Along with salt-kissed hair and the scent of sunscreen, summer in Australia isn’t complete without a parcel of fish and chips.
But your fish that’s coated in golden, crunchy batter might be the least Australian part of the picture.
Australia is a net importer of seafood, with estimates that approximately 65 per cent of the sea life we eat comes from overseas.
Frozen fish such as basa fillets are particularly popular for fish and chips because of their neutral taste, low cost and moist flesh.
But a number of Victorian fish and chippers are getting more local catch into the hands of those chasing a taste of this summer holiday favourite.
“There’s nothing wrong with some imported product, but it’s about truth in labelling,” says Brad Duncan, general manager of Lakes Entrance Fishermen’s Co-op, which will open its own fish and chipper this year.
“A hugely important part of our business is that the consumer should know what they’re paying for.”
Others say the quality between fresh and frozen doesn’t compare, pointing to a grainy texture, fishy smell and other undesirable qualities in frozen fish.
For some, it’s about eating close to the source and knowing your food comes from a well-regulated fishery.
“Everyone has a different definition of local but we favour fish from Bass Strait and Tassie to keep the food miles down,” says Paul Mannix, who manages San Remo Fisherman’s Co-op. “All of that transport time is the time it’s losing its freshness.”
The fryers at San Remo see a lot of gummy shark, one of several species of shark that’s collectively (but incorrectly) marketed as flake. Mannix says there’s a world of difference between flake that’s sword or boarhead shark versus gummy.
“Gummy is the Rolls Royce of flake,” he says. “Other shark can be a bit meaty, a bit chewy. Gummy has a more delicate texture and flavour.”
With no laws (except in the Northern Territory) around the labelling of cooked fish, many consumers have no idea what’s being wrapped in newspaper with their chips, an ongoing issue in Australia.
In Lakes Entrance, Wild Catch owners Anna Wolffenbuttel and husband Peter Lawson get their ling, gummy, blue grenadier and more from two boats, the Lady Miriam, which Peter manages, and the Erin Jay.
The catch comes in once a week, enough for two or three days of fish and chips, then the shop is closed until the boats return from sea.
“We don’t have a big assortment of fish. It’s all local. If you see a big assortment, you can guarantee it’s imported,” says Wolffenbuttel.
Nearby, Sodafish on the water sources fish exclusively from a boat docked three berths away. These are cooked in the restaurant’s signature sourdough batter, which chef Nick Mahlook says gives a uniquely tangy flavour.
New Essendon chipper Scalable is out to get fish and chips up to the same standard as other Melbourne dining.
The menu’s not quite as local as off the boat, but owner Joe Farah happily pays more for premium ingredients such as Humpty Doo barramundi farmed in the Northern Territory and line-caught gummy shark from South Australia.
“In terms of skimping and using frozen fish from overseas, it’s not worth it,” he says.
Scalable also serves barra fish wings (or cheeks), which are often thrown away but make a moreish snack when fried.
It’s not always Victorian, but Portsea Hotel buys fish with a low environmental impact, as assessed by Good Fish, a project by the Australian Marine Conservation Society.
The simple traffic light system of Good Fish has been eye-opening, says chef Cam Gardiner, who realises that the venue would have previously used fish marked as “red” or “orange”, but now sticks to rockling in the fryer and Cone Bay barramundi in the pan.
Some conservationists have concerns about gummy due to bycatch, but San Remo’s Paul Mannix says their duckfish bycatch is also sold in the co-op’s fresh fish shop and, if there’s enough, in batter with chips.
He describes duckfish as “primo” eating and one of the best fish in Bass Strait.
Apollo Bay Fishermen’s Co-op and Wild Catch’s owners would like to see fish and chip lovers being more adventurous with what they order.
Visitors to the Apollo Bay co-op might get two completely different seafood platters on two different days, with catch from recently purchased boat the Tambo Bay dictating what’s served.
“They just have to go with it, and it’s really working,” says commercial manager Alan Nicholls.
“Fresh and local are always the buzzwords in seafood and they’re bandied around too readily but here it really is … There are zero road miles for this. I’m literally looking at the back of the boat.”
Where to find local fish and chips
If you can’t get fish straight off the boat, you can ask where the fish was caught and even ask to see dockets from the supplier. Below is a small selection of fish and chippers serving local or responsibly caught fish.
San Remo Fisherman’s Co-op
Gummy shark is complemented by the catch of the day, the chips are ultra-crunchy and the batter is light. Southern rock lobster is also available and the views of Western Port are free. 170 Marine Parade, San Remo, srfco.com.au
Apollo Bay Fishermen’s Co-op
It doesn’t get much more local than this. Get the seafood platter for the best of the day’s catch, which might be squid, sand whiting, flounder or one of the other nine species of fish they’ve caught this past week. 2 Breakwater Road, Apollo Bay, apollobayfishcoop.com.au
Ling, blue grenadier, gummy and more are fresh off the boat at Lakes Entrance. The limited menu and opening hours are testament to the fresh product. 345 Esplanade, Lakes Entrance
The takeaway window is gone but grab a table for Lakes Entrance flathead or gummy in light and crunchy sourdough batter, served with crinkle-cut chips. Middle Boat Harbour, Lakes Entrance, sodafish.com.au
Fish by Moonlite
Expect fresh catch from Apollo Bay, Lakes Entrance and Corner Inlet, whether it’s snapper, rockling or other species, plus one of the state’s most popular potato cakes. Shop 4, 87-89 Great Ocean Rd, Anglesea, fishbymoonlite.com.au
Know that whatever fish you order, it’s got the thumbs up from Good Fish, which monitors for overfishing and other unsustainable practices. It’s no mean feat for a pub of this size. 3746 Point Nepean Road, Portsea, portseahotel.com.au
Australian and New Zealand-caught fish comes battered or grilled, with hand-cut potato cakes, fish wings, chimichurri and other thoughtful touches. 1041 Mt Alexander Road, Essendon, scalable.fish
Another venue whose supply is vetted by Good Fish, fish comes in bubbly batter or expertly cooked in the Josper oven. 43 Royal Parade, Parkville,
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