A day in the life of...A fish filleter.
Are your feet cold yet?" apprentice, Kenny, asks me. "I wear two pairs of socks and an insole every day, but once the cold gets inside your boots, there's nothing you can do."
But long before my feet get cold, my hands start to seize up. They have already changed colour to a bluey-purple. I notice that Kenny's nails look like they're about to peel off ( the result of plunging his fingers into freezing water a thousand times every day.
I'm learning something the North East is teaching the rest of Britain. It takes 16 weeks to learn, and no machine can do it as well as a human. I am learning to fillet a fish.
"You'll probably find it quite hard at first," my teacher, Darren Adamson, tells me. "It takes some people weeks to get the hang of it, so don't expect much on your first go. And you are left-handed, which won't help."
Darren is 33 and lives near the Fish Quay in North Shields, where he works. He started filleting on Saturdays when he was eight, and went full-time on leaving school.
Now he trains unemployed young people on the New Deal scheme on a 16-week course at the Seafood Training Centre in Clifford's Fort, North Shields ( the only fish-filleting school in the country.
The school was opened in 2001 to counter the national shortage of fish-filleters.
Years ago, as a male filleter, I would have been a curiosity. Now, of the 31 people Darren has got through the course since the school opened in 2001, only one was a woman.
Darren starts to show me how to fillet. He grabs a cod with both hands, twists it until it is straight and puts it on a table joined to a sink full of others in icy water.
Using a thin, eight-inch knife he has just sharpened, he slices into it just below the pectoral fin on the side near the head. He pulls the knife round, then flicks it up the fish's head and off at its nose. He pulls the knife out back out of the hole to free the fillet from the head.
Then he steps back and saws down the cod's back, along the dorsal fin. He scrapes along the ribcage, removing the soft, grey flesh from the pin bones. He slides the knife along the side and, with a flick, out at the tail.
He rinses fillet number one, and shaves it with his knife. The first thing a fishmonger does if you go for a job is ask you to fillet a fish to see if you just chop the head off," he says. "There's more waste that way."
Now he flips the fish over. He wedges his forefinger under the cod's gills, and rams his thumb into its eye. Again, he cuts underneath the pectoral fin, but this time clutches the knife and twists it. With a crunch, the cod's head breaks free from the bone.
What's lying in a bin by the side of his desk has less than half a gram of meat on it.
As school manager Dennis Osbourne says: "People are going away from the auto-filleting machines and returning to hand-filleting. A good filleter will get you far more meat for your money."
Darren patiently repeats the process another 10 times so I can copy him, taking about 20 seconds each time. Then I drag a haddock out from the icy water to try myself.
The first few times, Darren takes me through the procedure. It takes five minutes, but I manage to pull a couple of ragged-looking fillets off the fish.
Even though Darren has been in the business for nearly 25 years, the groups he takes on tours around the quay still see him become animated when he starts talking about fish.
He knows everyone on the quayside, chatting to the men in the next building who have been processing fish since 10pm yesterday.
"I went and worked at the docks for a bit, and have done a couple of other things, but I always come back here," he says. "You've got the view and the beach nearby. If you can stand the cold it's a great job."
Darren met his wife Wendy when she was taking some pensioners on an outing to the quay. Now she has just started working at a fishmonger's, and in his spare time Darren takes his children ( who are seven, 12 and 13 ( up to Seaton Sluice to look for lobsters.
"When kids come on trips here I tell them to get their parents to buy fish," he says. "It's so easy to cook."
Before overfishing and European quotas hit, the fishing industry supported the area and forged a strong community. Now, lots of the fish comes from abroad.
In Taylor's fishmongers' nearby, he takes me through the different fish now coming into the region. "Look at that," he says to me, holding up a crimson snapper. He feels its flesh with its fingers for firmness, then pulls its fin up. "That's a beautiful animal."
By clocking-off time, I have a pile of haddock fillets next to me, about a quarter of which would be sellable, and I won't be having fish for my tea tonight. Both the others admit they rarely eat it at home. But nothing will dim Darren's love for his job. He is enthusiastic about the plans to build a museum, and keeps mentioning the passion the area's people have for fish.
"I remember when I was 14, one of my teachers said: `Don't go and work down at the quayside. The place has got two years.' Then when this place opened 10 years later I was on the TV, in the papers, everywhere.
"I remember thinking: `I hope he saw me'."
I went and worked at the docks for a bit, and have done a couple of other things, but I always come back here."
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|Publication:||Evening Chronicle (Newcastle, England)|
|Date:||Jan 22, 2005|
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