- About us
- Through Time
By Gill Perkins
When I walk into the Chelsea Fishmongers in Burpham on a wet Tuesday afternoon, Duncan Welton is washing some squid in the sink. Squid doesn’t look appetising to me in its raw form, but I know that if I had the right knowledge and ingredients, I could probably make something decent with it – just like Duncan’s customer is about to.
“Come in when it’s quiet,” Duncan had said on the phone earlier. “Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons are our quietest time, but once you hit Thursday we’re really busy, and last Saturday we had a queue out of the door and down the street. People are prepared to wait for good produce.”
The Chelsea Fishmonger, in Kingpost Parade, is one of those places that, in my opinion, are too few and far between in Guildford – an independent food merchant. When I moved here from a town that’s only slightly smaller than Guildford, I was used to independent butchers, fishmongers, grocers and delicatessens, all easy to get to and all offering the thing that only an independent shop truly can – great products and friendly expert advice.
It seems strange and sad, that in a place as wealthy as Guildford, where people say they care a great deal about the quality of goods they buy, there isn’t the market for a full-time butcher or deli in the centre of town.
So why did the Chelsea Fishmonger choose to open a shop in the parade of shops at Burpham nearly four years ago? “That’s easy,” grins Duncan. “Rex Goldsmith, who owns the stores, has banked with the HSBC here for years and years, and has always known that this is a busy shopping area. When the chance came to open a store, he jumped at it, and we’ve been part of the community ever since.”
Despite the fact that Tuesdays are supposed to be quiet, we break off our chat several times so that he can do what he does best – sell the fish. In the hour that I’m there, six or seven customers come in; some regulars, some brand new, and all looking for something different.
Duncan took an order for three whole salmon for a family party, sold two lots of white tiger prawns, filleted two freshly gleaming mackerel, and quizzed a customer on what her plans were for the hake fillets she was buying and whether she would pop back in next week and let him know how they tasted.
“So Duncan,” I say. “Have you always been a fishmonger?” “God, no!” he replies. “I left school and became a builder’s labourer and then went into the army. After that, I was a personal instructor until Rex found me and started training me up part-time.
“I helped him to open the shop up in Chelsea and I’ve been at Burpham since we started here. I’m a Cornish boy though, so the sea and the fish are in my blood and I love it.”
The displays in the front window bear this out. Although claiming not to have an artistic bone in his body, Duncan’s a natural at arranging the fish and shellfish that goes on display, changing it daily depending on what’s come in from his suppliers.
“We get a delivery straight off the boats of our suppliers in Cornwall,” he tells me. “We talk on the phone each afternoon. They tell me what they’ve landed and I tell them what I want. Then it’s packed and driven up here, arriving at about 4am each day.
“The rest of our fish and shellfish comes from Billingsgate, so again, Rex is up there at 3am picking out the best stuff for us to sell. The key is to get the fish from water to plate as quickly as possible, which is where we beat the supermarkets hands down. We can stock a much wider range of fish and, of course, we can prepare the cuts for you and give you great advice on how to cook it.
“I’ll tell you what’s really interesting,” he adds. “British people in general are a bit scared of fish, which is weird when you consider we’re an island nation with a fishing heritage. I find that the Spanish, French and Italian customers I get in here are much more confident about the fish that they want and they’re happy to prepare it at home – they don’t need me to do it for them. But the more people come in a see me, the more adventurous they get, and I’ll always help them out so that they’re happy with the fish they choose and the way they’re going to cook it.”
The shop, which also stocks sauces, prepared fish like smoked salmon, dressed crab and anchovies, is open and welcoming – you can look right over Duncan’s shoulder while he prepares his fish so that you can see exactly what’s going on. Our chat has convinced me to make the effort to come back and buy more fresh fish and be a better fish chef, so could Duncan give me a couple of quick and easy recipes that anyone can cook?
“I could give you loads,” he says as we walk over to look at the fish display. “But these are two of my favourites.”
Pan-fried lemon sole
Take two lemon sole fillets and brush lightly with olive oil. Season with salt and pepper and pan fry quickly on each side. Serve straight away with fresh lettuce and new potatoes.
Take enough fresh linguine pasta for two and put it into a pan of boiling water. While the water is boiling, warm a little olive oil in a pan and add a crushed clove of garlic, some chilli flakes, a little lemon juice, some chopped parsley and the crab meat. Warm this all through, drain the pasta and mix the sauce in. Sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve.
Click to watch Duncan’s “How to” videos on the Which? website.
To go to the Chelsea Fishmonger website, click here.