TIMELINE by Steve Hatt
1895-1920 my great grandfather ran this fish shop (he died in the flu epidemic)
1920-1951 Between the wars my mother Pamela Morris lived upstairs with her mother, father and grandparents. During the war the top of the building was hit by an incendiary (bomb) and they had to move out.
1951- 1970 Pamela’s husband, Steve Hatt, ran the business.
1970 – present Their son, our Steve Hatt, modernises. The smoker has gone but there’s now super-efficient ice-making machinery and three flats above the shop.
“I’ve seen a lot of changes in Islington and the industry,” says Steve Hatt, now 61, contemplatively from the centre of his office. The office is tucked behind the shop, allowing him to keep an eye on his fast-talking white wellie booted-staff -serving lobster, octopus, hake, Dover sole, farmed and fresh salmon or trout, mullet, etc, etc – and to greet the regulars. Mr Hatt, as he’s known in the shop, is a master of juggling: between my questions orders are noted down for tigers (prawns) and haddock plus phones answered. Turns out he’s expert at sorting out bricks and mortar too – essential given the way retailing has changed.
“There used to be two individual cottages at the back on Elder Walk. Number 90 was used as a stable for the horse that drew the cart to market,” says Steve, “then as refrigeration became prominent my great-grandfather acquired #89 to expand the ground floor. We used to smoke lots of haddock, mackerel, cod and trout on the premises, and it was a great asset because we could smoke the fish exactly how we wanted it.” These home-smoked products were popular, indeed the chimney for smoking was so large Steve could probably have hidden his staff in it.
The drawback was that traditional fish smoking emits a lot of smoke which is “unacceptable to the modern environment,” admits Steve, “but because our smokery was in a separate building, that had been there before 1920, it beat the regulations.”
Then in September 2007 the smoker caught fire*. “I could have walked away and retired if I didn’t own this building,” says Steve. “I eventually managed to rebuild the ground floor and keep the business running at the same time.This was a most stressful two year period. Total commitment to handling the best fresh fish in the best facilities was my main priority at all costs. Now we have the best plant and machinery on the market for storage, loading and unloading, but we’ve maintained the old-fashioned part, with the wet fish counter which the customers like, at the very front of the building.”
The fire was the second time Steve had fought hard to run this fishmongers. “I always enjoyed the outdoors when I was at school. We lived at Southgate and my mother, Pamela Morris, had the shop but my father [also called Steve] ran it. My father wanted me to go into a profession – be an accountant or a solicitor. But once I’d decided, that was it.”
Over the years about the only thing that hasn’t changed is the crazily early time Steve gets up – 3.20am. “It’s so I can collate overnight orders and source anything particularly hard to get.” He then drives from his home in Cheshunt, Hertfordshire to New Billingsgate Fish Market* now sited near Canary Wharf.
“I have tried fishing on boats but found it an intolerable way of earning a living. It’s extremely hard: 25 years ago fishing was statistically the most dangerous occupation – you couldn’t get life insurance.” Even working on land the trade is tough, characterised by heavy weights, inhospitable conditions (especially in winter) and a lot of contact with ice. Perhaps for these reasons very few women choose to be fishermen.
“The retail industry has changed dramatically in 20 years mainly due to modern food handling regulations, which have done away with many old traditions, or made them no longer viable. Is that good or bad, question mark?” asks Steve leaning back in his chair.
And then there’s the way we all shop: at supermarkets.
“I don’t regard supermarkets as competition,” says Steve. “They can provide parking and late night shopping, but they cannot provide the same quality fresh fish, 24 hours out of the water. All fresh fish caught locally around our coast is sold at auction. Auctions are held on Monday to Friday. The last fish to come to London each week arrives on Saturday morning, having been auctioned on Friday. So any fish sold on Sunday or Monday is one day older… how can a supermarket do that?
Plenty of fish in the sea?
Critical fish stocks and how to fish sustainably has been a huge part of the modern food debate. In supermarkets or any shop that sells packaged fish customers can opt for the MSC – Marine Stewardship Council label, a system that promotes sustainable fishing practices. http://www.msc.org/about-us/what-we-do
However pre-packaged fish isn’t sold at Steve Hatt’s shop.
“The best quality product is all I’m interested in. The MSC approved label is for the segment of fish that ends up in boxes. This is where I think fish auctions are critical, because all fish sold at auction is graded and the sea area in which the fish was caught identified. In the old days you would have the name of the boat and the port where it was registered. Now with modern satellite tracking devices and fish logs the fish is traceable not only to the boat but to the sea area, and has to be within the quota system. If everyone sticks to the rules laid out by the scientists then fish stocks should slowly recover. A Spanish trawler can’t suddenly slip in and hive off 50 tonnes of mackerel, then slide off again.”
The fishmonger’s secrets
Q: What’s your best selling fish?
Farmed salmon. Be clear, there’s a world of difference between farmed salmon in the supermarket and from a top class fishmonger. Just consider the time passed from the moment the fish is killed. We also sell a lot of mackrel and sardines.
Q: Can you cook?
Yes – I love cooking fish. Last stime I cooked was salmon in the oven with a honey and mustard glaze. In 15 minutes it was done.
Q: Can you recommend a cook book?
Susan Campbell’s Poor Cook (1976, co-written with Shirley Conran) and Family Cook (1974) have the best descriptions and hand drawn pictures of how to clean and fillet a fish. It’s a painstaking delight.
Q: Where do you go in Islington?
I don’t normally have lunch. In the late ‘80s and ‘90s there were some small, character restaurants in Islington – Monsieur Frog (now a showroom), Anna’s Place, off Liverpool Road, and the Camden Passage heydays with Robert Carrier (the founding father of modern food photography, especially fish), although there is still Fredericks. I feel the quality of food in the area has been sacrificed for volume and alcohol consumption – alcohol helps make the figures add up.”
Q: What do you like to do when you’re not at work?
I used to shoot, partridge and pheasant mostly, but I’ve got arthritis in my shoulder so my main hobby now is skiing.
Islington – renowned for its foodies but miles from the sea – has struck lucky with Steve Hatt’s shop. On Saturdays there is invariably a queue snaking out of the door as people who want the freshest fish, wait patiently to be served, often chatting in a range of languages. Once you’ve chosen your fish the staff always offer to clean or even fillet it for you.
Occasionally there are mishaps to enjoy… “I was serving an old lady with live eels one day,” says Steve, “when one of the eels slipped out of my hand and shot up in the air like a missile. Very near the front of the queue there was an extremely tough looking 6 foot 3 inch American gentleman who was absolutely terrified and nearly fainted! The old lady thought it was hilarious.”
The queue is typically customers picking out the fish they want to cook at home. “We don’t serve many restaurants,” continues Steve. “The key change is the amount of pre-processed fish that restaurants buy. The modern restaurant kitchen has shed staff so no longer buys whole salmon or whole fish, or even slices. They don’t fillet or clean themselves. It still amazes me how little people know about fish and the actual simple cooking processes. The British have a very low consumption of fish – the Spanish eat over five times more.”
People often say that fishing and fishmongers are a dying trade, but the facts don’t always add up. Not only do we have Steve Hatt offering the freshest fish around, two new fish shops have opened in the past year in Islington – Meek and Wild at Highbury Barn and the Prawn on the Lawn on the corner of St Paul’s Road and Highbury Grove. Perhaps best of all Steve Hatt’s business is now fully-modernised, making it possible to run an old-fashioned counter-serving fish shop for many years to come.
As for who will run it, Steve’s on the case: “Both my children will almost certainly not actually work in the shop. However, like myself, they both want to see the name of Steve Hatt over the door in the future. Staff committed to the business will be the key. Ruthless discipline in work practices and judgment of quality product will need to remain solid… but for the foreseeable future I remain doing what I enjoy, here in Islington.”
Steve Hatt fishmongers is open Tuesday – Saturday from 8am-5pm. Find it at 88-90 Essex Road, N1 8LU.
Read an interesting piece about Steve in the Independent (18/9/1995) here.
Fire in the smokery – see the news coverage in the Islington Tribune, here
New Billingsgate Fish Market, is open Tuesday-Saturday, 5.30-8.30am. Short video here http://www.theguardian.com/travel/video/2011/oct/18/billingsgate-fish-market-london-video
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This blog is inspired by Spitalfields Life written by the Gentle Author.
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