsome read, the Cs, viz, Catch, Cut, Craft lend structure to the elementary narrative contained upon the page-by-page proportionate layout.

Some gleaned excerpts from this segment distinguish the role of a fishmonger vis-à-vis a fish butcher’s whilst discussing critical issues appertaining to the landing, storing and processing of fish once caught – with Niland expressing his intent to remove the onus around the quality and diversity of the fish being sold, from the consumer and placing it squarely on the shoulders of the industry.

Whereas the fishmonger deals and trades in fish and strips it of its scales and offal and sells it as a whole piece or fillet after subjecting it to the hygiene process of cleaning it – a fish butcher has to see to it that one fish can represent the value of two!

Contrary to widely held practices, Niland asserts that the washing of freshly caught fish causes cell damage, soggy flesh, ‘fishy’ smells and a speedier decomposition.

His solution: remove the washing and wet-processing and not only will you have a fish which lasts longer, taste better and easier to cook – but a market, fish shop or supermarket that has no smell at all!

The section dissects constitute parts of a fish, the tools needed to process it, preparation of fish for butchery and a variety of the cuts into which they can be transformed. In a world where 50 per cent of the world’s fish caught is wasted, why do we think it’s ok to throw half a fish in the bin? Enquired the author.

Featured here too is a detailed introduction of tools of the trade required in the preparation of the food source which include eclectically named ones such as, the pacojet, robot coupe, cryovac machine, tre spade sausage filler, digital probe thermometer – to the more familiar such as a cleaver, tweezers, scales, meat slicer, et cetera. Each instrument’s function is explained in meticulous detail.

Step-by-step instructions illustrated through colourful imagery and easily understood instructions offer in-depth details regarding how to go about basic filleting, navigating through the various parts and with which tool, etc.

Herein Niland’s innovativity is splashed out to its zenith as he narrates on the accruing of greater margins through leveraging the product’s (fish, id est) off-shoot extensions such as the utilization of fish offal in alcohol production – amongst a plethora of possibilities!

Delicious variations on established offerings such as chorizo sausages, cold-smoked fish ham, tuna pistachio salami and fish bacon comprise some of the fish-based charcuterie Niland’s establishment has been dishing up since 2018.

Outrageously, his fish-based business model has also inspired lebensraum for creatives to produce artisanal goods such as fish bone ceramics, fish-fat soap, fish-fat candles, fish-fat cocktails, etc., for their own livelihoods!

Winner of the James Beard Book of the Year and the Andre Simon Award, the enticingly bounded hardback is a collector’s item brimming with tips, new ideas and adventurous recipes any host of pescatarian proclivity seeking to impress their guests at dinners or braais can reference from!

Published by Hardie Grant Books and distributed in South Africa by Jonathan Ball Publishers, Fish Butchery: Mastering the Catch, Cut and Craft is available at leading bookstores countrywide.

It retails for R775

Top image Mark Best ( Joshua Niland, author of Fish Butchery –Mastering the Catch, Cut and Craft).

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