How my gurning Medlock gurnard spouted from Gandalf’s mouth

I pen this ode to the Gurnard on the day Sir Ian McKellen has decided not to return to the West End stage as Falstaff. Understandable fears were raised for the 85-year-old legend, AKA Gandolf,  after he crashed into the orchestra pit during a performance at the Noel Coward Theatre and was rushed to hospital.

Robert Icke’s Player Kings is an unashamed showcase for Sir Ian, compressing into one play Sir John Falstaff’s ‘star turns’ across Shakespeare’s King Henry IV Parts One and Two (plus his poignantly reported demise at the start of Henry V). We saw the production  at Manchester Opera House and were transfixed by this bravura, fat-padded tour de force.

So how does this tally with arguably the most unprepossessing of our sustainable fish? Well, think unsustainable PM Rishi Sunak’s cunning plan for National Service. On the eve of the Battle of Shrewsbury Sir John regrets lining his own pockets through his ‘recruitment policy’: “If I be not ashamed of my soldiers, I am a soused gurnet.”

Typically Tudor, the gurnard’s fillets have been marinated in vinegar. This week in the Medlock Canteen, one of Manchester’s most interesting new eating places, I was served it whole off the barbecue as a fish special of the day, the bulging eyes in its large, prehistoric head staring regretfully up at me from a pool of melted butter, infused with lemon and chive. It was quite glorious, the firm white flesh easily detached from its bony, spiny frame. It’s not so easy to fillet the fish raw,

My fine specimen was apparently fresh in that day, so no qualms about ordering, Once home, though, I checked the Marine Stewardship Council sustainability charts to find the red gurnard fishery may be in choppier waters than I envisaged. I was certain it was the red common in the Irish Sea and off Cornwall, not the larger grey or tub varieties found elsewhere. The Project Inshore assessment, based on MSC sustainability standards? “Red gurnard – often a favourite among those encouraging consumers to choose alternative species – fared less well in the report (than cod and cockles). A shortage of data about fish stocks and limited management of catches mean that there is an urgent case for investment to improve our understanding of this fishery. While a shortage of data doesn’t mean that the fisheries are inherently unsustainable, that data will be increasingly important as the species gains in popularity and catches increase.”

Further choppy waters as I discover a Wildlife Trusts warning to avoid during the breeding season, May-July, while the Cornwall Seafood Guide advises against eating during the spawning season, April 20 August. Whatever, only consume mature gurnard, ie longer than 24cm. My lunch certainly measures up to that

My old friend Clarissa Hyman has written the most scholarly appreciation of the gurnard: “(The red’s) bright-red coloration and pinkish-silver mottling has led to it being called the ‘grondin rouge’ in France and the ‘Engelse soldaat’ in the Netherlands, a reminder perhaps of the uniforms their former red-coated enemies across the Channel once wore…

“One immediately noticeable, and somewhat unnerving, feature is the fish’s long, thin lower rays or tentacles of the pectoral fins. These contain sensory organs used to sweep the sea bed for dinner – the small fish, crustaceans and other invertebrates that lurk in the sediment. They derive their more gentle, alternate American name of sea robin from the large pectoral fins with which they seemingly ‘fly’ through the seas.” 

Once they are caught, then, what’s the best cooking method? The usual fillets fried, grilled poached or baked, all taking advantage of its firm white flesh, almost stickily akin to monkfish, that other ugly bruiser from the deep. Bouillabaise or soup would certainly accommodate the gurnard. Gone are the days when they seemd only fit for lobster bait. Endorsed by chefs, the gurnard is upwardly mobile. Quite a feat for a bottom-dwelling species given to making an unappetising croaking noise. Moral of the tale – who needs Sexy Fish when you’ve got Ugly Fish?