Filleting since he was 14 – meet the fourth generation fishmonger with no better fish to fry when it comes to his life choices. By Tracie Beardsley
Ask the way to Bell’s Fisheries in Wimborne and you’ll probably get a blank look. Ask for John the Fish and people know exactly who you’re looking for.
In his bright blue salopettes teamed with a funky floral shirt and loud tie on the day we met, this great character of a man has made selling fish into an art form – so much so his nickname embodies his craft.
If you should be asking for John the Fish, you’ll actually find yourself directed to a car park! A huge lorry container, surrounded by a white picket fence, has been converted into John Bell’s unique fishmonger’s stall. The fish is displayed with flair – you’ll find scallops, hake, haddock and cod amongst a cheery coral reef scene among the delicious smells of smoked fish.
And expect a performance. As your fish is expertly filleted, John the Fish will tell you its provenance, share easy-to-follow recipes and advise on accompanying wine.
And once he knows your name he never forgets it.
Wet, dried and fried
The sign proclaims ‘Bell’s Fresh Fish, Established 1892’. John is a fourth generation fishmonger in a family that’s always been full of entrepreneurial spirit.
In 1892, John’s great grandmother Eliza imported from France some of the first oil-fired ranges – and so began the Bell’s fish business. In rapid time, the family owned five shops in York. John’s grandfather Alfred became a partner in the business at the age of 18.
John explains: ‘The shops were known as wet, dried and fried. There’d be wet fish sales in the morning, fish and chips sold at lunchtime and then smoked fish in the afternoon. In the evenings, it was time to fry again. Phenomenally hard work!’
The two world wars changed everything. In the first, Alfred fought in Flanders and returned badly wounded. He traded through the 1920s, but an accountant “crooked as a barrel of fish hooks,” fiddled the whole family out of its businesses.
Never work-shy, Alfred moved to London and toiled on the roads until a settlement from the financial fiasco saw him returning to fishmongering, establishing a new business in Fulham with the princely sum of £3,000.
It was here that John’s father Ernest (born 1922), began learning the family trade. The Second World War saw Ernest conscripted and Alfred’s shops bombed.
Surviving the war, Ernest worked for the biggest chain of fishmongers at the time MacFisheries. After 20 years, he fulfilled his dream and opened a shop in the place he had holidayed on the south coast. An only child, John worked for his father after school and on Saturdays. ‘He taught me old-world skills from centuries ago. He passed them on to me and I’ve passed them on to my son Joe, whose latest business venture is building a smoker.’
From the waist up
At 16, John the Fish began his formal apprenticeship, getting the best training in stock control, how to treat customers and knife skills: ‘Quality first … then speed comes naturally,’ says John.
‘My dad made retailing fish fun. He taught me to know the product, to like it and to know how to prepare it and cook it.’
John’s natty attire is also down to his dad’s timely advice. ‘Fishmongering is a messy trade from the waist down. Dad believed it was important to look presentable from the top up. He was a stickler for smart hair and a clean-shaven appearance.’
John the Fish has been trading in Wimborne for nearly 30 years and he still sees customers he started serving as an apprentice. ‘One lady used to come to me when I was 15 and she still buys fish from me to this day.’
common, as they are for the Saturday pop-up cafés run by his wife Sally. People sit on converted whisky barrels behind the picket fence and enjoy the dish of the day with a glass of wine or beer. There’s no menu and no booking. It’s first come, fish served!
The lights in the lorry container flicker into life at 4am, five days a week, as John, along with his team Mike and Sarah, start curing, hot smoking and cold smoking fish in preparation for the day. There’s always time for a workers’ breakfast of fish too. ‘I eat fish every day,’ says John.
‘Sustainability and seasonality is key to this trade. I don’t buy frozen fish, processed fish or imported fish. I want to fillet it myself. I use Poole fishermen for our shellfish and have agents in Cornish and Devon ports such as Newlyn and Brixham for prime fish. Why do I need red snapper from a different hemisphere when we’ve still got the best fishing grounds in the world?
‘I’m driven by the love of what I sell. And my love of people. Talk about full circle. My father worked for me for ten years before he died. In fact, he was working right up until the day before he died. Now that’s a lifelong passion for what you do!’
Quick fire questions:
If you could cook one fish on your desert island?
Lemon sole – dust it in flour and seasoning, stick it in a frying pan for a couple of minutes, or under the grill, and you’re done. Fish is the best fast food in the world.
A-list dinner party guests?
My dad would be first on the list. History-makers Winston Churchill, Montgomery and Kennedy. And I’d serve lemon sole!
Bell’s opening hours:
Find it in the car park at the back of No.1 High Street in Wimborne.
Bell’s Famous Fisheries