Melissa Blease talks to Rob Clifford-Wing, founder of Wings of St Mawes, who, for more than 30 years, has been supplying Bath’s restaurants with fish and seafood within hours of it being caught…

Bath night owls are familiar with the sight of Wings of St Mawes delivery vans buzzing around the city to drop off the catch of the day to kitchens in the wee small hours of the morning, when most of us are tucked up on bed. But when we wake up to a brand new day that may well include a fish supper in one of our favourite restaurants, pubs or bistros later on, do we perhaps take the people who work so hard on behalf of kitchens that can confidently offer the freshest, sustainable, seasonal catches of the day for our delectation for granted?

Cornishman born and bred, Robert Clifford-Wing started off life as a seafood chef, cooking at various restaurants in and around St Mawes for seven years before hanging up his whites in favour of running a small family business. But during the quiet winters, the waves (or rather, the lure of the catches beneath those waves) beckoned, and Rob started to investigate commercial fishing.

He says: “I didn’t make much money at the start, but I drank a lot of beer and got very strong!”And so his passion was piqued. It occurred to Rob that, in the 1980s, few restaurants in the landlocked towns and cities in the south west had easy access to fresh, seasonal fish from the coast. And so it came to pass that he put a business plan together.

“I created a package that seemed, to me, to have a very logical aim,” he says, “Bristol and Bath complement each other perfectly: a big commercial city just down the road from a tourist-based hub, both with a spectacular – and growing – reputation for good restaurants. As a quiet Cornish boy, I headed for the metropolis full of fear and trepidation. My first delivery was a box of scallops to the Bath Priory, driven up from Newlyn in the back of my wife’s car. But my customers soon discovered the huge benefit of our direct service: from waves to kitchen, often within a matter of hours.”

It wasn’t long before Wings became the go-to fish merchant for any chef worth their status. “In those days it was much easier to be a fledgling operation and enter at low level,” says Rob. “And I was confident that – as well as knowing my fish – I had a good knowledge and understanding of how chefs work, because of my previous experience. I prided myself on attention to detail and hard work, but never really thought I’d last more than around 18 months, let alone 34 years! I’ve devoted my life to this business.”

fish2As a result, Rob and his team are well accustomed to working unsociable hours. “Our business operates at both ends of day; my buyers are at Newlyn Fish market at around 5.45am. But chefs can place an order with me at 2.30 in the afternoon and have it delivered by 8pm that night – we only ever work with today’s fish today. We offer input and advice to chefs too; we ask them to let us be their eyes at the market, and guarantee that the reputation of their restaurant is safe in our hands.”

Want to shop like a chef? Domestic cooks can ask Wings to deliver to their homes, too – the fresh fish, shellfish and seafood boxes are best sellers.

But when asked what aspect of his business Rob is most proud of today, he cites immediate response, reputation, stance on quality, attention to detail and long-standing relationships with customers (several restaurants have relied on Wings of St Mawes as their main fresh fish and seafood supplier for over 30 years).

But he’s full of praise for his own personal food heroes, too. “Keith Floyd was very instrumental in establishing the foundations of our business at the very start,” he says. “We couldn’t get enough of whatever fish he’d featured in a recipe on TV on any given week. And he broke the mould at a time when our TV chefs were people such as Fanny Cradock and Graham – The Galloping Gourmet – Kerr. I’m not saying those people weren’t instrumental and influential in their own way, but Keith was authentically charismatic, and brought passion and culture to our TV screens.

“Today, Rick Stein and I are each other’s food heroes! Rick has done so much good for the Cornish fishing industry in a quiet, balanced way. I have great respect for double-Michelin starred fish and seafood chef Nathan Outlaw too, and I’m proud to supply his restaurants. What Nathan does is just phenomenal – he cooked me the finest meal I’ve ever eaten. For a former chef and fish merchant to make that statement is, I hope, a real accolade for Nathan and his brilliant chefs.”

But we can’t talk fish without getting involved in the business of current, ongoing and often controversial debates about quotas and sustainability – murky waters indeed.

“The power of the media to misrepresent information or whip up food fads often really terrifies me. If a statement is embellished or only represented in headline format, it can create a huge, negative impact on the fishing industry. If a newspaper declares, for example, that tuna is no longer sustainable, then tuna stops selling, even if most people haven’t been offered access to the real story behind the headlines.”

Over the past three decades, Rob has worked with the fishing industry to protect and conserve a centuries old way of life, and was one of the original founders of Seafood Cornwall, a trade body that aims to aid cohesion in the industry. He was also part of an EU funding project that set up a 1,500 square mile ‘no fish zone’ off north Cornwall that fishermen credit with a significant rise in stocks of species such as cod and haddock. He’s recently become a Harbour Commissioner for Newlyn Fishing Port, where he’s helping to install better facilities for fishermen and modernise practices by increasing sustainable fisheries.

“I have a passion for fish and Cornwall and I want to help ensure the future of the Cornish fishing industry for many generations to come,” he says, in a statement on the Wings of St Mawes website (which is very much worth a visit). Rob also recommends that we familiarise ourselves with the work of the Cornwall Wildlife Trust and the Good Seafood Guide website (watch the GSG video on the CWT homepage – beautiful, exciting and informative).

And next time you spot one of Rob’s delivery drivers buzzing around Bath while everybody should be tucked up in their cosy beds, give them a wave. We must salute the food heroes who bring the freshest, most sustainable, seasonal catches of the day to our doorsteps while we’re sleeping off our latest fish supper.

Wings of St Mawes, tel 01726 862489; web: thecornishfishmonger.co.uk. The Cornwall Wildlife Trust: cornwallwildlifetrust.org.uk. The Cornwall Good Seafood Guide: cornwallgoodseafoodguide.org.uk.