Son of local artist Caroline and ‘Fisherman’s Friend’ Jon Cleave, his childhood revolved mostly around the ‘Platt’ or harbour where, fascinated by the comings and goings of the inshore fishing fleet there, he immersed himself in it, gaining first-hand knowledge and experience from fishmonger Dennis Knight, working in their shop at weekends and during his school holidays.
This innate love of the sea’s harvest led him to pursue a maritime career even further, when having originally studied to be a gamekeeper, a trip Down Under brought him once again to the slab and six months learning fishmongering by Aussie rules. This knowledge allowed him to finely hone his already considerable skills and on his return to Port Isaac, George slipped seamlessly back into a vocation he was entirely suited to, reassuming his position with Dennis Knight on a more permanent basis.
Recognising that four generations of fishing heritage was at stake (although his father Jon didn’t fish), George realised very quickly that the opportunity existed to build on his forefathers’ work.
When the chance to take on the lease of one of the units of the Port Isaac Fishermens’ Association, presented itself, he jumped firmly and with both feet, assuming his fishmonger’s role with natural ease, but adding an exciting and innovative angle, which has brought a buzz of excitement to the village, tapping comfortably into the local tourism that pervades every inch of the village.
Using his already considerable knowledge, George has set up the Port Isaac Seafood School within his fish seller’s quarters; a disused aquarium that he has completely refitted. The idea is to educate, enthuse and inform local seafood lovers, holidaymakers and curious visitors in the art of native seafood preparation, equipping them with the skills needed when choosing fish and shellfish, either to cook at home or when dining out.
‘There’s a lot of myth and misinformation out there,’ he explained.
‘Consumers deserve to be better-informed and to embrace our natural, wild seafood without being nervous about handling, preparing it or eating it. I want to enable my customers to be confident in how they perceive the amazing variety of fish and shellfish we have here on our doorstep and provide them with the right knowledge and techniques to cope with using raw ingredients, rather than just buying seafood ready prepared.’
Joining a filleting masterclass with him, I get the distinct impression that the superior knowledge and skillset belies his youth. I’m treated to a highly professional display of gutting , cleaning and filleting with care and integrity of the product very much at the forefront, with attention paid to keeping blood and viscera separate at all times, with a judicious wash down between fish and a methodical and rhythmic approach to the process.
We clean and fillet mackerel, scad, gurnard, plaice, and a beautiful MSC Cornish hake straight from the market at Newlyn. Putting my own rather questionable skills to shame, it’s indeed a revelation learning about the shape, bone structure and geometry of the different species and how that awareness of the differences can drastically influence the recovery ratio.
I’m also shown the art of Ike Jime, the Japanese method of killing fish instantaneously by inserting a wire or line up the spinal column, thus allowing the fish to bleed out naturally and without stress, thereby ensuring maximum flavour and texture is preserved. We make sashimi from scad and mackerel and delight in the exceptional flavour of raw fish only a couple of hours from the water.
The relationship with neighbouring fishmongers continues with George still working for Dennis Knight in the mornings before opening his own shop at 1pm after the other has closed for the day.
Knife skills classes are scheduled for evenings or mornings and shoppers can choose from an expertly arranged daily display of white and oily fish on his purpose-built slab. He doesn’t sell shellfish though, preferring to leave that to another local firm who have their own boat.
‘For a close-knit community like Port Isaac, we have to play to our own strengths,’ he said.
‘There’s enough opportunity here for us all to maintain the local sustainability and there’s absolutely no point in us treading on each others toes, we all offer something different and compliment each other’s businesses’
The other string to George’s bow is the fact that he also catches his own fish. His ultimate desire is to deliver the whole ‘net to plate’ process, supplying the product from beginning to end.
Working his small Atlantic Fisher 420 Bencaro close inshore over the reefed and pinnacled waters of Port Isaac Bay, this determined young man focusses on hours-old catch quality using hand-line, board and rod & line techniques to harvest mackerel, pollack and bass in an entirely seasonal approach, taking only the fish he requires for orders and for his shop. Discards go back into the water still alive. The plan eventually is to progress to a bigger boat with more range and scope, but at the movement, he’s happy.
‘The marks I fish are well documented and historically well known for their differing habitat. The knowledge has been passed down over the generations and although sonar and fish finders are now very much part of it you’re still a wild hunter and if the fish aren’t feeding there’s not much you can do. You just have to rely on teaching and experience as well as good old fashioned intuition.’
My time in Port Isaac concludes with a busy morning session on the water hand-lining. As the dawn breaks we find ourselves just metres from the rocky headland, fishing in about seven fathoms. Almost straight away we’re into mackerel, their flickering blues and bronzes, an enviable sight in fish box.
Small school bass, kelp-green pollack and scad all put in an appearance and after only an hour we have 10kg onbroad - just enough to satisfy today’s customers and leaving the jagged cliffs and now broken water behind us, we steam for the harbour and a welcome mug of tea.
Having landed the fish they’re consigned straight away to the communal chiller at the fishermens’ pound and before I return to my lodgings, George quickly and adeptly takes off the stiffening fillets of a couple of mackerel ,which I duly hand to the chef in anticipation of my breakfast.
It’s a perfect ‘net to plate’ provenance within a couple of hours of being caught. Selectively, ethically, responsibly and traceably caught with zero environmental impact or carbon footprint. A message there for sure and moreover an innovative way of adding value at source, while protecting the heritage and sustaining the local economy.