WORK EXPERIENCE: Our reporter takes to the fish counter
ALWAYS game for a challenge, reporter MELISSA JONES spent an afternoon trying out a very different job with Monmouthshire’s happiest fishmonger Sarah O’Connor
CONSUMING a salmon fillet the night before my afternoon with Fabulous Fish was probably not a good idea.
As I neared the counter at Sarah’s shop in Chepstow’s Newhall Farm Shop, all I could think of was its slippery body swimming through the water, complete with head, tail and everything in between.
Normally your nostrils guide you to such a place, but to my surprise this was not the case.
“You had to look around to find me didn’t you?” beamed Sarah, her Scottish accent in full flow.
“A lot of people are surprised they can’t smell fish when they come here. I don’t even have a freezer, my fish is that fresh.”
An apron, hairnet and fetching hat was handed my way.
Getting a bit familiar this, I thought, as my last venture for Work Experience was a spell as an Environmental Health inspector.
Knowing Sarah from previous stories, I should have realised this was going to be a very hands-on job with her boundless enthusiasm for these creatures of the sea.
“Before we start, try a cockle,” she said, scooping one up from a bowl from what I must say, was a beautifully presented counter.
Even though I’m a big prawn fan, I have never contemplated trying this type of seafood.
I felt like I was on the ‘I’m a Celebrity’ TV show as I tried to chew through its rubbery body- not for me, but I managed the task.
Next up was fish recognition.
It would be my job to tell customers all about what had been caught in the morning and made its way to Chepstow.
“Today we have hand reared salmon from Wester Ross in Scotland, mussels from Burry Port, Cornish day boat sardines, Welshman’s caviar, Welsh cockles, wild Welsh seabass from Milford Haven, Cornish hake, stunning halibut loin and many more,” said Sarah.
“I hand pick a lot of my fish from fish markets and trusted suppliers. Their eyes have to be clear, it shows me that they are fresh. Once people have tried my fish they are hooked.”
The mum to 16-year-old Alishia works tremendously hard bringing together all kinds of sustainably sourced fish from all over the UK, but mostly Wales, for her hundreds of regulars.
“You could eat a different fish every day if the year and not run out,” Sarah said.
“My favourite fish changes all the time. At the moment it’s Brill, which is really underrated. It’s similar to Turbot, it has a sweet taste. I do eat an awful lot of fish. This morning I had cockles for breakfast.”
Thinking how she could have managed such a feast, next up was an encounter with a squid.
Sarah held it up with its tentacles dangling and onto the chopping board it went for me to have a go at preparing it.
“Squid should either be cooked as fast as you like deep fried or stuffed and cooked slowly for hours and hours. Anything in between you get the chewy stuff,” said Sarah, who gives talks about cooking her fish at events, her next outing being the Abergavenny Food Festival.
Bravely putting on a chainmail glove to protect my hand from the sharp knife, I took several steps to prepare it for the recipe of salt and pepper squid.
Sarah is in the process of recruiting a trainee and I won’t be giving up my day job any time soon judged on my filleting mackerel ability.
Its beady eye was watching me as I took it to the table.
“Hold it down and cut at an angle down the length of the body,” instructed Sarah.
This was very much a case of easier said than done.
The omega 3 packed fish was a tough little fellow, much different to how it easily flakes in the pan before consumption.
I was reminded I was not trying to replicate a sawing motion, but the fish had other ideas.
Eventually my knife made it to the other side and my fillet was ready to take home.
Skinning some haddock was also a bit difficult, fish skin is a lot tougher than I imagined.
If this was for real, I would have to work at speed to satisfy the shopper.
Sarah is looking for an apprentice in partnership with the Cambrian Training Company and Seafish, a body which aims to support and improve the environmental sustainability, efficiency and cost-effectiveness of the industry, as well as promoting sustainably-sourced seafood. She said: “They can come here, train and walk out with an NVQ, that will be a career for somebody. I have two staff and I’m looking to take on a third.”
Aside from the shop, Sarah can be found in her big green van two days a week in Chepstow and Monmouth.
“That’s how I started building up my loyal customers which I adore. It was three years ago, I used to work in the media. I went to sleep one night and thought I want to become a fishmonger. The Jobcentre couldn’t tell me so I eventually got hold of Richard Wardell at Seafish who put me through a training course. I then bought the van,” she explained.
Since starting out the mum-of-one has been very successful, voted Monmouth's favourite retailer by Monmouthshire Buy Local, won a bronze True Taste award and for the second year running is a finalist at the Monmouthshire Business Awards.
"Not bad for a wee Scottish lassie," she said. "I absolutely love life. I am working really hard but living life to the full. I truly have found happiness. There has never been a day where I thought I wanted a duvet day.”
Just as we were ending that reflective discussion, a regular customer popped up and asked for some cockles.
I began piling in as many in as I could into a small white pot for the friendly chap.
“A few more,” said a generous Sarah, who by Christmas time hopes to bring fish to her customers via courier service in 24 hours of it being caught.
I weighed in around the correct amount and handed the purchase to the customer.
“I think you have been great today,” said the boss. “You are really pleasant with the customers, you were keen and interested. Your filleting skills need a little room for improvement but your skinning of the fish was excellent.”
With a smile on my face, I scurried home to taste the haddock, which tasted lovely and not prepared by an inexperienced trainee.
If I dare say it, a job well done.
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