A visit to The Fish Society: Part 1

Bob to the left, James to the right — in the process of sorting snails

As I expected when I took on this role, blogging for The Fish Society has been a fascinating, enlightening and interesting affair. Every Friday without fail, I call James for our weekly chat and we catch up on all the latest goings-on (not always easy, but somehow we make it happen). Sometimes we discuss the difficulties of obtaining wild Scottish salmon and another time it might be a lesson in Swedish crayfish – you can read about that in last week’s post here – but whatever the case it is always eventful (and often surprising). So, when James invited me to visit, it seemed like the perfect excuse: meet the team behind it all and at the same time test some superb quality fish. No offence to the team, they are all very nice, but the second excuse was reason enough on its own!

I’d originally planned on visiting James, Maureen, Jilly and co months ago, back when we first started this blog, but for whatever reason, up until now that hadn’t happened. I was busy and then James was busy,something always got in the way. Then a couple of weekends ago, with the London 2012 Olympics drawing to its final conclusion, we both had a space in our diaries and it was decided. With turbot on the menu, I’d catch the train to Witley and get an insider’s perspective on what goes on, day-to-day.

Little more than an hour outside of London, those who don’t know the area well could be forgiven for thinking that Witley, base of The Fish Society since day one, is urban and without much in the way of landscape. In fact, the opposite is true. As the countryside opens out into farm-land and fields, graced by a few hills here and there, it soon becomes apparent that the area – much of which is and always has been protected National Trust land – is a haven for wildlife and an ideal place to live and work. Providing you have a car, that is. Otherwise you had better be pretty damn good at walking or cycling.

Less than five minutes after stepping off the train, Jilly picks me up. Two minutes later we’ve arrived at our destination, and I’m feeling slightly embarrassed, wishing that I’d of walked!

As you might expect, when you arrive at The Fish Sociery, the smell of fish is unmistakeable – although it’s a pleasant smell, not a bad one, and one of many promising flavours. I recognise the layout of the building from what James has previously told me.

The business is divided into two floors: the office above, where all the admin and organisation happens, and the main room downstairs, connected by a stair-case to my right. As Jilly shows me in, pointing out the tall character behind the business – sorry, the tall and good-looking character, as I think James might prefer me to put it! – who I recognise from photos, I cast my eye around the room. It’s compact for the amount of fish varieties that The Fish Society constantly keeps in stock (450, I’m soon to learn!). At the back is a cold room, which houses every kind of fish you could ever want or need, to my left is where the packaging is kept, and on the table in front of me various people are working. I assume from what James has said that the oldest employee, who is patiently dissecting snails on the table, is Bob.

What didn’t surprise me was the organisation.Everything ordered, as was necessary. James turned to me, greeted me with a firm hand-shake, and explained that the person he was talking to – a guy in his early-twenties, smiling and holding a digital camera with a large lens – had dropped by to do some video work for the website. He also needed showing around, so off we went around the room, with James explaining the process of what happens when a customer buys their fish online.

Browsing the website, it all seems fairly simple: search the categories by name or by type/price, select your goods, then add to basket and check-out. But as you’d probably expect, things are a lot more complicated on the ground and need to be kept constantly in check. “Monday to Thursday are the big days for getting things done,” James told us, as we observed Mark de-scaling some impressive black cod on the counter below the stair-case. “Those are our delivery days. Now let’s show you the cold room.”

As I mentioned earlier, the cold room is where The Fish Society keep all the fish that are sold online. A mist of frozen air floats about the room as you enter, and every kind of fish is carefully gutted, vacuum-packed and labelled before being placed in the appropriate tray so that selection is easy. As we exit the cold room, James dashes for the phone. While he’s picking it up, I ask Mark – as tall as James and going about the de-scaling job in a way which makes me think it’s not as easy as it looks – about black cod. Mark smiles and tells me it actually has very little in common with the cod you’d find in a fish & chip shop. This fish is a deep-sea dweller, a great deal more oily, and one hell of a lot more expensive. Hence the precise way Mark was handling the fish, carefully slicing each one down the middle before filleting with precision and then de-boning.

James gets off the phone and we follow him upstairs. The office is slightly smaller than the work-room below, and we’re introduced to Ben in the far-left corner (read more about Ben by clicking the Meet the team page) and Maureen in the far-right corner (Maureen also features on the same page as Ben, along with everyone else), along with Jilly.

After showing me round the office and explaining more about the process of operating an online fishmonger’s, we head next door to the kitchen. The kitchen is completely different to what I expect. With minimal décor and a large table, surrounded by the kind of comfy modern chairs that I’m a fan of, this is where the staff meetings are held, and also the place where Mark dishes up fine fish every so often so that a good level of quality control can be maintained…

Continued in Part 2

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