THE FISH AUCTION AT NEWLYN HARBOUR
FIFTEEN STORIES TAKES A DAWN TRIP WITH FISHMONGER AND WHOLESALER MATTHEW STEVENS TO EXPLORE THE CENTURIES OLD INDUSTRY.
- WORDS & IMAGES BY BETH DRUCE.
On the edge of the Cornish Peninsula, Newlyn is an industrial harbour that has been in operation since the 15th century. That's a whopping 600 years of Cornish fishermen congregating at 6am each morning to auction off their catch. I ponder this point on a September morning as the sun comes up with Matthew Stevens, whose eponymous fishmongers and wholesalers has been trading since the late 1940s.
Stevens, right back to his great-grandfather enjoyed close relations with the fishing industry; his father made the shift from fisherman to fishmonger after discovering he wasn't great at sea. With over fifty years in the business Stevens is a walking encyclopaedia, what he doesn't know about the Cornish fish trade isn't worth knowing.
"In Scotland you've got the biggest fishing course of all the land and the biggest fish of anywhere in Europe, but its haddock, hake, cod and a few more species" Stevens explains. "But in Cornwall, we get the dory the turbot and the brill, the red mullet and the squid. Its quite exceptional, and a great market here in the South West".
Fifteen Cornwall have enjoyed a close relationship with Matthew Stevens since the restaurant opened in 2006. A stalwart of the food industry he has a wealth of knowledge, especially in regard to Cornish fish. Stevens also supports the Fifteen Cornwall apprentice programme, facilitating sourcing trips to Newlyn and his own headquarters, in St Ives.
Inside the harbour buildings, dozens of fish-filled crates line the wet floor. Here, fish is sorted and graded, and scientists from the fisheries take samples for research. Not before long the bidding begins and I watch as deals happen quickly and efficiently, the auction is discreet and swift. Once the sales are secured the fish set off towards their final destination, sometimes close by to fish merchants like Matthew Stevens who will then supply restaurants, but often much further afield to mainland Europe and beyond.
Newlyn Harbour didn't always operate on such a wide scale. Originally it was used for Pilchard fishing. When the railway line was extended to Plymouth the fisherman started to fish for mackerel and quickly became one of the best mackerel fleets in the world. With the rebuilding of the Old Harbour and the reconstruction of the North and South Pier in the late 1900s, Newlyn became one of the safest manmade harbours and could be accessed at any tide.
"Today the boats go out up to 100 plus a few more miles" Stevens tells me. "[They] often work closer to the shoreline, it just depends on the seasons and what species they are targeting" he explains. "You could get as many as thirty-five varieties of fish on the parameter which is exceptional, you don't get many markets like that. There's a big cross section of species that we get in Cornwall on a daily basis".
I quiz Stevens on our changing tastes for Cornish fish and seafood, how breeds that we wouldn't have dreamed of eating ten years ago are now in high demand and make regular appearances on the menu at Fifteen Cornwall. "Gurnards are a prime example" Stevens tells me. "You couldn't give them away and now they are really very expensive. Monkfish is another one. I can remember monkfish floating over the harbour when nobody wanted them. Now you couldn't buy a box of monkfish for under £3-400".
I ask why he thinks there has been such a shift? "When I first started you couldn't give fish away, and a lot of fish now is in the luxury food market and for that I aways thank Keith Floyd. Old Floyd to me he was the pioneer of promoting fish on TV. Obviously Rick [Stein] has been amazing for the fish industry and particularly for Cornwall as well, and then you've got all your other establishments, like Jamie Oliver, and then there is Nathan Outlaw; fish is what he is all about".
Matthew Stevens supply "anyone that uses seafood. Everyone from restaurants, fish and chip shops and small cafes to guest houses, hospitals, schools and old people's homes, we do it". He also maintains a longtime love affair with both the industry and the sea. "I love to see what the sea produces on a daily basis. I am 71 now and it is still my lifeline. I've been speaking to boats in the last ten minutes about landings and then I was speaking to Tim Hughes the Chef Director at Le Caprice Holdings in London about fish, so that could be the extremes I deal in". Le Caprice Holdings are one of Stevens' biggest customers, alongside Bonhams Auctioners, The Wolseley, Claridges and of course Fifteen Cornwall. "We haven't got an awful lot of customers, but we have got some very very nice ones" he exclaims.
And what about sustainability? "I think [greater] providence and sustainability is a great thing, it gives the industry a future really. There have been some amazing recoveries going on in certain species, and the hake fishery in particular. Hake is about the biggest story in the industry at the moment. Today it is a great fishery, it is an MSC fish so it is now one of the most sustainable fish you can buy". It sits on every single menu you could think about in this country right now".
Stevens is also keen to highlight the benefits of greater scientific research into the fishery in measuring the health of certain species of fish. Here, the fishing authorities take a sample of brain from the fish and send it to the laboratory for testing and research, and this gives an indication of how healthy that species of fish is. "It has been particularly proven to work within the hake fishery" Stevens tells me. "It is now so sustainable the guys [hake fishermen] are making a really good living. Fishing has turned around in the last two or three years, there’s no question".
Not that long ago, Matthew Stevens employed just a handful of staff, and now they number nearly 100. It's living proof that the Cornish fish industry is alive and kicking, or swimming, if you'll pardon the pun. It's a phenomenon that Stevens is very grateful to have played a part in. "I'm not going to blow my own trumpet, but we had to have the public buying fish first of all. Because as much as I might want to change the industry, you can't, because people will change it for you. That's what I always think".