“The carp is the queen of rivers; a stately, a good and a very subtil fish,” wrote Izaak Walton, in an appreciative passage from The Compleat Angler (1653). He talks of the patience, cunning and skill required to catch the carp and also gives a rather fine recipe, featuring claret, herbs, onions, oysters, anchovies and spices.
Today though, anglers in Britain and much of the western world prize size above taste: the bigger the fish the better, so you can pose for a picture beside your silvery catch before it is thrown back into the water. But Jimmie Hepburn believes we should think again about throwing the carp back. Nominated by Ecologist magazine as one of its top 10 visionaries last year, Hepburn is a leading exponent of organic aquaculture and argues that, at a time when stocks of many wild fish are under pressure, farmed carp could play an important and sustainable role in meeting our future food requirements. He thinks carp are not only underrated when it comes to flavour, but that they also lend themselves well to controlled cultivation, rather like a kind of aquatic rabbit.
Unlike salmon and trout, carp don’t need a lot of fresh running water, high oxygen levels or extra feed. He sees them as an eco-friendly food source that could be farmed on both a large scale and at a smallholding level.
Of course, in many parts of the world, carp is already highly valued, for the table as well as for anglers’ sport. More carp are farmed than any other fish, mostly in Asia, and a gargantuan carp remains the centrepiece of choice for the festive eastern European table, characteristically kept in the bathtub until someone is bold enough to finally knock it on the head.
In 2006, Hepburn bought a former trout farm in a secluded Devon valley and set out to establish Britain’s first organic carp farm. He had previously worked in Scottish salmon farming, but argues that despite improvements in trout and salmon farming, they remain less sustainable than carp because their diets rely on protein in the form of fish meal. Produced from the ground-up meat and bones of wild fish, this represents a significant use of the ocean’s resources.
In contrast carp are omnivorous and eat whatever they forage. The ponds are given an annual dose of manure, provided by local farms, and work has gone into establishing a pond ecosystem that encourages the growth of micro-algae and plankton.
Several generations of carp down the line, interest has been growing from retailers, restaurants and private customers, especially since the farm acquired an Austrian filleting machine, which removes all bones. Purged in spring water, the fish is clean and fine-flavoured, sweet and succulent.
London’s El Vino chain of restaurants and wine bars has been offering carp, though it’s not always been easy to persuade customers to sample a freshwater fish other than trout. Anthony Mitchell, the chain’s director, says: “There is an attitude problem. People tend to assume carp is going to be muddy and unpleasant. That’s the case certainly when it’s badly reared but Jimmie does it properly and it’s a wonderful fish. Out menus change regularly but, whenever we have it on the menu, the feedback is excellent. We have quite a lot of Polish staff and they got very excited when they found out we were going to serve it. They see it as much of a luxury item as top smoked salmon.”
Hepburn’s wife Penny has also developed a range of modern carp recipes, and their oak-smoked carp, produced by the Organic Smokehouse in Clunbury, Shropshire, did well in international competition in Brussels earlier this year. Perhaps more significant in terms of public perception, was the carp’s appearance on the Channel 4 television show River Cottage. In a blind tasting, presenter Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and a panel of tasters gave a resoundingly positive verdict.
But as well as getting carp on to restaurant tables, Hepburn is going further, promoting the concept of Backyard Fish Farming. The idea is that using his specially developed techniques, individuals will rear their own carp in their garden ponds, of which Britain has an estimated 2m. The idea is not without precedent – until the railways brought sea fish inland easily and cheaply, every manor and monastery had its own fishpond. So, it’s perhaps not too far-fetched to think that one day we might all be popping down to the back garden for carp and chips. It might not provide Walton’s sport, but it would be a jolly good fish supper.
Hepburn’s company Aquavision runs a range of small-scale aquaculture courses, tel: +44 (0)1823 680888; www.aquavisiononline.com
Nicholas Lander is away