Although most of the world values its freshwater fish as a valuable and delicious source of protein, they are largely ignored in Britain.
Carp, pike, perch and eel are all regarded as delicacies in Europe, yet here are generally dismissed as too muddy or bony to eat.
The notable exception to the general disregard are the salmonids: char, salmon and trout. The first is rare: a species marooned in a few of our deepest mountain lakes by the retreating glaciers of the last Ice Age. But everyone recognises both salmon and trout because they are familiar items on restaurant menus and can be found on every fish counter.
Yet the apparent familiarity with this apparently wild food is misleading. Wild salmon are now a rarity, victims of pollution, poor river management and over-fishing at sea, thus virtually all the salmon and trout that we consume as a nation have been farmed. The salmon have been selectively-bred to grow very fast – so much so as to be incapable of life in the wild. On the other hand farmed trout are invariably rainbows, a pollution-tolerant American species that is suited to intensive life on a fish farm, but which cannot breed in British waters for reasons which are imperfectly understood. And all farmed stock is fed on fish meal pellets augmented with synthesised colourants to give the flesh an artificially deep pink tone.
This leaves the brown trout as the only truly wild freshwater fish available to most consumers. But even here one has to work hard to find the real ingredient for it very rarely finds its way onto the fish counter. This is because most inland fisheries have by-laws or rules which prohibit their sale.
This is a huge pity because all wild brown trout is entirely free range and organic. And as carnivores (they eat aquatic insects and small fish) they have a meaty, oil, flesh which is rich in healthy Omega-3 fatty acids. This helps to make them superb eating.
The brown trout also has a mysterious schizophrenic lifestyle. The vast majority live their entirely in fresh water. They spawn in late autumn in gravel beds on shallow streams. The fry emerge a few weeks later to hunt tiny invertebrates in the fast-flowing waters while dodging the beaks of kingfishers and teeth of perch (or even of larger trout). Later they move to patrol a territory, usually only a few metres long, in a deeper section of the river or a connected lake.
But some individuals undergo a transformation, turning silvery and undergoing subtle internal changes to allow them to migrate, salmon-like, to marine waters. Unlike their larger relatives which spend their two or three years in the ocean hunting prawns off Iceland and Greenland, these sea trout remain relatively close to land and many are netted by inshore trawlers (if you ever do see one on a fish counter, this is how it was probably caught). After a year or so they return to their nascent spawning beds, but on the way run the gauntlet of fly-fishermen who catch them most frequently around dusk or even at night.
Sea trout quite rightly command high prices because their strenuous lifestyles and completely natural diet produces a fantastic flesh, far superior to the flabby deep pink salmon or rainbow trout nestling in the crushed ice alongside.
It is far cheaper to source your fish by befriending a keen angler (oddly, most of whom seem to dislike eating fish). Better still, grab a rod and fly yourself. And while worms and artificial lures are generally banned on most fisheries, you could try the old poacher’s tricks of setting baited ‘night lines’ or even ‘tickling’ (hypnotising the fish by delicately stroking them until you can grab them). But should you try either of the last techniques, be warned: if caught the penalties are Draconian.