In Praise of a Poor Man's Fish

Text: Orlando Addis, Photo: Alexandra Genis, Video: Scran Media

Esben Holmboe Bang*** cooked halibut at EFS

Esben Holmboe Bang*** cooked halibut at EFS

Many of our guest chefs have chosen to feature Halibut at Edinburgh Food Studio. We managed to catch Nurdin Topham with James Murray, and Sasu Laukkonen on film preparing their dishes. Both have produced stunning fish dishes using Scottish-caught halibut. So, we thought it would be a good idea to explore this particular ocean-going behemoth in some more detail. Hippoglossus hippoglossus or the Atlantic Halibut is the largest flatfish on the planet. Boats that set out to catch the largest of these deep-sea denizens are often equipped with shark baits and hooks and even a captive bolt or handgun to put a large one down once it’s been successfully landed. Well, how would you feel about sharing a boat in the middle of the North Atlantic with several hundred kilos of angry fish? More to the point, what makes halibut worth it? Why on earth are fishermen prepared to put themselves in this situation in the first place?

Well, for a long time, they weren’t. Until quite recently, halibut was considered a real poor man’s fish. ‘Workhouse turbot’ it was called and was forsaken in favour of more delicate flat fish like sole and turbot. In Orkney halibut was eaten by the fishermen being considered unfit for salting and drying, nor for the tables of the higher ups. In fact, it is only the 1950s as the price of other flatfish rose that fishermen and chefs both turned their attention to halibut. Chefs were quick to praise its meaty texture and solid flavour which is neither too fishy. Inhabiting extremely deep and cold water, these beautiful animals grow extremely slowly, taking at least 10 years to reach sexual maturity. Cod in the North Sea, by comparison, matures at around 4-5 years. These fish can grow to an enormous size; up to 5 metres in length and some 300 kilograms in weight. The oldest recorded halibut caught was 55 years old, although age-modelling predicts that they should be able to survive up to 100 years.

Many of the early Scottish cookery books do include halibut, at least in their suggestions for seasonal fish or as an alternative to turbot or brill. Meg Dods notes that “The halibut, which in Scotland often usurps the name of turbot, is in reality a handsomer-looking fish, and excellent of its kind, but not equal in richness, and far inferior in flavour to the genuine Bannoch Fluke.”. She also remarks that halibut can be aged a few days to let the flavour “ripen and mellow”. While halibut may be a meatier fish than most, overcooked halibut is a sad thing to behold: dry, flaky, tasteless. Perhaps that’s why it had such a bad reputation for so long. Treated simply and baked gently with a little salt and butter until the flesh has just lost its translucency it is unequivocally delicious.

Such slow growth is the reason for its wonderfully dense and meaty flesh, but also the reason for its low resistance to over-fishing. In the early 80s, halibut stocks had been depleted to the point as to prompt attempts to farm them in Argyll. Indeed, the story of halibut fishing serves as a reminder of how much damage the unregulated fishing of a particular species can do in just 30 years. Although halibut farming has been a success in Scotland, it is not without its problems. Being a carnivorous fish, halibut farming relies on a good deal of fish-meal as feed. This often comes from industrial-scale fishing and only puts pressure on other species. Wild halibut, meanwhile, has been listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as endangered since 1996. That’s two levels away from being extinct in the wild. Given the continued popularity of halibut, fishermen and chefs have taken to serving up Reinhardtius hippoglossoides under the name of ‘Greenland halibut’. Both fish belong to the family Pleuronectidae and inhabit the same waters, although the Greenland halibut only grows to 120cm and some 30 years. Like halibut, it’s a slow grower and reaches maturity at 7-8 years old. Since the fishing fleets switched their attention from halibut to Greenland halibut in the 1980s, its numbers have been in steady decline and Greenpeace added it to its red list in 2010.

Nurdin Topham* and James Murray cook Halibut at EFS

It’s a difficult one. As a chef I want everyone to taste just how tasty this long underrated fish can be. Having something of an environmental conscience, however, I cannot encourage you to start pestering your fishmonger for their best wild halibut. In fact, I would honestly encourage you to avoid wild halibut at all costs if our children are ever going to see them outside of a text-book. Fortunately, however, there is a solution. On the Isle of Gigha, just off the Kintyre peninsula, Scottish fish farmers are producing some 75 tons a year of the highest quality halibut in Europe. What is more, these halibut are fed on a diet of certified organic fish trimmings, rather than industrially produced fish-feed. They also smoke their own halibut using Kilchoman whisky barrels which I can personally recommend as an incredible alternative to smoked salmon. More on this great product here.