Hervé Diers is bursting with pride over his new wood-chipper. The lurid yellow behemoth sits in a backroom of the JC David fish smoking factory in Boulogne Sur Mer, surrounded by logs, discarded packaging, and piles of fresh chips which add a sweet, woody aroma to the pungent air.
I was touring JC David as part of a trip organised by Nausicaä, to learn more about French seafood during La Semaine du Gout, “Taste Week”, and about their Mr Goodfish programme for sustainable fishing. We’d already explored the glinting, surgically clean preperation rooms with their trays of fresh-caught fish on ice, the rows of red-doored smoking cupboards where fillets of haddock, salmon and mackerel were gaining colour, and even headed down into the basement to see the hundred year old ovens billowing out sweetly scented smoke. So, it came as something of a surprise when we ended the tour in what looked like a messy storeroom, with Monsieur Diers excitedly waving me towards a gigantic wood chipper. But, this ugly piece of technology actually marks a significant achievement for this conscientious local factory, the only place in France still using traditional methods to smoke their fish. Because now, JC David can chip their own wood to produce the smoke which cooks their fish – giving them full control over the entire process.
The wood of choice is locally sourced and sustainably farmed – with one new tree planted for each one cut down – something that’s important to this local business. Quality, Monsiur Diers told me, comes first at JC David; not only in terms of fish but right down to the details. But for this traditional fish smoking factory, quality goes hand in hand with sustainability, which is why they source all their fish in accordance with the Mr Goodfish guidelines.
Nausicaä, the incredible aquarium in Boulogne Sur Mer, invited me over to the small town just outside of Calais during Taste Week to learn more about their Mr Goodfish programme. After an hour or so drinking in the salty, sickly reek of smoking fish at JC David, we emerged into the industrial area of the town to a downpour. This grey, dismal area behind the port may not look all that appealing, but it’s the backbone of Boulogne Sur Mer, a town that’s been making it’s living off the sea and the fishing industry for centuries.
Local restaurants make the most of this industry more than anyone, picking up the best catch of the day at market to sell at lunch and dinner. At La Plage, right on the seafront, the owner picks out the fish himself every morning and recommends the very best way to cook it. We didn’t even look at the menu; Monsieur Wacogne sold me instantly on his first recommendations. First though, came a brief cooking lesson in the kitchen with the head chef.
The Mr Goodfish programme offer advice about which fish are best to eat in each season – drawn up by a committee of experts and scientists and based on key data like nesting seasons and numbers of fish. When I arrived in Boulogne Sur Mer, autumn was just beginning and the Mr Goodfish programme had released their latest species list. On it, among sole, haddock, turbot and more, were scallops – one of the most popular dishes of the season – so in the kitchen at La Plage restaurant the head chef gave a fast-paced lesson in preparing them. Actually, it all seemed fairly easy: a sauce made from shallots, cream, fish stock, and gingerbread spice mix; endive, a vegetable from the north of France, lightly fried in butter; and the scallops themselves, fried in a hot pan for just two minutes on each side.
Rainbows were emerging over the iron grey sea across the road as we sat down to lunch, with the rain finally easing off – giving a taster of just how pretty this little beach town might be in summer. But I was grateful for the changing season as our food arrived, an explosion of my favourite autumnal flavours packed into one exquisite meal. Prawn salad with balsamic and rich parmesan; a meaty, white fish with smothered with mushrooms, and a delicious French twist on the British autumn classic of blackberry crumble. Heavy, rich, and beautifully autumnal, the meal proved the value of eating seasonally – which is what the Mr Goodfish programme is all about.
Fat with local flavours and the very best of Boulogne Sur Mer’s seafood, I tumbled out onto the now crisply sunny seafront. A behind the scenes tour of the Nausicaä aquarium rounded things off nicely, as we plunged into the sea – not quite literally – in an immersive and interactive exploration of the world’s oceans.
Founded almost 25 years ago, Nausicaä’s mission is to raise awareness about the need to protect and sustain our oceans. In 1991, when the aquarium first opened it’s doors, it was still pretty crazy to talk about the environment – but for Nausicaä’s founders this has always been their number one priority. The aquarium is about more than entertainment; here the focus is on animal rescue and breeding programmes, as well as raising awareness – giving a voice to animals that can’t speak for themselves, and teaching us about the dangers to our oceans. One of those dangers is overfishing, which is where Mr Goodfish comes in.
Philippe Vallete, the director of Nausicaä and one of the founders of Mr Goodfish, sat down with me to explain more. The aim is simple; by working with the fishing industry, fishmongers, and restaurateurs, Mr Goodfish aims to highlight fish that aren’t endangered and steer consumers towards lesser known fish – many of which are absolutely delicious. The species list, released every season, helps to show which fish are best to eat right now – while participating shops and restaurants use a blue logo to highlight which fish are on the list.
Mr Goodfish is all about advice. “Who are we to give orders?” joked M. Vallete, explaining that they want the programme to be a positive one that simply informs and empowers consumers. The founders want to make choices easier, so all that is complicated is done by them and the professionals, giving us the simple, plain information that will help us choose those fish which aren’t endangered – and discover new flavours and recipes along the way.
With some major supermarkets coming on board, the programme expanding across Europe – and hopefully into the UK soon – and planned advances including a smartphone app to make things even easier, Mr Goodfish is really starting to make a splash*, and it’s a great programme that focuses on something really important – sustaining the wildlife in our oceans.
Huge thanks to Boulogne-Sur-Mer tourist board and Nausicaä for hosting me during the trip. All words and opinions are my own. Don’t miss my post about exploring Boulogne Sur Mer’s historic town centre the day after my Nausicaä visit.
*Sorry for the terrible pun. I couldn’t resist.