Stefan Griesbach has licence to be cross with his customers every now and again. Traditionally a fishmonger gets to vent. "It is said in France that the only person who could speak truthfully to the king were the fishmongers," he says smiling. "Everybody else has to respect the king of France but the fishmongers or fishwives could say anything to him, just because we're selling fish."
Telling truths about fish in Ireland means grappling with our weird relationship with it. Some of us grew up holding our noses and eating fish as penance. Cheap flights brought us to European food markets to marvel at glistening displays of clear-eyed fish. We feed it to our kids frozen and breaded in bright orange crumb. And why is it still almost impossible to get just-landed catch unless you're a chef or handy with a rod?
Griesbach’s fishing rod is gathering dust in the corner of his office in an industrial estate in Galway. “Oh once upon a time,” the Frenchman says wistfully when I ask if he gets out fishing much. He’s been in Ireland for 21 years, arriving in 1997 to work on a fish farm. After a couple of years he left the job, appalled at the practices he saw. His experience working in Paris fish shops got him work in Galway fish shops.
Then Seamus Sheridan offered him a pitch outside Sheridans shop in the Galway market 14 years ago. It took another two years to get an official stall and since then Griesbach has grown Gannet Fishmongers from market stalls to a wholesale business that supplies about 40 restaurants and employs 11 people. Since late last year he has been selling online direct to households. Customers order a minimum of €15 and collect their fish in food shops, butchers and markets in the west and midlands. Further afield there's a €5 delivery fee. A weekly email tells you what's "still swimming" and what's in season , discounted or plentiful. About 90 per cent of what he sells comes from Irish waters.
So why is it so hard to get fresh fish in Ireland? “In France the fish keeps moving from the time it’s caught until the time it’s bought by the final consumer. Here the fish just stops. We leave it in the fridge for two days. The attitude is there’s no urgency. ‘It’ll be fine. It’ll be grand put some ice on it and leave it overnight.’ You have to be practical but then people fall into the habit of doing things that way so when someone like me says things have to be done different you’re a troublemaker.”
So he tries to tell fishermen not to throw ice on red mullet and gurnard “because it burns the red colour. It goes from vivid red to pinkish. I say ‘c’mon guys you don’t put ice on fish like that’. They don’t appreciate me telling them.”
Another problem is the depth of the boxes used to pack fish. “Everybody in the industry is using those massive boxes, which is alright if you’re using them for big cod or big monkfish,” but smaller more delicate fish spoil and are damaged more easily in deep plastic boxes.
And where are the cooks going wrong? “Everybody’s overcooking their fish. I always overcooked my fish as well until I started to understand fish a bit better.” On the market stall when he’s asked to skin a piece of fish he’ll try and talk the customer into keeping the skin and turning it crispy with a couple of simple steps (not least because of the time and effort they put into scaling the fish so the skin is edible). “It’s a slow process, one customer at a time,” he says. It would be far quicker to just skin the fish. “But when they go home and they try that recipe then they trust me and the following time they come back and I can nudge them on to something different. Long term we’re not just making a sale.”
His office board is decorated with fish pictures painted by some of his four children, who range in age from 14 to six. He gave up smoking two years ago and has saved enough to bring the family on a visit to Japan later this year. It's the holy land when it comes to respect for fish.
A few days after leaving Galway I click on the website and order ray wings, mackerel and some fresh tuna, a haul that comes to €26 including delivery (Gannet doesn't have any Dublin food shops for click and collect in its network yet). We get three family meals and several cooked mackerel fillets for the freezer from the box. Griesbach includes a piece of albacore tuna smoked by Gerry Hasset from Achill island. It's richly flavoured, almost hammy and soft, perfect for slicing over a winter salad. Hasset is the model for sourcing and handling fish and seafood, Griesbech explains because he has "a small restaurant, a small smokehouse and a small boat."
He believes Gannet has changed the fish culture in Galway. One of his favourite fish pictures is a newspaper shot from Eyre Square. “It was taken during the fish strike seven, eight years ago when the fishermen came into the square and gave their fish away.” It shows a crowd grabbing whole fish, elbows out with a gimlet-eyed eagerness. “People say Irish people don’t like fish, don’t like their fish on the bone. But look all those people like fish.”
Stefan’s crispy-skin fish method
“Use a knife to push the moisture from the skin. Then salt the skin with fine salt. Leave the salt for half an hour (a bit like a cucumber to just extract the moisture). Wash off everything. Pat it dry. Heat your pan well. Use a dry pan or give it a little rub of oil just to grease it. It’s important to have a very hot pan. Put the fish in skin side down. Let it cook for a few minutes (until you see a centimetre of colour change on that side) then flip it around and finish it. Add a knob of butter at the very end and spoon it over the skin.”