Writing in The Argus in 1922, Mr F Lewis of the Fisheries Department sought to persuade Victorians to eat gummy shark. He advised readers that the shark, only marketed in any quantity over the last year or so, was a ‘clean feeding’ fish that would make a”cheap and wholesome food to reduce the cost of living”. However, because of prejudice against eating shark, he advised it would be best sold under the English name of flake.
When I was growing up in Melbourne in the 1950s, fish and chips invariably meant flake and chips. We were vaguely aware that “flake” was really shark, but had no qualms about scoffing the firm white flesh with its coating of crispy batter. Although it was not unknown in Sydney, it was something of a Victorian specialty.
Lewis described the gummy shark as prolific around the Victorian coast. In fact, the species Mustelus antarcticus is found on the continental shelf of southern Australia from Port Stephens in New South Wales to Shark Bay in Western Australia.
Prior to the 1920s, gummy shark was sometimes served in restaurants as “Sweet William”. There were scandals when unscrupulous restaurateurs sold the relatively inexpensive fish as Murray Cod. By the mid-1930s, renamed as flake, it had become the mainstay of the fish and chip trade in Victoria, outselling the previous favourite, barracouta.
The name ‘flake’ came from the UK where it was applied by fishmongers to another species of shark, the spiny dogfish. In Australia it can only be applied to two species: the gummy and the New Zealand rig shark Mustelus lenticulatus, neither of which is threatened by over-fishing. Despite this, it has been used as a catch-all name for many other species of shark, including several that are endangered. For this reason, conservationists now suggest avoiding flake unless you really know what you’re getting.