When there's no sea trout, there's always a lamprey

It’s been a slow start to the sea trout (sewin) season in Wales, but the quality of the fish we have seen has been amazing, with some large specimen fish already landed. It’s not uncommon to see fish of 5kg plus but we have had one in that weighed over 9kg. We source our Welsh sea trout from the coracle fishermen who fish the River Towy town water in Carmarthen. One of our customers’ head chef, Yoshi of Umu restaurant in Mayfair, having received one of these large early fish was keen to know where the fish came from and intrigued when I explained the catch method. Of course seeing the men fishing in person is the only way to really understand the skill and difficulty involved so a visit was planned.

Coracles are basically a boat made of a woven wooden framework the shape of a bowl large enough for one man to sit in. Originally they were covered in skin but more recently a canvas or calico cloth, then waterproofed with a boiled mixture of tar and linseed oil. Coracle fishing dates back hundreds of years and was once commonplace in rivers all over Wales and is described in detail by Roman writers Caesar and Pliny. Suggestions have been made that the word coracle is derived from the Latin word corium meaning skin layer. It wasn’t until the second half of the 18th century that coracle fishing became synonymous with rivers in South Wales. In the 1860s, according to a Government Commissioners report on Salmon Fisheries, no fewer than 400 men were supporting themselves on the River Towy’s salmon and sea trout fisheries. It was the Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries Act 1923 that severely restricted and more or less put an end to coracle fishing on many of the Welsh rivers such as the Severn, Usk and the Dee. This legislation by the government granted a limited number of licences on the tidal stretches of the rivers Towy, Taf and Teifi. Today less than 10 licences still exist. Each licence basically allows a pair of manned coracles to hold in one hand a net of roughly 11 yards in width between the two coracles, and with their other hand steer the coracle with a paddle as they are swept in tandem downstream with the flow of the river. The degree of difficulty is all compounded by the fact that they fish only at night. When they feel a fish hit the back of the net they gather in the net and get the fish into one of the coracles and then reset the net while still careering downstream on the flow of the river.

Yoshi and I agreed upon a night to visit and food writer Joe Warwick, when hearing of our trip, asked if he could join us as he was in the area and a plan was hatched. We rendezvoused in Bristol and set off for Carmarthen arriving just after midnight. When we met, fisherman Jonny Rees and fishing partner Dai looked a bit downhearted and explained conditions were poor and that two sets of coracle men had already gone home, plus they had already taken two swings down the river to no avail. It was what they called a drift tide (very slow) and explained that we could very slowly stroll down the parallel towpath as they fished, as opposed to gently jogging if a normal tide had been on. So that’s what we did. I must say I preferred the idea of a gentle stroll as opposed to jogging but we sensed that this wasn't going to be the night we had hoped for. As they slowly drifted downstream Jonny shouted up to us on the bank “Look at the lampreys swimming towards the coracles; they've come to check on how mad we are.” We could just about make out their heads swimming snake-like as they broke the surface water to inspect the coracles invading their water. After a ¾ mile drift they exited the river and hoisted the coracles on to their backs to walk back up the towpath with us into town. Jonny explained that this definitely wasn't a money-making exercise - they were preserving the rights of a heritage fishery. It was Friday, and with coracle fishing banned at weekends it wouldn't be until next week that we would see sea trout again. Yoshi was disappointed we hadn't caught a fish, and had been hoping to demonstrate to Jonny the ancient Japanese ikejime, a method of killing fish that improves the quality and delays the decomposing process. Yoshi was happy as we resolved we would have to come again. When we arrived back at the town’s coracle storage shed two of the fishermen that had gone home earlier had decided, after a restorative cup of tea, to return and have another go. The temperature was now freezing and Jonny declared them desperate or mad. We decided the warmth of home beckoned, and true enough (I have it on good authority) no fish were caught that night.

Since our trip last weak wind and bad weather put paid to fishing for several days but fresh water and bigger tide has improved conditions and Jonny is back catching fish again. Yoshi is now in Portugal teaching some day boat fishermen there the art of Ikijeme and Joe is making sure he’s got some warmer clothes for our next fishing trip.

Our own new shop/restaurant chefs Chris and Norbert have now had a chance to make a few minor adjustments and stamp their style on the restaurant menu. They are, I’m sure, looking forward with excitement to moving into the next door building which is slowly but surely starting to take shape, but probably will not be complete until much later this year than we had originally planned.

Bristol is fast becoming the UK’s food event city, last week the city played host to BBC Radio 4 Food and Farming Awards, while at the same time Bristol Food Connections a week-long celebration of the city’s diverse food culture and community was in full swing. This event goes from strength to strength and is all about bringing communities together and sharing their culture and knowledge through food. Next month it's Bristol’s Big Green Week celebrating being European Green Capital of 2015. As part of the celebrations on Friday 19th June fish sustainability champion Silla Bjerrum, founder and executive chef of London’s Feng Sushi chain, will cook a Forever Fish Feast in Long Ashton village hall. We are pleased that Silla will be promoting and using our Var salmon as one of her main ingredients. For anyone interested in fish and keen to learn more on Silla’s views on what fish to eat and how to eat responsibly this is the feast for you. Tickets available www.feastwithachef.co.uk or www.biggreenweek.com

I’m off fishing, but more news soon.