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From crate to plate

Helen Clifton follows the journey of a halibut from the cold slabs of New Smithfield fish market to the linen-clad tables of Manchester's Rosso restaurant

Published on April 9th 2010.

From crate to plate

Openshaw's freezing cold New Smithfield fish market at 7am couldn't be a more unglamorous place - and seems a million miles away from the plush surroundings of the nearby city centre's top restaurants.

But don't be fooled by appearances. The water soaked concrete stalls, constant banter, and crates of gleaming fish are where it's at. The market works steadily throughout the early hours of the morning, six days a week, to supply the world's finest ocean-fresh products to the region's best eating establishments. Without the hard work of New Smithfield's fishmongers, your plaice would be poorer, your sole shabbier, and your lobsters lacklustre.

Brian Wilde - whose family have been supplying Manchester with fish for four generations - is gleefully putting together his weekly order for Rio Ferdinand's Rosso restaurant. Brian regularly supplies to several city centre restaurants, including Yang Sing, Don Giovannis and Zouk.

The pile of treats include wriggling lobsters flown all the way from Canada. "You can't get lobster all year round in England - it's too cold," Brian explains. There is also Cornish dover sole, and Colchester oysters. King of the catch, however, is a prime Fraserburgh halibut, caught just off the coast of Aberdeenshire that day and promptly driven all the way down to New Smithfield, delivered at around 3am that morning.

The whole 10kg fish - worth over £500 - is expertly sliced up by Brian's trusty sidekick, David Grisby, ready for preparation by Rosso head chef Gaston Scicluna.

"We take it off the bone for him, but they use all the bones and the head to make fish stock," Brian explains. This man clearly loves his job. "Gaston texted me at 3.10am this morning to check I had the right order - that's how dedicated he is to his job. I speak to him every day.

"There aren't many halibuts that come out this market of that quality and size. The number of people we get requesting halibut is unbelievable. I don't think people realise what goes on at this market at all - it's the third biggest market of its type in the country. It's all about the quality."

Gaston agrees. The halibut is delivered to his restaurant at around 10am, ready for the lunch service. When I arrive at 12pm, the kitchen is bustling. Conspiratorial porters gather in the corner, readying themselves for the hours of washing and cleaning ahead. Italian waiters greet Gaston. "Buongiorno, chef."

Gaston himself was born in Malta, but is of Sicilian stock, and has worked in England for 14 years. He holds up one of the halibut fillets for me to admire. "Look at the size of that," he marvels. "When you have a quality bit of fish like that, you need to be careful with it. It doesn't need a great deal doing to it. The quality speaks for itself. You need to treat it with a lot of respect."

As he lops off hunks of fish, cut thick to keep the meat moist, I ask him why New Smithfield is so important.

"It is a wonderful fish market to be so close to," he says. "You buy directly from the supplier. In my opinion, it is the right way to do it. If you wanted to buy fish this good you wouldn't find it anywhere else in Manchester. There is no question about it. You buy the very best there is. It is line-caught, so it is sustainable, which is so important. If it is sustainable it keeps the halibut alive."

He reminisces about his time working in Italian hotels. I suggest that the food passion and skills we British fetishise so much are all too often alive and well on our own doorsteps. And in Manchester, in New Smithfield.

He agrees. "The skills these guys use to slice the fish up with - they are like surgeons. It is all about passion. Some markets are dying, but quality like that lives on."

Fish chef Domenico Deiana grills the fillet together with a langoustine, before gently heating a lobster and langoustine bisque, prepared with fish stock and tomatoes. We discuss the best way to kill the still live lobsters about to meet their end on his spotless chef's workspace. Domenico puts them in the deep freeze, so they go to sleep before they are boiled alive.

Halibut and langoustine grilled, Domenica slides the whole lot onto a bed of wilted spinach and garlic, finishing with a squeeze of lemon and a sprig of chives.

The finished dish, and the result of all these collective endeavours, is presented to me. Rosso's Halibut All'Agguato, yours for £17.95. I am told it is perfect with a £6.75 glass of Sauvignon Ronco Blanchis. The fish is delicious. Meaty and firm, yet melt in the mouth. The simple flavours of the bisque perfectly complement the fish, and the langoustine is sweet and delicate - a real treat. A light dish, it is perfect for lunch or late supper.

And is all the effort worth it? Well, munching away in Rosso's salubrious surroundings, I come to the conclusion that a fine piece of halibut is clearly one of the great pleasures of life. And judging by the passion and effort poured into bringing the fish to my plate, both Brian and Gaston heartily agree.


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7 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

AnonymousApril 9th 2010.

Does anyone know how Manchester's markets ended up being called 'Smithfield'?

boredApril 9th 2010.

Based in Openshaw, east Manchester, the market has a proud history. First established in the Smithfield area of what is now known as the Northern Quarter in 1872, the market moved to the new covered buyers’ walkways in 1972.

AnonymousApril 9th 2010.

I know all that bored person, I can Google with the best of them. You haven't answered my question though.

Mark MottramApril 9th 2010.

well, it comes from smithy (craft, work) and field. it's where the workers were based. a smith field

AnonymousApril 9th 2010.

You sure MarkM? I thought smithy was derived from Blacksmith? There's evidence of a foundry there, but the initial buildings were mainly concerned with the domestic textile industry - before the market area was built. I've wondered if there's a link with the Smithfield markets in London, but can't find any evidence of such.

AnonymousApril 9th 2010.

All I can find out is that 'Officially, the area was given the title Smithfield Market in May 1822...'

AnonymousApril 10th 2010.

This is nice. Would you care to do the journey thing as regards to their lobster/langustine sauce/bisque? As an ex-employee, I can say that it does not come from lobster/langustine stock.

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