Monday, 2 November 2009


Dad rarely passes up a chance to enjoy sewin (the Welsh name for sea trout). He would have been tempted a couple of weeks ago by a clutch of fine, glossy sewin I saw in the local fishmonger's, Steve Hatt on the Essex Road. I'm always window shopping there (shopping, too). A slab of fresh fish reclining on a crushed ice bed is a quotidian delight: supremely ugly-beautiful; mouth-watering; technically fascinating; and always varying, seasonally, daily, even minute-by-minute. I could happily spend ages mooching around a fish market; one of my ambitions is to visit Tokyo's Tsukiji.

These sewin were late-season ones, so on the smallish side and with yellow-bronze tones. If caught in late spring they're silver and their weight in pounds can go well into double figures (the beauties shown below were caught in August, so mid-season).

I asked Dad why he was so mad for sewin: "They just taste better. It's all the swimming". And the swimming is what makes them special: they're sea-going brown trout, venturing offshore to gorge on a diet of small fish and crustacea. They come back bigger, firmer and tastier. Here are some more quietly curious facts about sewin:
  • Sewin and brown trout are biologically the same species, they can interbreed;
  • Most sewin are female but most brown trout are male;
  • They are very shy and can 'rush' at great speeds, posing a real challenge to the angler;
  • I suspect they have as many named stages of development as any other creature:
    • alevins: newly-hatched and tadpole-like, they live on the bottom of the river living off the still-attached yolk-sac;
    • fry: small but identifiably fish-like, they have begun to feed independently and breathe through gills;
    • parr: teenage fish;
    • smolt: they turn a bright silver and head off to sea;
    • whitling: they're back, becoming adult sewin on arrival.

Many of these features are shared with the salmon, of course. But I like to think that sewin have something of a mythical aura. It's partly the word, which has a strange and attractive sound - the 'e' is pronounced as a short 'e' as in 'egg' rather than 'o', as it would be in English.

It must also have something to do with their sea-going fugues marking them out from their exclusively riverine siblings. The brown trout is familiar, a steady, domestic fish. However, the young sewin, turning a dazzling silver and heading for the ocean to return who knows when - mysterious.

For some reason I link the sewin with Welsh myths, though as far as I know it doesn't appear in the main store of them, the Mabinogion. The closest thing to an appearance, at least that I'm aware of, is when the bard Taliesin as a baby is found in a leather bag caught on a fish weir in a Moses-in-the-bullrushes sort of story. But as far as we know, no sewin smuggled itself into the bag.

Perhaps the fish in the story The Giant Who Had No Heart In His Body was really a sewin (salmon retrieves heart in egg from duck via well for prince on wolf in church via raven)? But it's probably just me. There's something about an uncannily-named silver fish traversing to-and-fro glacial lake and muddy estuary, strange and shy: they deserve a mythical existence somewhere. A celebratory Ted Hughes poem with intimations of the mystical would have been an excellent alternative.

And for those of you who like a good angling tale here's one about the biggest fish ever caught in a British river. It should appeal to those of you who, like me, love the idea of angling but have never really got to grips with its practice.


worm said...

lovely piece, and a great linked story too!

As a kid I used to be seriously into fishing, and sea trout were my ultimate goal - I think mostly because they were known as being very very fussy, and they could normally only be caught at night with a silvery fly. I spent many moonlit nights in the river at the end of our fields listening out for the splashes of the trout as they moved upstream. Casting flies in the dark was full of problems, and most of my time was spent trying to unhook myself from shadowy branches. The largest one I ever caught was still quite small, probably only two pounds or so.

Sean said...

I took all by fishing gear to Barmouth at the end of May in preparation for another wet welsh what happened, 80 plus everyday, (and no wind for kite surfing!) you cant trust the Welsh apart for the welsh black beef stew of course.

Sophie King said...

Mmm - sea trout. Steve Hatt is the only thing I miss about north London. There is no fishmonger in Cambridge, if you can believe it.

I've just come back from a week by the South Tyne where they were still hooking out salmon and sea trout in good numbers. It is the most beautiful place - wild moorland and tree-lined valleys, perfect walking country. It reminded me of the land up around Tregaron in mid-Wales which was a frequent haunt of my childhood. It was also a fine antidote to the Fens which I loathe with a passion. Your blog on east-west differences made me laugh as I'm most definitely a cavalier living reluctantly in roundhead territory.

Gaw said...

Worm: I've heard about night-fishing for sea-trout and find it a lovely idea. However, I feel it would be better for me if it stayed unsullied, remaining as pure idea...

Sean: Treasure it - it may be your only one ever. I remember sunny holidays in north and west Wales as a small boy, but have never been on one as an adult. Peculiar.

Sophie: I live in NLondon (obviously) but like you have also lived in West Wales and Cambridge. It was at the last location that I conceived my dislike for the East.

Sounds as if you went to a wonderful place up north. But Tregaron is quite extraordinary isn't it? I went shooting once on Tregaron bog - snipe and duck - staying in the old Talbot the night before. I don't enjoy shooting much as a rule but what a location! An intensely green amphitheatre. The Talbot was quite something too.

Gaw said...

BTW shocking about Cambridge not having a fishmonger! You used to be able to buy fresh fish from the market in the square there. I wonder if that's gone too. Oxford, of course, does have a fishmonger (and possibly more than one) in its wonderful Covered Market.

Sophie King said...

Yes, Gaw, the fishman in Cambridge market is still there sometimes - maybe twice a week, but I don't count that. And he certainly doesn't sell sea trout.

The country around Tregaron is indeed wondrous. We used to ride up into the hills, many of which are now, sadly, covered with conifers courtesy of the Forestry Commission. We would lie on our backs in the heather and watch the red kites circling. Sometimes a low-flying jet would scream just overhead, making us jump out of our skins, but the ponies and the birds didn't flinch. Happy days.

Gaw said...

What an idyll.