Nick heads down to Hastings to do a bit of fishing for Xmas recipes and discover more about fish
The wind and rain are lashing the Stade on Hastings’ seafront by the Old Town, with people being almost bowled over as they move between the ancient black net sheds and the spanking new Jerwood art gallery on the beach.
I have my head firmly down and my coat wrapped tight around me, my glasses are so covered in moisture that when I do look up it’s like being in a blurred psychedelic light show. Where am I? I ask in desperation, to no one in particular.
A passer by takes pity and directs me to my destination, the Classroom on the Coast on the Stade. Pushing open the heavy door and sliding inside I’m suddenly out of the elements and I feel as happy as a fisherman who’s managed to get below deck in a Force 10.
Which is apt as there is an old fisherman waiting inside; John ‘Tush’ Hamilton is one of the last of the Hastings fish ‘hawkers’.
He’s also a local legend; not so long ago he and his wife regularly cooked on the seafront serving up the freshest fried fish baps to queues of locals and holidaymakers.
Today, still in his trademark straw hat, he’s helping Hastings Fish brand ambassador, CJ Jackson, who heads up Billingsgate Seafood School to deliver a masterclass on some perfect fish dishes for Xmas entertaining.
And he is very entertaining himself, he has a fund of fish stories to tell us while CJ puts him to work cleaning the various local freshly landed fish, a job that he does with great skill once he’s found his reading glasses ‘I’m not as young as I was,’ he says, peering down at a Gurnard.
Fresh fish is one of the things Hastings is most famous for. Fish are still landed here every day and it’s done with responsibility and respect.
The town has the largest beach-launched fleet in Europe, the boats dragged down to the water and then back up again on their return, and the fishermen use sustainable practices and fishing methods to help maintain stocks and habitats.
The fishmongers on the Stade are the places to buy the best fish off the boats. Sonny Elliot’s award-winning Rock-A-Nore Fisheries is well worth following your nose into; the fragrance of its own-smoked fish drifting out to lure in passers-by.
Undyed haddock is here, a revelation if you’re used to the radioactive yellow substitute they sell in supermarkets, and there’s hot and cold smoked salmon of deep lustrous gold as well as burnished kippers fit for a King’s breakfast.
In the classroom CJ is giving us a taste of some of Sonny’s smoked fish, which are delicious, before incorporating pieces into a sumptuous kedgeree. She uses hot smoked mackerel and smoked salmon, that both need no poaching, just flaking in, as well as pollock and haddock.
As a breakfast dish for a large crowd it’s pleasingly simple and savoury, ideal for anyone with a sore head.
She and her team then go on to make a Hastings Fish Pie using lots of white fish fillets.
I like her way of doing the potato – cooked in its skin and then not mashed completely as I usually do, but left in large lumps on top of the fish base. Just the thing for Xmas eve supper to make everyone feel cosy and warm.
And then there’s something a little more exotic and contemporary; a tamarind and lime goan seafood stew/curry.
The mussels that go in, after careful inspection for ‘gapers’ – those that don’t close when tapped, and are so rejected – are one of the few things on the menu not locally caught.
CJ keeps up a running commentary on fish matters; its history, the need for sustainability, the types we can expect to find around our coasts.
Tush chips in, he is not convinced that some fish types have gone forever but believes some fish come in cycles, away for twenty or more years and then back again just as suddenly as they went.
CJ Jackson is the Principal of the Billingsgate Seafood School and Chief Executive of the associated charity and she used to teach at The Cordon Bleu Cookery School and Leiths School of Food and Wine,
She also contributes regularly to publications such as BBC Good Food Magazine, as well as editing, writing and co-authoring a large number of books.
When she dismantles a fish, she does it with beguiling ease making us note the technique and the method. Fish are nothing to be scared of and when you prepare them yourself you get more for your money, as well as scraps to make delicious stock from.
These drop in classes are free, and you get to sample the food after, so keep a look out for what’s happening next.
And if you’re not a local make a weekend of it.
Hastings Old Town is packed with superb restaurants and pubs that all display the charms of the town and the friendliness of the locals, as well as plenty of quirky shops begging to be explored.
We woke up to a sunny day, seagulls cackling in the sky and wandered happily for hours before picking up some fish and heading happily for home.
We stayed at The Laindons a beautiful old Georgian coaching Inn now a very chic B&B and bang in the centre of the old town.
Lovely individually designed bedrooms and a great breakfast in the first floor glass conservatory that looks out over the rooftops.