Studies and surveys might drive you mad but they’re also a great source of inspiration; particularly for an aspiring columnist with few original ideas of his own. If I find myself bereft of inspiration for an article about food I only need to open a newspaper to read that there’s been a new study that proves, absolutely and once and for all, that we’re killing ourselves or, possibly, living to the age of 150 due to the bad, or possibly good, diet we’re all consuming.
Surveys result in pious advice being given by the I’ve-read-one-or-two-study experts to us mere mortals in order that we’ll live longer and not cost the NHS too much – I guess they mean in the short term.
We’re frequently told that survey after study has shown that fish is good for us so should be included as much as possible as part of our diet. Those surveys show that fish makes us brainy or attractive or athletic or something. I certainly agree that we should eat more; not for the health benefits but because fish tastes great, is very versatile and is the ultimate fast food. However, most people I know hardly ever cook fresh fish. Maybe a little salmon but rarely some John Dory or turbot or maybe squid. You might be one of the few exceptions but, I promise you, most people don’t cook fish – unless it’s frozen, ready breaded or battered.
But, as we’ve been loudly told these last few weeks, it appears we should eat a lot less sugar as well as salt (rather than saturated fat), cooking and eating fish, maybe served up with a few new potatoes and a little salad, is a GOOD THING as it means that we can easily monitor and keep down the amount of these supposedly bad ingredients that we eat. However, it’s not necessarily that easy. And I know, because I’ve carried out my own scientific-ish survey.
Wanting to make a fish soup, I called into one of the larger Tesco’s and happily spent a few minutes choosing a selection of small pieces of fish and shellfish which the assistant bagged and priced for me. Then, remembering that I’d like to make some fish stock as a base, I asked if they had any fish bones and heads. She told me there were loads in the bin out the back but they weren’t allowed to sell them to me. Why? She didn’t know but those were the rules.
At the checkout a smiley supervisor came along. We got chatting and I asked her about the fish bones. She told me there was a very good reason why I wasn’t allowed to buy fish bones off them: health and safety. Admittedly she did accompany this with a frown and a shrug of her shoulders but rules were rules. Maybe I was to feel pleased that they took my welfare so seriously. Maybe they wanted to send someone home with me to check I didn’t burn myself on the cooker.
So I carried out my own, not really scientific, survey and phoned Sainsbury’s and Morrison’s; both of which have wet fish counters like Tesco’s. Morrison’s told me that the only fish they got in whole was oily fish so they didn’t have any white fish bones which are preferable for stock.
I was offered fish stock cubes but who’s to know what’s in them? Sure, they’ve got the ingredients listed in micro-writing along the side of the box but, somehow, you can’t imagine them using the best ingredients when a few flavour enhancers, including salt, will lift their intensity and mask any shortcomings.
I enquired as to whether they had any ready-made liquid fish stock but you still can’t be sure what’d be in there either.
So, surveys tell us to lower our salt intake, and it’d help if, amongst other things, you cooked your own fish. Need a stock to go with it? Well you can’t cook your own because, as my extensive survey showed, it’s near impossible to get fish bones – at least in supermarkets. But you can make one with salty stock cubes. Well that’s alright then.
Oh, and Sainsbury’s? I’m still waiting for them to call me back after leaving three messages.
Previously published in The Northern Echo