No meager feat by Mediterannean meagre
Britain’s love of wild sea bass (Dicentrarchus labrax) has opened the door for a new farmed fish from the Mediterranean to crash the country’s restaurant scene.
Commercial farming of meagre (Argyrosomus regius) in Europe began in France and Italy in the late 1990s, but did not gather serious momentum until around eight years ago when Spain, Greece and Turkey also got in on the act. Current estimates put the total global production of the species at about 14,000 metric tons (MT) per year — a figure that’s forecast to continue growing in line with the increasing number of bass and bream farmers diversifying into the species.
Fresh fish supplier Direct Seafoods was one of the first companies in the United Kingdom to see the potential for meagre in the market. It began sourcing and promoting the fish to chefs in 2006, achieving a major breakthrough a year or so later when the Loch Fyne Seafood & Grill restaurant chain added it to its menu.
“Loch Fyne initially put meagre on for a six-month run,” said Laky Zervudachi, director of sustainability for Direct Seafoods. “That allowed us to begin carrying steady volumes of it and meant that we were able to get many other chefs and restaurants to try it. It’s really grown in popularity and sales across the group from that point.”
A big part of meagre’s appeal is that it provides an “excellent alternative” to large, wild seabass, said Zervudachi, adding that it’s also a considerably cheaper option.
Wild sea bass has long been a star center-plate protein for many U.K. chefs, but recent European stock surveys have suggested that landings need to be drastically cut to ensure the long-term viability of the species. Furthermore, because of stock overexploitation concerns, the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) has given wild sea bass ratings of 4 (amber) and 5 (red), which classifies it as “Unsustainable” and “Fish to Avoid,” respectively.
Direct Seafoods sources its farmed meagre from the French island of Corsica and its mainstay product offering is 2-4kg fish, which farmers find economical to produce because of the fish’s fast growth rate — 2.5-3kg in 24 months — as well as its good feed conversion rates.
Zervudachi said Direct Seafoods’ producer was able to match prices quoted by Greek, Turkish and Spanish farms, while also giving “the additional benefit” of being certified to the Label Rouge quality assurance scheme.
“Loch Fyne was the original impetus that allowed us to bring the volumes in that made it work. Obviously, if you can get a multiple chain to feature something like that then it helps. But we also put plenty of time into the product; we took chefs down to see the farm and that has also contributed to its success. Also, as time has moved on, more Greek and Turkish producers have come into the market, which has helped bring the price down, adding to its appeal,” he said.
Meagre is proving a particularly popular ingredient with restaurants serving ceviche, the Latin American dish of seafood marinated in citrus juice, which has been one of the United Kingdom’s hottest food trends of recent years.
“Chefs are keen to use it for ceviche as it gives them the opportunity to use another species alongside favorites like [farmed] seabass,” said Zervudachi.
The U.K. foodservice market is on an upswing and is now worth GBP 64 billion (USD 107.6 billion, EUR 80.3 billion), having grown 2.7 percent in the past year, according to CGA Strategy. By comparison, the country’s grocery multiple market is worth GBP 87 billion (USD 146.2 billion, EUR 109.2 billion) following growth of 1.2 percent. The food and drink analyst’s data also found that 43 percent of Brits are eating out once a week, with the figure rising to 59 percent for Londoners.