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Carp: The new face of fish suppers?

UK - Migrants' tastes and environmental factors help to revive interest in a fish neglected since medieval times

Sometimes as darkness falls, an odd slurping, sucking sound can be heard coming from the banks of Jimmie and Penny Hepburn's 17 spring-fed ponds. Jimmie admits that it could not be called a pleasant noise, but it is a satisfactory one, for it means the couple's carp are fit and getting fatter.

The Hepburns will this year haul Britain's first crop of organic farmed carp from the ponds at their Devon home, and they have already had interest from pubs, restaurants and a chain of popular wine bars in London.

"There's great interest in the fish," said Jimmie. "The truth is that we have forgotten how to eat fish like carp. In medieval times they were very popular. Now they are usually grown to huge proportions for anglers who take a photo of them and throw them back. Hardly anyone thinks of them as food."

Two factors might just make the couple's enterprise, at Upper Hayne farm in the Blackdown Hills, work. First, there is the increased interest in fish such as carp, driven by immigrants from eastern Europe who regard carp as a great treat, especially at Christmas.

The Hepburns had their first taste of their reared carp in the summer when a few were big enough for the table. If taken straight to the kitchen from the ponds they can taste muddy, Jimmie says, so they need to be swilled with spring water for a day or two. "We had ours done with lemon zest and some herbs and garlic and peppers. It was absolutely delicious. Tastes are changing. Remember, 10 or 15 years ago almost nobody ate sushi in the UK. Now it's everywhere."

The second factor is the environment. The increasing strain on popular fish such as cod, haddock and salmon is forcing a change in tastes. Jimmie, who once ran a salmon farm in Scotland, said: "We've got to get back to eating food like this for the benefit of the planet."

A few hundred years ago not only carp but fish such as tench, perch and chub were considered good for eating. Many monasteries and villages had their own carp ponds. "If you lived inland it just wasn't possible to get access to sea fish. The industrial revolution meant we could get sea fish wherever we were and so fish like carp went out of fashion."

Unlike farmed salmon and trout, the Hepburns' carp get at least half their food from the ponds. The couple make sure conditions are right for the growth of algae and other organisms that the fish thrive on. Their diet is supplemented not with pellets but with grain bought from local farmers and scraps from the kitchen - carp are pretty much the chickens of the fish world.

Penny is also the proud custodian of the business's mealworm farm. In the corner of her smart dining room there is a glass tank full of flour beetles. She transfers the beetles' eggs to wine boxes containing the mealworms and apples from the farm's orchard.

Penny feeds the worms to the fish. "The fish love the worms, they go mad when you put them in," she said. "They are also very good for them as they are high in protein." She has got used to the odd looks from dinner guests.

Despite interest in the Hepburns' carp, it is still not clear if they will be able to make a decent living from them. They expect to sell about 2,000 fish in June and hope people will pay about £5 for a plate-sized fish.

Jimmie believes he would earn much more if he used his ponds for angling or to rear ornamental fish. "It seems ridiculous that we put less value on fish reared for food than fish reared for sport. It shows the mess we've got ourselves in."

The Hepburns believe attitudes will change, because environmental problems mean they will have to. They imagine a time when people will get rid of the goldfish from their ponds and replace them with carp for food. "After all, a few years ago many people weren't into their vegetable patches. Now growing vegetables is trendy again," said Jimmie.

Source: Guardian Unlimited