North London Food & Culture

Sarah Park meets…Jonathan Norris, fishmonger

In the second in her series, Sarah Park goes head to head with the owner of one of Fortess Road's most popular outlets

'There's a rhythm to the day.' Photo: Sarah Park
‘There’s a rhythm to the day.’ Photo: Sarah Park
Sarah Park
Sarah Park

Interesting, ethical and with a spattering of hilarious euphemisms: it sounds like the perfect date, but it’s actually fishmonger Jonathan Norris, 43, who is not only passionate about his work, he can also fillet a mackerel in seconds (he can, I saw him do it).

Why fish?
My father taught me as a young boy – we’d catch pike, carp, bream, bass and mackerel, and I developed a passion. I turned this into a business 12 years ago when I took over a friend’s market stall in Pimlico. I opened in Hackney in 2009 and Kentish Town six years later. I have always loved eating fish, then cooking it, so it seemed a natural progression to start selling it.

What was your first memory?
I must have been about three years old. My father took me to fish on Tottenham Marshes: it was a beautiful winter morning when the sun is low and bright and, as he lifted up his keepnet, I remember the fish inside glistening. That image really struck me, and has always stayed with me.

I still fish now when I’m not working, and travel to Swanage, Brighton and Eastbourne. Anywhere I can get a rod in basically. If you know what I mean.


What are the worst bits of owning a fish shop?
The very early mornings. Tomorrow I’m up at 3.30am to go to Billingsgate Market to choose the stock. It’s important to get up early because you want to select the very best of what is on offer.

How do you choose what you are going to buy?
We mainly sell locally caught fish from Cornwall and Scotland. Some would say we have a limited range of fish but I buy what is indigenous to our shores. How I choose my fish is based on sustainability and high quality, not buying as many variations as I can.

Can fish be ‘on-trend’?
Definitely. People in different areas have different tastes in fish. In Kentish Town the best sellers are mackerel, salmon, wild bass and clams, which are very popular because they are great for pasta dishes.

There’s a reason why some fish is more popular than others – because it tastes better. This is the reason why cod was almost eaten to death. There has been a massive rebound in stocks, which is good. It is important to be sustainable and there are things we won’t stock if it isn’t.

What’s a typical day like in the shop?
We’re a close team and actually discuss fish quite a lot; what we’d like to eat, how we prepare it, what ingredients go with what dishes. And we don’t just sell fish, many of those who work here take it home and cook it as well.

There’s a rhythm to the day. Trade is busy in the morning; it slackens off post-lunch then we get busy again during school run through to closing at 7.30pm. So it leaves us plenty of time for discussion. Can I just add that fish isn’t the only thing we discuss?

What common mistakes do people make when cooking fish?
A lot gets overcooked. People are terrified about getting ill but actually it’s almost impossible to become sick from a good piece that is fresh and has been bought from a reputable fishmonger. Fresh fish needs very little time in the pan but this tends to worry people. Also Brits can be a bit a bit squeamish about fish – I don’t know why.

Tell me a piscine secret…
The simplest and best way to cook a fillet is to get the pan extremely hot, drop it into the oil skin side down and don’t move it or poke it about. When you see it turn a different colour around the edges, and slowly move up towards the thickest part, turn it over and turn off the heat. The fillet will cook in the residual heat, so it’s very difficult to overdo it. The whole process should take 5-6 minutes. As for a sauce, you need nothing more than a good smack of salt and lemon.

How do you know what’s hot and what’s not in the fish world?
I’m an avid user of Twitter and follow a lot of fisherman who tweet from their boats, so I know what’s coming into market and where it’s coming from. It also keeps me abreast of the many issues that fisherman face environmentally and politically.

Any other wise fisherman thoughts?
If it doesn’t make you happy then what’s the point?

Jonathan Norris is open daily at 140 Fortess Road NW5 Tues–Fri 9.30am-7.30pm, Sat 8.30am – 5.00pm, and Sun 10.00am – 3.00pm

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The award-winning print and online title Kentishtowner was founded in 2010 and is part of London Belongs To Me, a citywide network of travel guides for locals. For more info on what we write about and why, see our About section.