Eight hundred years ago on the 15th June, a date that we should all be celebrating locally as the salmon and lamprey fishing of the River Severn was listed as one of the assets of King John (he of Robin Hood fame) when he sat down on the banks of the Thames at Runnymede and put his seal to the Magna Carta.
Thirty barons of England had had enough of King John’s lamprey pies and despotic rule, imprisonment without trial, being taxed at the king’s whim and fancy, confiscation of land and sat the king down with The Magna Carta and said “agree to this or else”. This was the birth of the British Constitution and would be heralded in the future as the moment the seed of Parliament was planted. In fact for earlier mentions of the Severn salmon we can go further back to 6th Century Welsh folk legends of "The Mabinogion" where the sea-scarred Severn salmon were revered as the oldest and wisest creature on earth. All this history establishes the River Severn and its unusual commercial fishing methods as a heritage fishery and is the reason for Severn & Wye Smokery being located where it is. In fact Richard, when he started the business, realised back in the 1980s that all the wild fish being sent to London had a passport change when it arrived at Billingsgate and suddenly became Scottish fish. This perception that Scottish fish were better than Severn fish was something he was keen to change.
Unfortunately instead of celebrating the sealing of the Magna Carta and heritage fishery of the Severn we shall instead be mourning its slow but inevitable death brought on by more legislation and catch restriction enforced by the Environment Agency. We, and the fishermen, are not opposed to licence and catch restrictions but the way all this has been implemented over the past years without consultation has caused a great amount of ill feeling. The 27 lave netters (many do not fish) have seen their total season’s catch slashed from five fish last year to one fish this year. The fishermen with fixed baskets have seen their total catch also take a severe cutting. It’s not a commercial fishery any more and it’s not the money that keeps this ‘Dad’s Army’ fishing; it’s the desire to preserve the heritage and tradition. Just like a museum there should be a place for that.
The wild sea trout and salmon season is now officially open in Scotland, England and Wales. In England and Wales it is illegal to sell into the marketplace a wild fish that hasn't been tagged through the mouth and gills. This tag, issued by the Environment Agency, is numbered and can trace the fisherman, the river and the day it was caught. Scotland needs to enforce the tagging rule with more vigour as some fish from Scotland, whose season starts earlier on certain rivers, than the 1st of June are finding their way into the English market untagged. Now I defy anyone to tell me that by just looking at a box of wild untagged fish that it’s possible to tell if it’s been caught legally or not and this is just the opportunity some people take advantage of to sell illegally caught wild salmon. Talking to the Environment Agency recently about recent cases they are investigating where untagged fish have been sold into the market they told me there has been a change in their policy of taking fisherman to court and confiscating nets, vans and fining. They have a far more effective strategy going after the restaurant, hotel or end user who has far more to lose. When you are stood in the dock for having been in the possession of an illegally caught fish or possibly one caught by a rod and line fisherman (also illegal) a defence of "I thought I was buying from a reputable supplier" will count for nothing. The judge, before passing sentence will then inform the court that the maximum fine for this offence is £50,000 - that’s when your mouth will go dry and you’ll think "it was only a fish". If it’s not tagged don’t buy it. The reality is that you will probably get off with only a £5,000 fine, a relief but an expensive one. Now the 1st of June has passed and English and Welsh wild salmon season is under way too, fish from Scotland, for some mysterious reason (someone will have to explain to me) are now appearing but legally tagged as well.
We are large buyers of wild (all tagged) and have a system in place that can trace purchaser back to fisherman, and buy from not only the River Severn Fishery but other fisheries in England, Wales and Scotland, (note to self, great to have a source in Ireland). Of course farmed salmon makes up the majority of what we do today but when the wild season gets going we really enjoy putting the skill and experience we have gained over the years to smoking this king of wild fish. Wild needs a whole different approach and deserves the respect and attention we try to give it. Our two most experienced hand filleters, Dave and Clive, are the only filleters that are allowed to put a knife to our wild fish. Then comes the skill of the curer and smoker. We try to keep everything as traditional as possible, no sugar, oak smoke and fish hung rather than laid. Wild has a taste flavour and sweetness that you just don’t find in farmed. It’s not a cheap product but if you take your food seriously and are looking for something special this is an experience I recommend.
We have customers who like to take wild all year round but in our opinion the best time to enjoy this taste of summer is from now and until the season ends in September.