There are some ingredients which possess the incredible capacity to become an important main course on their own, so perfect that they require very little else, and all that any human intervention can do is either ruin them or treat them with delicacy: fish is one of these. While you can afford to be unfaithful to other tradesmen, remember that the fishmonger’s counter requires devotion.
But how to buy fresh fish and how to recognize it? That fish should be fresh may seem to be an obvious statement, but in actual fact, it cannot be taken for granted. The quality of an ingredient like fish requires a twofold assessment: in the shop and at home, when about to be cooked. What sort of smell and appearance should quality fish have? What particular characteristics should be taken into consideration when you buy fresh fish?
Fine Dining Lovers comes to your aid with its better food shopping guide: everything you need to know – and ask – to avoid unpleasant surprises in front of the fish counter.
A slight aroma of seawater, iodine and brine. That is what we should smell on approaching a fish counter or entering a fishmonger’s shop: cleanliness is a sure sign. Just think what happens to your kitchen if you leave some gilthead scales on the floor: in just a few days the smell would be unbearable. Pay particular attention to shellfish which, when no longer fresh, smells of ammonia. The gills of fresh fish appear bright red and have a briny smell because they are still soaked in seawater. As the days go by, the gills turn yellowish and start to smell pungent.
LOOK AT IT
Fresh fish shines. It’s as simple as that. The fresher it is, the more pristine it looks because it is wrapped in a skin mucous that makes the skin shiny. All fish, even when defrosted, tends to fade and become dull-looking. The colour of fish is never stable. It is iridescent and, when fresh, presents greenish shades that often tend towards blue and a play of shimmery reflections that catch the light. In the case of shellfish, the shell should adhere firmly to the flesh and be devoid of dark patches. The eyes of a fish tell us a great deal: a clear, full, slightly bulging eye and a black pupil are signs of freshness. On the contrary a dull, sunken eye and a grey pupil mean that the fish is past its best.
It may not be so easy to touch it, but fresh fish is slimy and slips through your hands. Watch the fishmonger when he picks it up: ”rigor mortis” is the most accurate sign of fresh fish whose body should be stiff enough to keep it lying horizontal. The flesh of fresh fish is firm and difficult to detach from the spine. Fresh shellfish are more difficult to shell. This rule applies to fish with bones, but not to calamari, squid and octopus.
WHAT YOU ARE ENTITLED TO ASK YOUR FISHMONGER
- origin of the goods, whenever this is not specified on individual fish;
- when exactly it has been delivered to the store;
- the best way to cook it;
- to clean, gut and scale the fish.
WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR
- too much ice, used to keep the fish stiff
- special offers that are “too” good to be true: normally it is the older fish that has to be sold off.
- its innards: it may not be pleasant to gut fish yourself but it does allow you to check its freshness even more accurately. It will also help you to understand whether the product has been farmed or fished. Farmed fish are starved for a day before being caught, so there will be no food in the liver.
- once in the kitchen, observe what remains at the bottom of the pan: if the fish is fresh it will release a fair quantity of liquid, but if it remains dry and tasteless, it has either been overcooked or defrosted.
What NOT to do now that you have purchased a magnificent turbot or a kilo of mussels: do not overcook your fish or drown it in sauce. Simply respect it.
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