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Is this the best fish and chips in Frome? [WFJ #12]
The first in a series profiling the town's unmissable drinks, dishes, and other foods
I’m just going to say it – all fish and chips taste the same.1
But for a few exceptions, it’s the chippies that make it so. The fish they serve is, let’s be honest, fairly miserable. The chips aren’t chips but cuboids of anaemic potato. The batter, often soggy if otherwise nondescript, might be the best thing about it.
There’s a reason for this – in the majority of cases, it's all concocted from the same batter from the same supplier, using the same trawled cod from questionable stocks, served with the same fryer-ready potato chips straight out the packet.
But there’s another way. One that takes the form of responsibly-caught monkfish steeped in a batter of free range eggs, Shipton Mill flour, and panko bread crumbs. Served with skin-on fries and mayo tartare sauce made in-house from scratch.2
Nay, this isn’t fish 'n' chips as you know it. It’s monkfish scampi and fries, and it’s one of the best dishes Frome has up its sleeve.
“We wanted to do fish and chips with a difference,” says Angus Hilleary, owner of Hesperian fishmonger and kitchen on the Station Approach. “I remember my dad telling me that back in the day, before the ‘80s, if you had scampi it was predominantly monkfish, because it was a cheap, meaty fish that hardly got sold, but did make an amazing scampi.
“Then some bright spark wrapped in prosciutto and served it in a restaurant and the price – a bit like what happened to sea bass – went through the roof. It's stayed there ever since, as chefs love cooking with it.
“Monkfish was then replaced with frozen prawns, which we all know and love from our childhood but actually, isn't the nicest thing in the world – with shrimp or prawn scampi you get that explosion of hot water in your mouth, and it's quite mushy. Prawns are best eaten as they are.”3
Like the other seafood sold from their counter, Hesperian’s monkfish is from Cornwall. More specifically, usually Newlyn, a harbour so small only fishing day boats typically come and go. By comparison, cod and haddock from your highstreet chippy has almost certainly been trawled from massive boats way out at sea. At one point, a 266 ft sub-Arctic supertrawler named Kirkella was catching up to 12% of the fish ultimately sold in UK chippies alone. It’s trawlers like this that are synonymous with seabed damage and indiscriminate fishing, making them virtually incompatible with sustainable fishing methods and marine conservation.
Since Hesperian does in fact source cod and haddock, all this might sound a bit hypocritical. But like with any fish, Angus only buys it when it’s good quality and stocks are at stable levels. “We're dictated by what the small dayboat markets are saying really,” he says.
As for monkfish, that fished out of the North Sea and West coast of Scotland has recently joined the Marine Stewardship Council’s ‘do not eat’ list, along with 13 other species of fish and seafood. To consume fish sustainably is to not exclusively eat the usuals like cod, haddock, or tuna, and to eat what’s come from healthy stocks. But it’s also about eating the right species at the right time of year. While monkfish is a deep water fish (hence its pretty face) and is in season all year round, those like gurnard and cuttlefish are at their best in June/July, and the winter months, respectively.4 “At the moment there's masses of plaice around,” says Angus, “but later on we'll see sardines and mackerel.”
You could say Hesperian’s ‘season’ is late spring and summer. That’s when it’s in full swing, as fish al fresco ramps up at the Station Approach in the best of the British weather. This year, they’ll even crack out the barbie for grilling mackerel, sardines, and whole brill. As good as it sounds, it’ll take a lot more than that to oust scampi fries from the menu.
Your right to reply is in the comments. Otherwise, let’s all agree my opinion is correct.
The fries, Angus admits, are pre-chipped from a packet. But they’re damn good enough for you to not care. “To buy in bags of potatoes and do my own chips I'd be here all day,” he says.
Some sources say it was prawn scampi that came first as the ‘real’ scampi. Whatever the case, one may consider it an inferior choice.