Brexit roadtrip - Caroline Bennett (Sole of Discretion, Plymouth)

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Like Chris, who I spoke to a day before, Caroline is in the business of buying ethically sourced fish of small scale fishermen, and selling that, both in Europe and domestically. Caroline started out with one of the first sushi restaurants in London, in the late eighties. In the nineties, her journey in sustainably sourced fish started when she tried to get bluefin tuna for her restaurant. “There just wasn’t any around, and at first we were like ‘argh, why not!’ It feels silly now. That was the first time I started speaking to experts and learning about the depletion of fish stocks. I started working on a project trying to reconfigure the fisheries world here in the south-west. And through that I met [fisherman] Chris Bean at a Slow Food event in Turin.”

“After speaking a lot in Turin, Chris told me: ‘When we get back I’m going to send you a box of fish’. And I thought: ‘How is this lovely, one man band fisherman going to supply to London?’ But I still remember this day when we got this box, and my Japanese chefs opened it, and did what they always did with fish arriving in Britain, turning their face away because they didn’t like the smell that came out of it. So they turned their face away, lifted the box lid, and then slowly turning their faces towards it in surprise, because there was clearly no smell. And they saw this gleaming, fresh fish that they’d recall from Japanese days. That just changed everything, the bar was set a lot higher. The whole course of our direction was changed. So I said to my other suppliers, ‘I just want ethical fish, traceable fish’. That turned out to be a difficult question, because most fish, when it’s landed got mixed up in a box, so you no longer can tell if it’s a line-caught fish from Cornwall or a beam trawl caught fish from Newlin. You’d have no idea once it’s past the wholesale. It was frustrating to me that as a restaurant owner, it was so difficult to know if you’re buying ethically sourced fish. So out of this deep frustration I wanted to do what Chris is doing for the restaurant sector.

So now with Sole of Discretion, on our packs of fish, we pledge the boat and the method of the catch, which is a first first in retail, and as far as I know isn’t replicated by anyone else. And I know why, because it’s bloody hard work, haha.”

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What was your response when you heard a majority of the British population voted to leave the EU?

“I just felt this real sadness that Britain is turning its back on humanity and ignoring everything about the extraordinary humanity that being part of Europe has provided us.”

“The majority of the fishing community was staunchly pro-Brexit. So coming here on the Plymouth fish market on the first day after the referendum, I expected there to be a buzz. But it was eerily quiet, a sense of ‘Oh my God, we made this happen..’ There was no sense of jubilation. But I didn’t speak too much about this with people here, I thought if I’m the only one here who is pro-Europe and people find out, some nasty things might happen, haha.”

“For sure the fishing community could have been better informed before casting their votes. The frustration here is largely about very small amount of the quota being allocated to smaller fishers. But it’s amazing to me that these fishers here didn’t know that is not Europe who allocates those quota, it’s their own government.”

How do you see Brexit affecting your business?

Tariffs might go up, but as long as the Pound keeps plummeting as it does now that wouldn’t affect business too much. The plummeting of the Pound has been incredibly fortuitous for the fishing industry up to know, because there is so much foreign interest on this market. So actually the fishing industry got what they wanted, ludicrously high prices. I can’t afford to eat Turbot, but somebody in Europe might. That is also a difference in the willingness to spend more on food. Look at the Spanish, even in their relative poverty, they spend so much money of fresh fish. I love it that people in countries like France and Spain spend so much more percentage of their income of food. That is not a culture that we have in England.”

“Another way business may be affected is business declining in London and that having and impact on our client base. 80% Of my business is in London. I have three friends that are leaving Britain, they’re leaving London, because their business are moving elsewhere. If there are fewer businesses that is going to have a massive impact on the restaurant industry.”

What do you expect to happen on the 29th of March?

“I would imagine that we will leave with no deal, then there will be an extension of three months, and then a general election. That’s what I would hope for. I don’t think a second referendum is a good idea, I think it would swing further to leave. People are fed up of hearing about it. On top of that, in the past two years we’ve seen such a slide of social care, the rise of food banks, changes in social security. Brexit or not, people maybe associating it with ‘politicians have forgotten about us’. They’ll say: ‘What do you mean have I changed my mind, no, hurry up!’.

What is Brexit about to you?

“I think it happened because people were unhappy about inequality, people outside of London looking at big business making huge gains, and the inequality in the country just getting bigger and bigger. But to be honest I don’t hear a lot of other people saying that.”

Maarten Kuiper