What makes Christmas special

Everyone, everywhere has their own special traditions at Christmas. Here’s our roundup of how fishermen, fishmongers and chefs around the UK will be celebrating – and, crucially, what they’ll be eating – over the festive period.

Peter Bruce and the crew of the Budding Rose getting into the Christmas spirit at Peterhead fish market

I’ve been a skipper now for 30 years and Christmas for me is a time to relax. We’ve done all the hard work and we just want to spend some time with family and friends and not think about fishing at all. I’ve always had a good break at Christmas. We stop about 15 December and go right the way through to 5 January.

The day after we’ve landed, all the crew come in and we clean the boat from stem to stern, then we dress it in Christmas lights – that’s a tradition we’ve had for a few years now. But every vessel is different: some guys go out over Christmas and the new year too.

As for Christmas dinner, we’ll have the usual turkey, but we’ll also have some lemon sole – a sole mornay – as one of the courses. We often take a lot of fish home – the lemon sole, a bit of turbot, halibut and haddock too – and we’ll be eating it right the way through the holiday. So if we’re not eating turkey, we’ll be having Budding Rose fish!

>> Peter Bruce, skipper, Budding Rose PD 418, Peterhead

Christmas Eve is always the busiest day of the year for us. It’s a frantic mixture of fun and chaos, interspersed with oysters and Guinness. When I finally leave the shop I always love the drive home. I’m exhausted, relieved and very happy to be driving home to my family for Christmas. And no, I don’t like that bloody Chris Rea song! I live down in Surrey near a little village called Shere and we always go to the carol service in the village. I honestly don’t think I’ve missed one in 50 years. After carols we all descend on “Jimmy the geezer’s” house for his annual Christmas Eve party, with much wine and jellied eels a-plenty.

Christmas morning is one of my favourite times. Kids, presents, Santa. All the usual stuff. Usually about 10am we have coffee, brandy and oysters in the front garden with our neighbours. Breakfast is smoked salmon, eggs and Champagne (definitely no orange juice!!). I usually cook the Christmas dinner. Turkey and all the usuals. Most years we have about 10-12 people for lunch so it’s great fun but never ready much before 4pm. After lunch I like a nice cognac and a big fat Montecristo. We play stupid board games at which I’m rubbish (except of “who’s in the bag?”: I’m unbeatable at that). Then I’m usually snoring on the sofa by 9pm. Merry Christmas.

Rex Goldsmith, The Chelsea Fishmonger

My wife and I aren’t really fond of turkey, so we have fish instead for Christmas dinner along with all the usual trimmings. Fish can be just as festive. In the past, we’ve had turbot, bass and monkfish. It will depend on what’s available nearer the time – in a way that makes it even more special.

One family tradition that’s a little bit strange is that we throw up a whole tin of Quality Street into the air on Christmas morning for everyone to catch. It used to happen when I was a child too. I’m told it was part of a TV ad way back, but of course I’m too young to remember that!

>> Nathan Outlaw, chef, author

A fishmongers’ Christmas can’t start until everything has been sold. I remember one Christmas Eve arriving home having tied up the boats and cleared the fish docks’ cold store of every single fish – and realising that I’d forgotten to save any smoked salmon for the family. A bad start!

Our family tradition on Christmas Eve is to kick-off the festivities with a luxury warming fish pie, including scallops, prawns, lobster tail, smoked fish and salmon. A more recent local tradition is to donate a stone of fish mix to the town’s homeless shelter so that they can make their own bumper fish pie. I also get the veg and other ingredients donated from local shops.

>> Dan “The Fish Man” Garnett, fishmonger, Clovelly Fish

Clovelly is famous for its steep, traffic-free cobbled street. Vehicular access is impossible, so we use sledges as an everyday practicality: goods for residents and businesses are delivered to the car park at the top of the village, then hauled down the hill. Much to the delight of local children, there is a very special, beautifully decorated sledge, used only on Christmas Eve by Father Christmas, with a little bit of help from the Clovelly Lifeboat crew, to deliver presents and sweets to local residents.

>> Ellie Jarvis, social media manager, Clovelly

Christmas lights at Clovelly harbour. Picture: Dave Dummett

My brother and I always go for a surf on Christmas Day after our family breakfast of buck’s fizz, scrambled eggs, smoked salmon and laverbread.

>> Jonathan “The Captain” Williams, The Pembrokeshire Beach Food Company

Traditionally on Christmas Eve we kick off the celebrations by covering our table in newspaper and heaping it with shellfish. We’ll have a pile of napkins, tools, some bowls of homemade mayo and bottles of Muscadet and we’ll just get stuck in. It’s informal, it’s messy – and it’s great fun.

>> Mitch Tonks, restaurateur, fishmonger, food writer and chef

Our Christmas Day starts with lobster and scrambled eggs, with a capful of Baileys stirred into it – trust me, it’s delicious. We do a cliff path walk with the dog and the family in Fowey, and then head down to Ready Money Cove. It’s an old pirate cove on the edge of Fowey, where lots of people gather for a Christmas Day swim.

>> Paul Trudgian, fishmonger, Fish for Thought

Seafood plays a large part in our family’s Christmas. The tradition we enjoy the most (and have kept up longest) is a Christmas morning breakfast of smoked salmon and scrambled eggs from our own free range flock. For the last few years, I’ve sourced my salmon from my great friend and local fishmonger Chris Wightman, who coffee-cures and smokes his own Loch Duart fish. It’s a memorable and deliciously light smoke with gorgeous coffee notes.

Also over the festive season, I like to use the dressed lobster meat that I’ve accumulated over the summer months and frozen down for canapés or for a rather decadent lobster cocktail – even better this year using lobster that I’ve caught in my own pots! Finally, our New Year’s Eve celebrations wouldn’t be complete without a hearty and wholesome serving of Cullen Skink, which I just adore making, using local potatoes, leeks and haddock sent down from my fishing friends in Peterhead.

>> Mike Warner, blogger and Fish on Friday contributor, East Coast Avocet

I always join the hoards doing the Cromer Boxing Day Dip, which is a charity event organised by the North Norfolk Beach Runners. There are hundreds of participants every year, and thousands more watching from the warmth of the promenade. Some people go in fancy dress, but I stick to swimming trunks. The idea is to run into the sea until you’re totally submerged, run out again, and then back in for a second helping. Some even go for thirds and fourths. After the swim, lots of us head up to the Wellington Pub – the “Welly” – for free mulled wine, to warm up from the inside out.

>> Chris Taylor, Norfolk photographer

Our fishy Christmas traditions start with a leisurely brunch of free-range eggs from our village and our fishmonger’s hot-smoked salmon along with some homemade rye bread and home-cured herrings. After that comes a good walk along the south Devon coast between Kingswear and Brixham, finishing in our local cove for a swim to wear out the dogs, before heading home for Christmas dinner.

>> Holly and David Jones, Manna from Devon Cooking School

We like to stay indoors on Christmas morning and build up the open fire. If it’s really cold we drink rum and shrub and admire the crazy son-in-law who swims in Porthleven harbour, no matter how cold it is. And a walk along Penzance Prom is a must after the Xmas dinner.

>> Laurence Hartwell, Newlyn photographer, blogger and teacher

Celebrating switching on the Christmas lights around Newlyn harbour. Picture: Laurence Hartwell 

My great-great-uncle was from Perranporth in Cornwall and he would still go surfing on his wooden board aged 90-something. On Christmas morning, his tradition would be to run the half a mile or so out over the sand on Perranporth beach, stash the brandy by the big rock there, strip off and jump in the sea before sprinting back for the brandy. I gave it a try and went purple – it’s a real shock to the system.

>> Luke Robinson, executive chef, Bonnie Gull

My coastal tradition is a swim on Christmas Day. I’ll be honest and confess that I haven’t been the last few years, but I may well go for a dip this year! That’s followed by a walk on the beach, with a forage for any interesting plants and shellfish we find along the way to nibble on or to cook up for Christmas supper when we can’t face anything heavy to eat.

>> Mat Follas, MasterChef winner, chef and author

Although I love the buzz and even the 18-hour days, Christmas for chefs really is all about making other people happy. So when it’s all over for most people on Boxing Day, it begins for me – and that means blowing the cobwebs away on the beach at Great Yarmouth, which is where I started my career as a 15-year-old at the Imperial Hotel.

There’s always a fish-and-chip shop open, so my first proper Christmas dinner will be vinegar-soaked cod and salty chips washed down with Fanta at a café with a sea view. Conventional? No. Traditional? For me, absolutely.

>> Richard Hughes, chef-proprietor, the Lavender House Restaurant and Richard Hughes Cookery School

Fish and chips and a sea view: a great alternative Boxing Day treat

We always have seafood on Christmas Eve and I try and organise it well enough in advance that I can invite a number of friends – I like to have at least 10 around the dining room table and we aim to eat early.

We start with a big tray of taramasalata, brandade, guacamole and chilli salsa with pitta bread for guests on arrival. We then sit down to eat the main course. A big favourite is what I call Over-the-top fish pie. As I have access to Billingsgate, I am never spoilt for choice, so I include whatever is best on the day. It has to have smoked fish (smoked whiting is my favourite, although smoked hake is fantastic too), white fish (coley or pollack would be my usual choice, although it depends on what’s best on the day) and, of course, shellfish (mussels, clams and prawns) threaded through a creamy béchamel based around leeks straight out of my garden.

My other favourite is a huge great shellfish platter. But you have to know your friends for this one – it’s too scary for some! All this is served with a big winter salad with chicory, raddichio and frisée. And NO pud! But tangerines are always on the table, along with chocolate tuiles, followed by coffee – and then everyone heads off home to watch out for Father Christmas!

>> CJ Jackson, food writer, chef and CEO, Billingsgate Seafood Training School

Goose or turkey is the traditional centrepiece for our Christmas table, but the proceedings leading up to it will definitely include a seafood platter with Maldon oysters and our very own Rye Bay scallops, which have just come into season.

>> Paul Webbe, director, Webbe’s Restaurants

We’ll be starting Christmas Day with our own Fal oysters served au naturel with Camel Valley Brut in the morning. And our Christmas dinner starter’s going to be more oysters! It’ll be oyster tempura with a raspberry vinaigrette – a recipe created by Mark Apsey, head chef at Idle Rocks in St Mawes – made with Porthilly rock oysters and served with Fal Oyster Stout.

>> Chris Ranger, oysterman, Fal Oyster

Oyster tempura with a raspberry vinaigrette, created by Mark Apsey, head chef at Idle Rocks in St Mawes

We always have a nice Dover sole accompanied by a really good Chablis on Christmas Eve evening, as it’s quick and simple and doesn’t require too much preparation and effort. Then on Christmas Day we always start by opening a bottle of Champagne and have a starter of smoked salmon and prawns and melon before we get stuck into the turkey. Helen, my wife, always likes to keep the starter really simple to avoid extra work: smoked salmon and prawns just need putting on a plate and everyone can help themselves.

>> Chris Leftwich, former chief inspector at Billingsgate Market, Fishmongers’ Company

What do I do at Christmas? I get some sleep! The run-up to Christmas these days is a very busy period for us. It didn’t use to be. Not that many years ago, it was very quiet. The restaurants were finished with the oysters – people didn’t use to eat out so much and oysters weren’t part of the scene. Now we’re much more European: oysters are a big part of the Christmas Eve meal in France, for example, and now we’ve gone the same way. Will I eat some oysters myself? A few! I won’t gorge, but I eat a few all the time, so I expect I will at Christmas too.

>> Richard Haward, oysterman, Richard Haward Oysters

Everyone works hard in the last week before Christmas because the last market always has a good price on the fish. After the last market in Newlyn, it closes for two weeks and everyone ties up. So then it’s a big knees-up really.

Newlyn and particularly Mousehole have Christmas lights – Mousehole is famous for it. And the night before Christmas Eve is called Tom Bawcock’s Eve. That tradition has been going for hundreds of years, and celebrates when Tom Bawcock in Mousehole went out fishing in bad weather when the whole village was starving. He shot his nets and came back with all this fish – and that’s where the tradition of Stargazy Pie comes from. So if you go into pubs in Mousehole or Newlyn or any of the pubs round here on the night before Christmas Eve, they’ll serve up Stargazy Pie.

>> Saul Astrinsky, fisherman and fishmonger, Wild Harbour Fish Company

Billingsgate Stargazy pie, by Quinton Bennett, former head chef of The Gun, Docklands

Living in Jersey, we are so lucky to be so close to some of the most beautiful beaches in Britain. So traditionally on Boxing Day, we would spend the day on the beach with the dogs working up an appetite, followed by a simple fish soup with dinner.

>> Steve Smith, head chef of Bohemia

For us it’s fish pie on Christmas Eve, and on Christmas Day we have wild Cornish smoked salmon for starters. We hide it in our shop freezer when the salmon season finishes; when it comes out we get it smoked at Tregida Smokehouse. Delicious!

>> Angela Pengelly, founder of Pengelly Fish

I always start Christmas day with my own recipe smoked salmon, sliced thickly, atop creamy scrambled eggs, with plenty of pepper, on a nice slice of toast or a bagel.

>> Nick Nairn, cook school founder and chef

A few years ago, I built a home-smoker in a galvanised metal dustbin and now Christmas salmon-smoking has become something of an annual tradition. Friends and family put in orders, and I’ve spent the last few days busily curing and smoking salmon. Though I say so myself, it’s tastier than supermarket varieties – and far cheaper. This year’s salmon smoking season has already started: above is a photo of one of the latest batches. My sister and I are going to get our Dad a salmon smoker this year, and also a copy of Tim Hayward’s book, Food DIY, to get him started. He’s notoriously bad at both DIY and cooking, but we’re hoping that his greed when it comes to smoked salmon might overcome this.

This year, I’m spending Christmas in Leicestershire, which is about as far away from the sea as you can get. But I’ll certainly be thinking about seafood, as ever. A couple of things on my mind right now… Christmas trade shows indicated that prawn cocktail was making a retro comeback and at the Padstow Christmas Festival, where I snapped the harbour lights below, I watched a demonstration by Paul Ainsworth, who cooked a whole turbot as an alternative Christmas lunch. He put it on a bed of seaweed, and then covered it in more seaweed, so it almost steamed. It looked amazing.

>> Rachel Walker, Fish on Friday writer

It’s traditional to go and watch the swimmers on Boxing Day, who brave the waves and temperature to go swimming on Polurrian beach. Then it’s off to the local for a chat and a few drinks, wearing the inevitable Christmas jumper.

>> Kevin Penney, fisherman, Bess FH32, Dreckly Fish

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