The humble plaice has long been popular in the UK, although it is largely overlooked in higher-end gastronomy and very rarely features on the menus of top restaurants. This is perhaps due to its historical associations as a food for the poor, or because of the connotations of bland deep-fried breaded plaice served in lazy pubs and motorway service stations across the country.
Judged on its own merits, plaice is a superb fish possessing a fine, moist texture and subtle but distinctive flavour. Given the right treatment it makes a simple, healthy, inexpensive and absolutely delicious lunch or supper.
Plaice is available throughout the year although the quality varies. From summer through to mid-winter (outside the spawning season) it is generally fleshier and tastier.
In Victorian times plaice was plentiful and cheap - up to 30 million plaice were sold each year at Billingsgate Market - and along with herring was a mainstay of the diet of London's poorest residents. In London Labour and the Poor (1851), Henry Mayhew (founder of Punch magazine) reported:
"...a fish diet seems becoming almost as common among the ill-paid classes of London, as is a potato diet among the peasants of Ireland."
By the early twentieth century over-fishing had seriously depleted stocks of plaice in British waters, although they recovered somewhat during World War II. Current stocks are below minimum recommended levels and EU fishing quotas have been reduced by 20% this year in an attempt to safeguard numbers.
Plaice is popular throughout Europe, with Britain and Denmark being the biggest consumers, followed by Sweden, France and Spain.
The European plaice - Pleuronectes platessa - is Europe's most important flatfish. It is found throughout the waters of the UK and Scandinavia, the Barents Sea off Russia, around Iceland and along the southern tip of Greenland, and also south into the Mediterranean.
It is a demersal fish (i.e. swims close to the sea bed) that feeds on clams, razorfish, crabs and other shellfish. It reaches maturity at 5 to 7 years and can live for 30 years.
Upon hatching it resembles a normal round fish but metamorphisizes into a flatfish during its second month when its left eye moves around to the right side of its head and it develops its distinctive colouration; white below and greyish/brown with orange spots on top.
Bright orange spots and clear protruding eyes are signs of fresh plaice.
Use the Good Fish Guide to make better informed choices when buying seafood.
In the fridge for up to 2 days or freezer for up to 3 months.
Plaice is a versatile fish that responds well to grilling, baking, poaching and frying and can be substituted in recipes for lemon sole. For maximum flavour, cook on the bone.
From an 1867 account of Squalor's Market, London, by James Greenwood (source The Victorian Dictionary):
"Surrounding the auctioneer, however (who is dressed in corduroy trousers and blue guernsey shirt, the sleeves of which are rolled above the elbows of his great hairy arms), is a large number of "pads" of plaice, and, just behind him, is a big tub full of water. One of his attendants (he generally has two) presently plunges his arms into one of the "pads", brings out a couple of fish, souses them into the water-tub, and then hands them to his master. Without paying the least attention to the lookers-on the man coolly proceeds to disembowel the fish, to chop through the backbone, to make them handy for the frying-pan, and to thread them on a willow twig. All this while, and unsolicited, the people round are bidding "Threeha'pence!" "tuppence !" " two-un-arf! " " Yours, mum," observes the laconic fishman, handing the fish to the "two-un-arf," and proceeding to disembowel and thread two more."