Sole-itary Confinement

April 08, 2020 by Morven Robertson


Morven Robertson, BLUE’s Senior Projects Manager, takes us on her journey for local fish for dinner, from the Lyme Bay fishermen where she purchases the fish to the recipe she uses to cook it.

Standing on a pontoon in the middle of West Bay harbour, I wave to fisherman Matt Toms. This is the first time I have left the house in over a week and I am here to get some local fish for dinner. Matt is one of many fishermen who have been hit hard by Covid-19, with his usual routes to market like the restaurant trade closed. He is also part of the Lyme Bay Fisheries and Conservation Reserve, a partnership of fishermen, scientists, regulators and conservationists, led by Blue Marine Foundation (BLUE).

Around the UK, fishermen have started selling locally and direct to the public, supported by BLUE’s #LocalFishForDinner campaign, making it easier than ever to support local fishermen while filling fridges with fresh, sustainably-caught fish. I am lucky to be spending the lockdown a mere ten minutes from West Bay, east of Lyme Regis, one of BLUE’s #LocalFishForDinner campaign locations.

Matt Toms sorting his fresh catch on the deck of his boat.

From a distance of two metres – the equivalent of one thresher shark, three Adélie penguins or thirteen sea pigs – I point to the fish still flapping onboard his boat. Day boat fishermen (fishermen who go out to sea and back in a single day) along the south coast of England have just started to set static nets again after a long winter. Most are targeting flatfish, a family of fish that includes sole, turbot, plaice and brill. Methods used by fishermen here in Lyme Bay mean only larger fish and very few other species are caught.

My picks today are three silver-brown Dover sole. Dover sole are common throughout the coastal waters of the North East Atlantic. They have been known to live for up to 40 years and lead a fairly sedentary life, lying flat on the seabed eating worms and small crustaceans. Sole have a reputation for being a bit more expensive (I wanted to treat my lockdown family), have a slightly firm texture and a sweet taste. They have a dark brown skin and a longer body shape than other flatfish.

The Marine Conservation Society’s Good Fish Guide is a helpful tool for those wanting to make an informed choice. Lyme Bay falls into the Western English Channel, and Dover sole is considered to be in a very good state here, with fishing mortality within sustainable levels. The Guide rates Dover sole as a “two” (fish to eat):

Holding the fish that I bought from Matt – the Dover sole which I am using for my recipe today on the left. I also bought a turbot, which I am holding on the right.

Back at home, I wash the fish and prepare my ingredients. My free-style recipe uses a combination of other recipes and includes some foraged wild garlic that currently carpets the woodland near my lockdown home.


  • Three Dover sole (or as many as you like!)
  • Foraged wild garlic leaves and a handful of the unopened flowers (apparently, they taste like capers)
  • Capers (in case the wild garlic flowers don’t work)
  • Half a block of salted butter (I used more because I love butter)
  • Two lemons
  • Salt, pepper and bay leaves

For the pesto:

  • Wild garlic leaves (from the wood)
  • Nettles (from the garden)
  • Walnuts (you can use any nuts)
  • Parsley and any other herbs you have lying around
  • Olive oil
  • Juice of half a lemon
  • Salt and pepper

For the side dishes:

  • Potatoes
  • Parsley
  • Kale
  • Lemon
  • More butter…!
  • Salt and pepper

Many may find buying a whole fish intimidating, but there are some great YouTube videos out there to help. Matt had kindly already gutted the fish on his boat when I bought them from him. If you are buying direct from a fisherman then you can ask them to gut the fish for you to save mess and time.

To challenge myself, I decided to skin the soles for the first time ever. You don’t have to do this but it makes it easier to eat. I found Jamie’s Oliver’s video ‘How To – prepare Dover sole’ very helpful. Despite the video guidance, it turned out to be quite challenging, resulting in some stamping of feet and delegation to my second in command. I recommend a dishcloth to help get a grip of the skin and pull it cleanly away.

My helpful “volunteer” skinning the sole.
Sole before and after skinning.

Once skinned, I washed the sole for a second time and set them to one side. This is the time to preheat your oven (I recommend to about 160 degrees).

I then cleaned and cut the potatoes, placed them in a pot and filled with salted water. I placed the pot on the boil and turned my attention back to the fish. Making a bed of wild garlic, black pepper, salt, sliced lemon and oil on the bottom of the baking tray, I then carefully placed the sole on top. I covered the sole in more slices of lemon, the wild garlic flowers, capers, salt, pepper and a drizzle of oil, before adding a healthy chunk of butter on top.

The sole prepared on a bed of wild garlic and ready to go in the oven.

To make the pesto I put everything into a Nutribullet and whizzed it until smooth. I then seasoned to taste – I like mine with a lot of lemon!

With about 20 minutes until serving, I placed the fish in the oven and shut the door. In a large pan, I put the kale, slices of lemon, butter and salt and slowly simmered it until the kale became reduced and soft.

After straining the potatoes, I lightly crushed them and mixed in butter, salt and chopped parsley.

Placing everything on the table ready to serve, I took the fish out. You can tell if flatfish, like sole, are ready by putting a fork into the meat and lifting out. If it comes out clean and smooth it should be ready. Eat immediately and enjoy!

Cooked and ready to eat!

This meal was absolutely delicious, even if I do say so myself. The fish was incredibly fresh and tasty, even more so knowing exactly where it came from and how it was caught. In-fact, my lockdown family loved the meal so much, that we are going to do the same again next week, but we will try out a different local fish for dinner!

My lockdown family polishing off the dish.

Cooking and eating fish that you have sourced directly from your local fishermen is a truly rewarding experience, given that we are becoming increasingly disconnected from our food, buying fish vacuum wrapped in plastic from supermarket shelves with little idea of where it has come from. It’s important to support the small-scale fishermen that fish our inshore waters during this time, many of whom have fished here for generations using low-impact fishing methods and who have the long-term interests of fish stocks and our marine environment at heart.

If you don’t fancy my recipe, there are lots out there. Here are some suggestions:

BBC Good Food suggest a range of Dover sole recipes.

Raymond Blanc suggests this grilled Dover sole recipe.

Jamie Oliver suggests “Leigh-On-Sea” sole, in a smoky seafood broth

If you are inspired to cook some sustainable local fish for dinner, find out more about our campaign here, and please share your experience with us on social media using the #LocalFishForDinner hashtag!

More news