The end of Captain Fish

Mike Mullord used to sell fish around Marlborough out of a distinctive customised van. His reflections on the life of a fishmonger first appeared in Seafood New Zealand.

Written by      

Andrew Caldwell

I’ve spend this morning peeling my name off the side of the van. I am leaving the “Captain Fish” logo and the cartoon fish, in case young Ian comes through with a decent offer for the business. I’ve promised I’ll go round with him and introduce him to the customers. Show him the short cuts. But if he decides to keep on pumping gas I’ll stop trading anyway. The end of “Captain Fish.”

It’s a customised van, refrigerated, with stainless shelves in the back. I fixed a speaker on top of the cab and connected it to the tape-player in the dash. As I cruise through the streets I play a few bars of Mozart’s Fourth Horn Concerto. Like Mr Whippy but more classy.

I had intended to play the guitar introduction of “Smoke on the Water,” but my wife was heavily in favour of Mozart. He writes a good tune, once you get used to it.

I would be very pleased if young Ian did pick up the business, but becoming self-employed is a bit of a leap in the dark. I couldn’t look him in the eye and tell him he’d get rich. I tried, but I guess I was just brought up wrong. He did ask what perks there were, so I told him about the odd Crunchie bar I put in the tank along with the diesel, but he seemed to expect more. When you’re selling fish fillets it’s a lot easier to lose a dollar than it is to make an extra one. Fillets seldom get heavier overnight, and when they do they taste different. Three years ago, when I bought the business, it had 152 customers, and was being run by a guy who had just turned 70.

His hobby was selling sole fillet to publicans. It’s an amazing fact that publicans will buy nothing but sole fillet. I went round with him for a week, and all that week we had no sole fillet on board. But the publicans didn’t know that, so we had to call anyway to avoid disappointing them. A different pub each afternoon, Monday to Friday. The business also had its own regular site at Blenheim’s Saturday flea market. This is held in the carpark of the Redwood Tavern.

I thought I knew why the books looked so bad. I suspected I could pick the business up fairly easily, especially if I sold less sole fillet. I certainly got to more people. When I stopped trading last Christmas I had over 400 customers, but my take-home pay was still not quite $4 an hour.

In the Top of the South, customers have several firm beliefs. The first is that fish we used to be able to catch down in the Sounds, like gurnard and terakihi, has no right to cost more than nine dollars a kilo, filleted. The second is that Akaroa cod and hoki are for cats and solo mothers. Number three is that we (South Islanders) should always protest at paying “Auckland prices for snapper.” And 90 per cent of the people around here have an unshakeable belief that butterfish (greenbone) is the best frying fish in the world.

When I began, every customer wanted butterfish, blue cod or sole fillet. If I had not been able to get at least one of these I’d come home dog-tired from convincing a hundred ladies that their loved ones would enjoy the taste of bluenose or groper steaks. And on my next visit they’ve all loved the bluenose or the groper and want it again. The fishing industry being what it is, Kaikoura would have had a storm over the weekend and nobody went out.

A whole swag of my customers must have had bad experiences with some of the old traditional species. Day after day I’d sell everything except the hake and the ling. They knew the names, but they wouldn’t try a piece. Their excuse was usually that the husband or the children might not like it. It was easier to sell them a variety they’d never heard of, like bluegill, look-down-dory or Ray’s bream. About half of them would try a new species straight away and report back on it, too.

I used to ring Kaikoura just after seven in the morning, and they’d tell me what they had, and I’d select what I wanted and have it trucked up in a polybin that day. If Kaikoura couldn’t supply all I needed, I’d get what they had and ring Nelson half an hour later, making my day’s total out of what they had on offer. Occasionally both Kaikoura and Nelson could offer only the same one or two varie­ties, and the Nelson people would be mystified when I turned down their beautiful bluenose: I couldn’t tell them I’d bought 10 kilos half an hour ago.

On those days I called a supplier in Christchurch. Lots of variety, but I was buying from a wholesaler rather than a fishing com­pany, and his products sometimes didn’t have massive shelf life. If I was selling a mix of Christchurch and Kaikoura fish I’d try to get shot of the fillets from Christchurch first. Some­times I wasn’t quick enough.

However, the Christchurch wholesaler did do me one big favour. Monkfish has always been a trial to me. When I offer a customer monkfish they invariably ask, “What’s its real name?”

I have not met one person who believes that there are monkfish swimming about out there.

I used to tell people who asked that monkfish was also known as stargazer. Unfor­tunately, here in Marlborough most people have walked the shallow gravel beaches of the Sounds, and many of them have stepped on stargazers. So it’s an uphill battle to sell. Then one memorable morning when I phoned the Christchurch wholesaler he offered me “Monkfish, or, as it is sometimes called, deep sea cod.”

Hallelujah!

Nobody has ever asked if there is another name for deep sea cod.

Unfortunately, soon after my monkfish became deep sea cod it had a brief vogue and was specified in several magazine recipes. When the customer says,” you have to put out a lot of boyish charm as you explain about the deep sea cod. Of course, I also fell into a hole when one week the deep sea cod was monkfish, and the next week it was ribaldo. Nobody should be asked to sell a fish called ribaldo. My customers are very nice; eventually they started asking me what variety of deep sea cod it was today. Everyone thinks the industry made up monkfish to conceal something. Their big suspicion is that it’s kin to lemonfish.

The identity of lemonfish has to be the worst kept secret in the country, but for some reason every single customer seems to enjoy being party to the deception. I’ve lost count of the number of times customers would give me the old nudge nudge wink wink when I showed them lemonfish. They just wanted me to know that they personally were not fooled. Some of my customers wouldn’t eat lemonfish because they had something against sharks. A lot more, after they’d let me know they knew it was shark, wouldn’t buy it because the price horrified them.

For a while I indulged in air freight, ordering fillets from all over the South Island. But flying fish is expensive, and on top of that the system would occasion­ally slip a gear and my fish would go somewhere else. The airline kept very good records, and the fish could always be located. The freight guy would be quite pleased with himself as his phone calls discov­ered my freight in Invercargill or Westport.

“No worries,” he’d say, “it’ll be here this afternoon.

I couldn’t cancel fish once it was in the air, so it had to be sold the next day. The challenge was that by the time I went to the airport and discovered my fish had gone somewhere else, I’d already ordered all I needed for that next day. This created a fillet bulge that took me three days to iron out. This bulge didn’t matter towards the end of the week, as a serious oversupply of fish could turn into a bonus at the Saturday flea market, as long as it didn’t rain.

The customers at flea markets are looking for bargains, but they’re very suspicious of cheap fish. The strange thing is that most of them are not suspicious I’m trying to sell them old and smelly fish. They’re suspi­cious I’m trying to sell re-thawed frozen fish as “fresh.”

Some Saturdays the cold hard rain would hose down, and I’d endure all morning to sell five kilos to the die­hard regulars. If the worst came to the worst, I swapped fish for fresh vegetables and sometimes organic blue borage honey. It was a plus if the weather was really bad, because the boys from Rotary didn’t turn up, and no-one collected the site money.

In my early days at the flea market I tried to relieve the boredom by doing a little costermonger act, calling out the varieties and what great prices I was offering. An old lady stopped me doing that. “I suppose the fish are fresh as well,” she said as she scurried past.

But there were had weekdays too. It’s pretty unnerving to call at six homes, one after another, and have no response to your knock at any of them. I used to get quite paranoid and imagine they’d ganged up and decided to hide until I stopped calling. I’d try to remember if I’d sold them dodgy fish last week.

Then comes the worry that missing so many people means I’m going to have fish left at the end of the day, and I’ll have to go out tomorrow with all those extra kilos on top of the fresh stuff. That means that by the time I’m selling tomorrow’s fish it won’t be as fresh as it should be, and then they might gang up and decide to hide until I stop calling.

But actually I need not have worried: the public have been conditioned. They’ve been taught that the opposite of “fresh” is “frozen.”

I came slowly to realise that a customer asking, “Is it fresh?” doesn’t want to know how long I’ve had it. She’s only asking if it has ever been frozen. Knowing this makes the question easier to answer.

Only fishermen and their wives think the opposite of “fresh” is “old.”

It amazes me how many people are particular about buying fresh fish, and promptly freeze it.

The round grew by referral. Mrs Jay asks if I’ll call on Mrs Kay out past the Dairy Factory. I write Mrs Kay into my Thursday list, and I jot down “from Mrs Jay” next to her name, so I can give myself a proper introduction when I get there. I update the list every two weeks, and of course the scribbled comments get dropped out. So inevitably I forget who recommended who. And then, seven or eight months later, Mrs Kay will suddenly ask for news of her old friend. I have no idea who she’s talking about. This is a crime. The lips purse and the brow darkens. What sort of fishmonger is it that can’t remember a good customer like Mrs Jay? It is less damaging to sell her smelly brill than to forget the name of her old friend.

But Mrs Jay’s wrath was better than the many first-time customers I called on who were delighted to buy 400 grams of fillets, and agreed I should call again in a week, then when I did, said, “Not today, I’ve still got some left.”

I did my calls through the day, of course, so nearly all my customers were people at home, either retired or with young children, and nearly all of them were women. Being “Captain Fish” changed my ideas on what makes women beautiful: when you’re selling fish and a lady comes to the door and waves, she’s beautiful.

There are stories out there about door-to-door salesmen being offered more than cups of tea, but nothing happened in my round. Then one Tuesday a new lady customer came and stood very much closer to me than was necessary, and every time I looked at her she was gazing into my eyes. The next week I took all my pens out of my shirt pocket before I got to her house, but by then she’d got her glasses back from the optician.

The first two years I made no profit, as I climbed the learning curve, but this year there would have been profit if I hadn’t bought Christmas presents. Defi­nitely my best year. And my last. It was great fun, but now I really must get myself a proper, paying, job.

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