Chris Neve - Lancashire's famous fish merchant
PUBLISHED: 12:59 21 March 2019
Chris Neve is so passionate about fish that he once woke his wife in the middle of the night to eulogise about his catch
Not many of us would think we’d retired if we still rose for work at 1.30am. But at 70, fish merchant Chris Neve compares his current routine with the incredible hours he used to work and considers himself lucky. ‘I’m retired, what I do is small scale these days – and I get every third Friday night off now!’ he says, adding: ‘But then, I’ve always worked long hours, round the clock and same the next day sometimes, processing fish, driving up to Scotland, down to Devon and Cornwall…’
Chris is something of a force of nature, his legendary love of fish and fishing reflected in a fund of stories. ‘I was working one night, felt hungry, and the hake were magnificent, so I went home, cooked one up and it was beautiful,’ he says. ‘I thought “I’ve got to show this to Jane [his wife].”’ She puts that into context: ‘He came upstairs and woke me to say look at this fabulous hake. It was three in the morning. That’s how passionate he is about fish!’
His personal favourite is actually turbot, but he doesn’t turn his nose up at any catch, some unconventional. ‘I was filleting cod the other day, and one big fish had a prawn tail sticking out of its mouth, a huge langoustine down its throat,’ he recalls. ‘So I had that along with the cod battered for my tea.’
At home they prepare fish simply, but he loves what chefs can achieve with the same material. He especially likes to eat at one of the smart dining inns run by his daughter, Joycelyn, boss of the successful Seafood Pub Company. ‘We had fish in madras curry the other night, it was fantastic,’ he enthuses.
For a time, he owned three Fleetwood trawlers with a business partner. ‘I’d go out on the boats sometimes. It was unbeatable but never very profitable, though it gave a good supply of fish.’ And he had an eye to the PR advantages too. ‘Every May Bank Holiday we’d take a big group of top chefs from Manchester over to the Isle of Man, do some fishing with us and enjoy the catch – it was a marketing tool, but great fun for everyone too.’
He even looks back with good humour at a brush with the law. After Chris bought two bass from an angler, a fisheries official stormed in, read the two their rights, and warned they’d be prosecuted as the fisherman’s rowing boat wasn’t licenced. Three court appearances before going to trial in Liverpool and the ministry’s costs had risen to a scary £80,000. What they didn’t know, and hadn’t apparently asked, was how the bass were caught – the fisherman revealed he’d been digging bait on King Scar Bank, left some lines out to check the next day, and caught the two fish perfectly legally.
‘The barrister demolished them. When the trial ended the Liverpool jurors who’d found us not guilty stood and gave the thumbs up sign! The court costs were supposedly £100,000 for that. Madness. If a ship is fishing illegally, fine, but two bass from a bloke with a row boat?’
Chris is the man who ensures Joycelyn’s restaurants have top quality fish on the menu and, though largely retired, Chris is hoping to add a smokehouse to his premises so he can return to that side of the business, though that too was not without incident. ‘One night the sawdust caught fire, and every fish in the smoker was cooked. When I came in, the women arriving to work next door were eating it still warm. It smelled great.’
His home town’s heyday as a fishing port has now gone, which saddens him. ‘The final blow for Fleetwood was the cod recovery programme – I’m not sure if the cod stocks have recovered, but the industry hasn’t,’ he says. He has little hope of change whether Brexit occurs or not, expecting the fishing industry to remain a bargaining chip, to be sacrificed for other gains. ‘The lunatics are running the asylum,’ is his summary.