Another Man’s Poisson

Fish and the sea remain deeply mysterious to me. It would seem that fish has always been regarded as something quite different from meat, from the ancient Greeks – who kept their land animals for the gods – to the Catholic church, which, most notably in medieval times, set aside a great many days for fasting and fish-eating. The implication there is that all eating is more or less sinful, on a sliding scale down from red meat; we might remember that the eating of animals was a sop to the debased postdiluvian world, as Jahweh realised that his creations would never quite be able to control themselves. Anyone who has worked in a restaurant will have noticed that a lot of people, devoutly or not, still eat fish on Fridays (the chippy is usually heaving then too) – abstention has become a treat. This is not, I think, how the ban would have been experienced originally, at least by the rich, monks and the priesthood included, whose meals consisted not of a main protein and trimmings but of a number of different dishes and delicacies, fish, fowl, fresh and salt meat, cakes, pastries and so on; the injunction to eat fish would, rather than involving a straight swap between creatures, have meant the loss of a great deal of variety at table – though I doubt anyone (I’m still talking about rich people) went hungry because of it. At any rate, although fish may now be eaten as a pleasurable rarity rather than under duress, the distinction between it on the one hand, and birds and mammals on the other, is still maintained. Personally, I almost never cook fish at home. The difficulty first in sourcing it (fishmonger’s can be wretched places, reeking and dripping – when you find a good one, hold on to it) and then in cooking it, which seems to need pans of an impeccable non-stickness, or fish kettles and racks of a different size and shape for every species, always appears insurmountable.

It isn’t, of course, as I rediscover every time I actually do it. Most fish cooking is actually very easy, an excellent vehicle for bold simplicity. As I think Hugh FW points out on a few occasions, all you have to do to cook fish, with a few exceptions, is get it hot. None of the angst of rare beef, medium-rare lamb, slow-cooked, melting pork – just get it hot, but not too hot. To cook a fillet of bass or bream to crisp-skinned, melting perfection, just oil and salt a cold frying pan, and put the fish, skin-side down, into it. Place over a low-medium heat, and leave there. If you’re worried about the skin sticking, use a lot of oil. By the time the flesh is cooked – opaque, flaking – the skin should be a lovely golden brown. If you’re bothered about such things, then you can fry it on the other side for a minute to sear the flesh. Spoon some butter around it at this point, perhaps some herbs and black pepper, and the fish is done. Poaching fish is even easier, but seems to have fallen out of fashion somewhat.
Despite all this, you might still prefer to eat your fish out of doors. Fair enough. Fish, as is well known, tastes significantly better by the sea, the spray of which provides an elementary seasoning to the tongue, as well as a not-entirely-reliable guarantee of freshness, and in the dying stages of extreme sunlight, accompanied by a glass of something very cold and quite possibly fizzy – Bass shandy, at a pinch. Experts differ as to whether the best seasides for fish-eating are found in North Norfolk, pebble-strewn Kent, urban Barcelona or Palermo, the cruel beaches of Yorkshire or the softer ones of the Suffolk heritage coast, the Greek Islands, the rocks of the Hebrides, the drunken evenings of adulthood or the gentler exhaustion of childhood; this is surely just a matter of taste, though, and any opinion is necessarily partisan. Everyone agrees, however, that while white fish is best by the seaside, the flavours of oily fish and shellfish travel a little better – though since their flesh does not, they must generally be preserved in some form or another for their journey.

Time was that every fishing town would have had their specialities, and many still survive in odd little cafes or the right kind of gastropub – roll-mops (although the Italians are the undisputed champions of food-related insults, ‘roll-mop’ as a term of abuse for someone with ‘no guts and no spine’ is a particularly excellent British one), kippers, bloaters, smoked and jellied eels, hot- or cold-smoked salmon, mackerel, herring, pickled winkles, cockles, and mussels in little pots or bags; although we still tend to keep these molluscs for seaside treats, you see them in jars at the supermarket, and I presume people eat them. Although heavily smoked fish makes a pungent addition to the breakfast table, the only sea-creature to really cross over into the day-to-day meat-eating world is the tiny anchovy. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a fresh one, which are to be found in great heaps in Mediterranean fish-markets, in this country, and although the soused ones the Spanish call boquerones are making inroads here, it is the salted fillets – brown, rottingly pungent, barely recognisable as fish – that found a real place in British cooking. The Romans left fish guts to ferment in the sun, bottled up the remains and called it garum; South East Asia has its intensely savoury fish and shellfish sauces; we have Worcester sauce, a deeply odd concoction containing, among other, secret things, anchovies. There are few things that are really, genuinely better to eat than Cheddar cheese, melted onto thick white toast, with a few splashes of Worcester sauce on top; add some pickled onions and you have a complete if smelly meal. Although you might, as you grow older, come to prefer a few anchovies spiked, alongside garlic and rosemary, into a Provencal lamb roast, or melted into oil that is to dress mustardy bitter greens, or hidden in slow-cooked onions, lending depth to a simple pasta sauce, the effect is always the same. By some alchemy, the aged fish lose what can only be called their fishiness – which, you’ll remember from when you opened the tin, was extremely developed – leaving only a profound savour which enhances the taste of almost all animals and animal products (apart from cheese, anchovies go extremely well with eggs, while the smell of them melting into butter is up there with onions for me), though it does tend to overpower the more delicate flesh of white fish. Having left the seaside long ago, they are not readily welcome back.

Red Terroir

There’s an odd idea – started who-knows-when but currently perpetuated by the incurable romantics of the locavore movement – that cuisines (regional, national, local) are (and, more dogmatically, should be) products entirely of place, sprung fully-formed from their unique surrounds, an expression of soil and flesh and air – of what is called terroir. This idea, originally applied to the particular makeup of wines, has been taken to its logical conclusion, with extremely impressive results, by restaurants such as Noma and its imitators, or closer to home, the Sportsman in Kent. In these kitchens, localism is treated less as an ethical imperative and more as an aesthetic challenge – an attempt to create masterpieces with a severely limited palette – and as such operates above (or at least separately to) anything as parochial as ‘a cuisine’; they aren’t what I’m thinking of here. The problem is in attempts to define and identify the ‘real’ or folk cuisines of countries, counties, regions, where such localism is either ignorant, or worryingly reactionary.
The problems here, I think, stem from a simple lack of historical perspective. There is a tendency to look on the peasant traditions of various countries (though especially Mediterranean Europe) as historical artefacts, still living in some parts but essentially static – we see what, say, the Sicilian farmer has for lunch, and assume that it is the same lunch he has had for centuries, torn from the harsh earth by his own sun-dried hand; then, lamenting the loss of our own peasant tradition, we try to recreate it, with our British vegetables, our British wildlife, our British climate. Some of this is admirable – there are many odd herbs and wild greens, old forgotten dishes, which deserve rediscovery – but some of it is just stupid. It leads to otherwise-respectable chefs espousing the virtues of rapeseed oil (a mass-produced, violently yellow vegetable oil with a marked aroma of cat’s piss – when it has any at all) and worse, taking the moral high ground in doing so. Local here is seen as intrinsically better, and the implication is that rapeseed is what the wise old Italian would be eating, were he to find himself transplanted to East Anglia. Well, probably, but only if it was all he could afford. There is a deliberate refusal here to acknowledge food as a global trade, and one with a very long history.
Take that olive oil. The best and most abundant producer of olive oil is Spain, and has been since Roman times; it was shipped to Rome because they liked it, and because the whole of the Empire was their locale. They could afford to source the best, and to move it around their whole territory – the Empire, in fact, was responsible for an astonishing movement of ingredients, without many of which our ‘British’ cuisine would be bereft. We all know that we have the Americas to thank for the potato, now seen as a very British provider of stodge – but imagine culinary life without asparagus, cabbage, carrots, onions, even, all picked up from around the Med and taken to the corners of Empire; Celtic Britain must have been either a prelapsarian paradise of now-lost abundance, or a flavourless pit. Take away the rabbit too (introduced and bred for eating by the Normans) and the English country kitchen is looking pretty poor. (Conversely – and this is odd because we think of Mediterranean cooking, if anything, as having deeper roots than our own – imagine the food of Southern Italy before Columbus. No chilli, no peppers, no tomato…) Perhaps I’m being deliberately obtuse to make a point. Of course our peasant tradition isn’t meant to be pre-Roman; we’re thinking of the sturdy medieval peasant of Merrie England, and his diet of beef, cheese, pickles and beer – except the beer would have been short-lived, one-dimensional ale, because the hops which flavour and preserve it hadn’t yet made it across the channel. And, of course, he couldn’t afford beef.
Meanwhile, the feudal aristocracy, taking full advantage of the reopened spice routes, were enjoying a systematic derangement of their cuisine, marked by a wild use of sugar, dried fruit, and what are now mainly dessert spices in dishes which have in them something of Morocco and something of a creative child in a gigantic sweetshop. Although the cooks calmed down eventually, a lot of this stuck, particularly in festive food, with traditional pickles, pies and cakes packed with dates, currants, ginger, cinnamon and pepper. Never being grown here, unlike the fully naturalised alliums and brassicas, these spices perhaps retained some of their exoticism; nevertheless, they form an important part of our national palate, a taste for contrast and spice which in ‘modern traditional British’ cuisine is all too often expressed only by semi-ironic curried dishes. Much, in fact, of what is thought of, both affectionately and disparagingly, as good old-fashioned British food – plainly boiled and roasted meats, dauntingly bland nursery puddings, as well as those bastardised curries – we owe to the Victorians, with their mix of an austere, Protestant Christianity and a general cultural inclination towards greyness. Looked at over a longer period of time, our cuisine becomes more interesting – if it can be seen coherently at all.
I’m focussing on Britain, but the same could be said of almost any world cuisine. Even insular, chauvinist France has the sun-drunk Italianisms of Nice, the borrowed luxury of vienoisserie; much more obvious are the rich collisions of Europe, Asia and Africa you find in Sicily and Turkey, where trade, migration and invasion have all played their part. The point, really, returning to that (very French) idea of terroir, is that we have a mistaken tendency to think of cuisines as inherently rural, of dishes as springing somehow from the soil and the quality of the light, passed down through generations – and we think of the rural in turn as essentially conservative, static or at least very slow and resistant to change. This is perfectly natural. Food (forgive me for stating the obvious) comes from the land – but the ability and the motivation to move it, to share it, comes from the city, crowded, mutable, filled with a thousand influences. Food, once you have more than a couple of pigs to rub together, is commerce, and commerce is movement, exchange, growth. It is the slow sea-change of North Atlantic cod into the rich baccala of the Mediterranean, the trip back of salted anchovies fermented into a splash of Worcester sauce, with its baggage of Empire, its echoes of the fish sauces of Asia as well as the garum of the Romans; it is the burgeoning spice trade that opened up the new world.
So? I’m not sure really. Just that I think it’s easy for chefs to become too chauvinist, too inward-looking; by all means, use foraged this and local that (I certainly do), but remember that great cuisines come just as much from diners and bars, little dockside cafes, as they do from grand country estates and secretive rural ritual – and please stop putting rapeseed oil on everything.

A Drop To Drink

  The first cookbook I ever bought, through the book club at my primary school, posits, across 13 recipes and accompanying poems, the idea of the cook as magician, of recipes as spells gleaned from witches, ogres and dragons; otherworldly, perhaps, in origin, but applicable to the day-to-day, The Weird and Wonderful Cookbook shows cooking as a mystery to be learnt, mastered. “When you’re cooking, you are the magic” is its closing, rallying cry, and the recipes it collects (being a children’s book, it doesn’t have to pretend to originality) – a simple yoghurt cheese I still make now, ginger beer – suit its transformative rhetoric entirely. We are shown here how ingredients can be rendered entirely other by the application of heat, the introduction of air or water, as Neil Gaiman has a character of his point out, making a case for cooking as one of the fine arts – which is the same, really, as saying it is magic. For myself, I would rather consider cooking as a craft, as the Renaissance painters saw their work – one capable, from time to time, of a powerful and nagging beauty, but rooted always in the work of many hands, capable of repetition without dilution, and always in some sense useful. Craft, focusing less on individual genius and more on gradually accrued knowledge, allows more space for hand-me-downs and for the folk artefacts, the products of time and history, which are the basis of most cuisine outside of the world of multiple Michelin stars.

The Weird and Wonderful Cookbook, then, with its collected recipes of aliens, monsters, and various beasts, was in a sense the precursor (for me, that is, not chronologically) to my most-loved cookbooks – Luard, Roden, Apicius and the like – the writers of which never put a “my” before a tedious salad but are keen only to give you the best, the truest, the most interesting recipe of a kind. It’s surely as much the fault of readers and editors, but the absolute worship of the new which animates a lot of modern cookery writers is something I find really astounding. As is the case with fairytale and myth, and indeed with learning of most kinds, the accumulated wisdom of generations is considered suitable only for children, while adults are fed on an artificial stream of stunted newness, blind to history and shallow of scope. The unique experiments of a lifestyle blogger from Chelsea are praised to the uncaring skies by people who struggle to slice a tomato competently, let alone master the patient skill of boiling water. The combination of encyclopaedic rigour and wine-eyed Romanticism which the French bring to food make them easy to mock, but the fact of their 17 words for stages of boiling does not deserve its share of disdain. We could do with a few more in English, and perhaps would lose the spectacle of otherwise intelligent adults pouring water from a kettle straight over pasta, or cracking eggs into roiling foam.

Life came up out of the water and loves to return, and it is one of the first ingredients most of us learn to manipulate, in mud-pies, in sandcastles and rivers, in cups of squash or tea, while boiling meat is perhaps as old a way of cooking as any, developing alongside roasting as taste or circumstance allowed; we say boiling, but stewing or simmering would be more appropriate words. Before casseroles, saucepans, skillets, or cauldrons, the stew-pot would have been a hole in the ground or suspended hide, the water heated, as Reay Tannahill explains in The Fine Art of Food, by fire-warmed stones. The result of this slow process, the author continues, would be the loss of a great deal of the meat’s flavour into the stock; like the good scholar he is, he holds his tongue on the matter, but I’m sure that these primitive chefs must have drunk their broth. The water in which meat has been slowly cooked – especially when salted or smoked, as ox tongue, ham hocks, or pig’s feet – is, like the oil from roasted tomatoes or chicken, the crisp skin you snack on as you pick through a slowly cooked lamb shoulder, one of those by-products almost better than the main event, well worth the price of admission alone. The process of poaching involves a gradual giving up of meathood into the water, in the form of collagen, gelatine, proteins, essence of muscle and tendon, until, if overdone, your ham hock a ghost form of watery strands, your water a dense, deep stock, the two ingredients entirely change places. This, of course, is the point of stock-making, an alchemical transference of flavour – and with it nutrition and strength, though not, perhaps, as much as the bone-broth advocates would have you believe – from a solid to a liquid form. Stock is one of those frugalities only really available to the professional or dedicated domestic cook – such an investment of space and time – and a lot of chefs seem to regard it as the ultimate form or perfection of water, using stock in soups, stews, and braises, as a poaching medium or the basis for further, stronger stocks, to cook pasta, polenta, rice or noodles, vegetables both green and underground; I’m sure people boil eggs in stock, but I haven’t met them. While a well-made broth gives essential body to a lot of dishes, its constant use, especially in the concentrated form of jus, can become a bit samey.

As I said, though, this is a luxury of storage space and labour time, and presumably the broth from poaching meat must have originally been used as a one-off, part of the meal, as it is in the pot-au-feu, the bollito misto, the New England boiled dinner, and the cucida of Spain, all of which make a virtue of plainness and depth. An older form of water max would have been seawater, still used by fishermen, fishing communities and Romantics as a cooking medium for fish and especially shellfish; although the Italian adage tells us that fish should be drowned in wine, the use of heavily salted water, as well as seasoning, helps to keep moisture from leaching into the shells of crabs and lobsters; wet, over-cooked dressed crabmeat is an all-too-common insult to an excellent ingredient. Away from the beach, you can scoop handfuls of sea salt into boiling tapwater. A little more precision, some sugar, perhaps garlic, cloves, juniper and peppercorns, and you have a brine; once used as a blunt instrument for preserving, refrigeration means you can now ease up on the salt and use brines mainly for the seasoning of otherwise plainly cooked meats. This aside, though, the point at which food for utility edges into food for pleasure is hard to guess at. In this matter of broth, Reay Tannahill, as elsewhere in his excellent little book (I’ve always wanted to say that), confines himself to the evidence. In a little over a hundred pages, he sketches a history of the food of the world, drawing lines from prehistory to the modern age, and from India to Peru; most importantly for anything desirous of ‘excellent little book’-hood, he combines a gift for broad strokes with a deadpan eye for the animatingly ludicrous detail. Illustrated with a number of colour plates (hence the title) and enlivened by anecdote and poetry, you can tell that Tannahill relishes the eccentric task he has set himself, but it’s a shame he doesn’t aim for greater precision in his use of language. A lot of culinary explanation and misunderstanding could be avoided by a more careful use of the word boiling.

Meat, really, should never be boiled, which implies a continuous agitated roll, a constant motion and loss of heat from the surface of the water. Green vegetables, pasta and jam should be boiled (some disagree) – some beans, such as kidney, at the start of cooking, to kill off toxins in their skins – but that’s about it. For almost every other preparation involving heated water, a simmer is what you want. Of course, this contains a number of subdivisions, but it’s still a useful category. Egg-poaching water, tomato sauces, puttering ragouts, stocks, flour-thickened sauces, soups and stews, all suit a simmer with, at the most, Champagne-like bubbles rising to the surface, while fish, blood, custards and so on take even less than that, with proteins that coagulate at a temperature far lower than you might expect – lower, in fact, than the legally recognised threshold for cooked food, but that’s another matter. There are, in fact, so few cases in which boiling is appropriate that it’s strange that that is the word we have latched on to. Of course, we boil water for other reasons too, like tea, originally, we’re told, a response to the undrinkability of natural water supplies; I’d rather have the wine, and keep my water patiently simmering at the back of the stove.

Oil & Vinegar

Back, recently, from a trip to Naples, where despite the pungent cheese shops, the dripping, writhing fish stalls, the oily black coffee, the dangerously rich ice-cream, the puffy delights of deep-fried pizza, the foods that really stick in the mind are the vegetables. (Well, the stewed tripe was pretty memorable, but that’s another story.) Like Sicily, Naples has always been poor, and even flour might be too expensive, especially once those polenta-eaters up north had got a taste for pasta. So the Neapolitans, derided as leaf-eaters (a lot of Italian regional prejudice seems to revolve around food), had to fall back on what they had – which, luckily, was an astonishing abundance of fruit and vegetables. The British version of Italian food has tended to focus on pasta, and the meat-and-cheese-and-olives side of antipasti – all delicious, of course, but they give a somewhat lopsided impression of the cuisine. The Southern love for bitter greens – at one meal, we had the Neapolitan signature, friarelli, as well as braised escarole and fiercely grilled radicchio (not green, true, but you get the idea) – is starting to make an impression here, which is good. It suits our vegetables, as well as the small-plate style a lot of newer Italians are turning to. The ubiquitous vegetable antipasti are perhaps a little naffer, but still worth checking out. No-one’s going to get excited about a roast pepper, but that doesn’t mean it’s not nice to eat.

A lot of this, though, does rely on the afore-mentioned astonishing abundance of fruit and vegetables, which, in most cases, are significantly better and significantly cheaper than you can get in Britain. In Naples, they pretty much give away that roast pepper – dressed heavily in oil, sprinkled with capers – which here would be ruinously expensive. So you get the slightly unpleasant spectacle of new London restaurants offering up cucina povera at new London prices – and doing it rather badly, because the raw materials weren’t good enough to start with. If your pepper isn’t beautiful, do something else with it – and accept that that something might not be especially cheap. Why should it be? It’s not YOUR peasant cuisine. Feel free to live on turnips and gruel. Anyway, for a dish that relies slightly less on freshness and quality (slightly, mind you), as well as appealing to the deep British love for sweet pickles, you could do a lot worse than caponata. I think originally Sicilian, we had this in Naples too, and it ticks a lot of Southern boxes – the vegetables, the sweet-and-sour flavours, the prodigal use of olive oil – though I warn you again that it won’t be very cheap. Buy the veg from a market or greengrocer, and the oil in large quantity from a wholefood shop, and you’ll lessen the burden slightly. Supermarkets seem to conspire against this kind of food.

This is a very Italian, high-summer caponata – they change the vegetables according to the season, little artichokes being a particular favourite. The only real constant is the agrodolce, sharp-sweet sauce. Feel free to sub in more ‘British’ veg (a glut of courgettes might find a home here) as you wish.
Makes a lot, but keeps well under its oil.
4 large mild onions, finely diced
6 cloves of garlic, sliced
1 red chilli, sliced
6 large vine tomatoes, diced, skins and seeds and all
200ml red wine vinegar
3-4 tbsps sugar or honey
Juice of two lemons
A handful of capers
A handful of raisins
4 aubergines, chopped into little dice
1 head of celery, trimmed and chopped into chunks
Chopped mint and parsley
Salt, pepper, and LOTS of olive oil

Make the sauce first. Sweat the onion, garlic and chilli (tuck in the vine from the tomatoes as well) in a hefty glump (bigger than a glug) of oil, until soft and nearly turning brown, then add the diced tomatoes and a pinch of salt and cook down to a mush. Stir together the vinegar, sugar (or honey) and lemon juice, then add that too and boil down a little. Taste – at this point it should be too sweet and too sour, without enough salt to balance it. That comes later. Stir in the capers and raisins.

Put the diced aubergine in a colander and toss with a big pinch (about a tablespoon) of Maldon’s salt. Leave to drain for about half an hour. (This is NOT to get rid of ‘bitter juices’, but to lightly break down its spongy texture, drying it slightly and making it absorb less oil. It makes quite a difference.)
Meanwhile, heat another glump of oil in a frying pan and sauté the celery, in batches, until nicely browned. Scoop out with a slotted spoon (although you’ll probably still need to top the oil up) and chuck straight into the sauce. Do the same with the aubergines – which will need even more oil – when they’re ready.
Let the whole thing simmer for about ten minutes, then stir in the herbs (a good handful of each) and leave to cool to a warm room temperature, then check the seasoning. It might need a bit more salt, but there’s a lot on the aubergines. Eat with white bread and wine, and get it down your shirt. Get angry and go for a nap. You’re on holiday.