Mrs Blair says I love to make things complicated and many people who have worked for me say the same. But if you want to do it right, selling fish just is complicated. If my wife knew that I divided up my wolf fish portions into eight classifications, she’d grimace (then smile—she’s very tolerant).
Today we were delivered some wolf fish. Luckily my supplier had at least filleted it. And indeed skinned it (wolf fish has a beautiful leopard-spotted but very tough skin). All I had to do was portion my fillets. And if you take this job seriously, you get straight into the simple fact that not all parts of the fillet are equal.
These were large fillets – up to one and a half kilos each. That’s a good start – this size yields nice thick fillet steaks – the perfect serving. But only from the middle. A one kilo fillet gives two good 200 gram boneless steaks from its middle. But then you have the other 600 grams to deal with. The tail end—a modest morsel—we sell those, along with other little chunks from trimming the fish, as “misshapes”, a popular section of our website.
Then there’s the front end of the fillet. Now that’s where your problems really get into gear. A long row of pin bones are embedded like no other pin bones. They laugh at boning pliers. You have to cut them out in a long strip. So there goes 70 grams straight into the bin. Above the pinbones you have what we call a “bullet”, its slightly non-rigueur elongation being compensated by its thickness, but with a rather gratuitous pointy end where the fillet joins into the top of the head. We trim the point off to make the bullet smarter. But it has to be more than the point – this trimming is much more attractive if it’s a decent size, so you cut away not just the point but enough of the bullet to make it a good mouthful. Bullet points go with tail ends into the misshapes tray. So that’s about 800 grams accounted for.
Misshapes are not the most glamorous cuts of fish but they are still good quality, tasty fish at an affordable price.
Now I’m left with what the fish trade calls the flap. This is the part below the pin bones where the fillet is thinnest. Feel the flesh over your ribs – not much there, is there? It’s the same with fish. Often, the flap is simply thrown away. What a mistake! This is often the tastiest part of the fish because it’s rich in oils, which nature has implanted there to keep the fish’s vital organs working in even the coldest seas,
Sushi-lovers all know the fabled “toro”, the beautifully buttery belly cut of tuna (toro means “melting”) – and by far the most expensive part of the tuna. Salmon belly is also revered in sushi bars. And the reason these are well known is that tuna and salmon are quite sizeable fish, so although the belly is only a small fraction of the total fish, that fraction is big enough to be a recognised item.
My wolf fish flaps were not in this league. The flap has a thick edge immediately below the pin bones, rapidly diminishing to a sizeable triangle of flesh barely three millimetres thick. And, dammit!, bearing a few rib bones which the filleter overlooked, not to mention a latex like membrane on what was the inside. And, oh, just to add to my woes, scraps of skin on the other side where the skinning machine—discouraged by the delicateness of the flap—had failed to do its job properly. You can see why the flap often ends up in the bin. Of course, this course of action adds to the cost of the fillet steaks and bullets.
Removing that membrane and those bits of skin is an exceptionally laborious process. I’d guess the knifework takes about 30 times as long per gram of saleable fish as the knifework for all the rest of the fillet. But it leaves you with a piece of wolf fish toro which—although I confess I have never encountered in any sushi bar—is a delightful piece of sashimi. Not in the tuna toro league, but very tasty by any standard.
So the last job is to sort through my wolf fish sashimi, dividing it into thick upper flap pieces and thin lower flap pieces, and then assigning it grade 1 or grade 2 status depending on its shape and general attractiveness.
Fortunately my trusty fish manager, Marc (he usually does the knifework I describe above, but was on holiday today), likes nothing better than to call me down to his filleting board to discuss precisely how best to portion a fillet. Bullets, fillet steaks, tail ends, bullet points, thin sashimi, thick sashimi, grades one and two—he’s not discouraged. Bless him. He understands.