those in peril

I know, I’ve been really slack with this recently. I’m sorry – I’ve been working on Other Things. I still am, actually. To tide you over, here is the piece I wrote as my shortlisted YBF entry last year. Do enter, by the way, if you do food things. The party is fun, if nothing else…

– I like boats – in theory. On a family holiday to Cornwall, we hired a little boat to potter round the bay; I saw a dolphin, and nearly crashed into a container ship, towering above the rest of the harbour like a piece of the scenery. Other than that, only ferries, across the Channel or the Mediterranean or the Bosphorus or the Grand Canal, normally on bright clear days or nights, surrounded by whirling seagulls, and warm. I’ve never been on a fishing boat; I’ve never even been fishing, unless you count scooping some kind of eely thing out of the Stour and throwing it, wriggling, back in. I know that fishing boats look too small to face the wild sea; but they do.

About nine-and-a-half British fishermen die a year, from accidents at sea; this is a small amount, compared to other countries. Alaskan fishers, working in the freezing stormy darkness, have one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Still, it seems a lot. I don’t think ten chefs, or food journalists, die each year from work-related injuries; bakers rarely fall into their ovens, and the good people of Blythburgh do not walk in terror of their ravenous pigs. There is a level of danger accepted in the getting of seafood which is unparalleled in the food industry, perhaps justified by a sort of knightly romance, a sense of quest and hunt, which is attached to the fishing industry. I found it strange, reading Moby-Dick, that people would do something as dangerous as actually hunting whales through the sea, simply to get lamp-oil and perfumes; commercial fishing is, at least, more useful than that. We eat the stuff, after all – and we’re always being told to eat more of it.

When you prepare food for a living, you are constantly aware of waste; the closer you get to the living food, the more there is of it. A stir-fry pack of broccoli florets is expensive, but you can use it all immediately. A bed of brassicas cut from the earth might be half or more stalk and outer leaf, but if it is in your hands you can control it, you can redefine for yourself what is and isn’t a waste product. Stalks can be shredded and fermented into kimchi, dense with mustardy flavour; leaves can be cooked as spring greens, and the actual vegetable, the distended flower-head of the plant, becomes almost an afterthought; this has happened, essentially, in meat, where the Hendersonian revolution has succeeded to the extent that my butcher now tries to flog me cheap racks of cutlets as an alternative to the bellies, breasts and shoulders we usually cook. This has happened, though few people die in a pig’s journey from sty to sausage.

So it hits me, when I am removing the heads, spines, fins, livers, eggs and guts from a pile of beautifully striped mackerel, a primordial bag of squid, darkly intelligent octopus, that perhaps it is insulting, in the face of death – of animal and of human – to throw so much away, that, more than Fergus’ common sense, it is common courtesy to wring every last scrap of meat and of flavour from these creatures, which we exchange for the lives of those, from Whitstable, from Lowestoft or from Grimsby, who live in peril on the sea.

Death / Roe

I often wonder how much healthier, both physically and mentally, we would be as a country if the New Year started not in January, but in March, or perhaps May, and if resolutions therefore had to be kept not in the long death of winter but instead against a background of burgeoning spring as it made its way towards the green early summer. How anyone expects to keep, say, to a salad-based diet, or to lay off the booze – even a glass of good red wine of a long evening! – when the days are still short, when the temperature frequently drops below zero, when there is slush in every gutter and no leaves to be seen, except for endless, endless kale, I do not understand.

Having said that, I do enjoy a crisp winter’s day, and if I might wait until the wind is a little less vicious and the roads are not glinting with ice to get back on my bicycle, then I am willing to spend one eating food which is similarly crisp and cold, January being the time to eat raw celeriac with mustard and creme fraiche, or shredded radicchios and chicory enlivened with neat fillets of blood orange, or brassicas charred briefly over a hot flame, and then left to macerate in apple vinegar and miso. So-called clean eating is, of course, a nonsense, but there is a certain cleanliness of flavour, a sidestep away from the butter and spice which characterises a British Christmas, that is desirable at this time of year, especially if it marches in tandem with an enormous bowl of pasta or a good pot of ragu – one of those ones so slow-cooked that the vegetables have completely dissolved and all you have left is a kind of jam made from meat, so it has to be spread on toast or indeed stirred through that enormous bowl of pasta, rather than served, say, with mashed potato.

Raw celeriac, especially when cut into neat matchsticks and slightly overdressed with that creme fraiche and mustard, demands to be eaten with hot-smoked fish of some kind; in an ideal world, this would be eel, for which I have a great weakness, especially when hot-smoked and cut across the bone into little steaks and then grilled to loosen the rich buttery oils. Eels, however, with their deeply mysterious lives lived between the muddy Thames and the wide Sargasso Sea, are one of the least sustainable of fishes, as well as being, when smoked, quite enormously expensive, so you might have to make do with smoked mackerel; hardly making do, smoked mackerel being extremely delicious, especially if you buy the whole burnished fish wrapped neatly in brown paper, instead of sweaty vac-packed fillets. I don’t have any plans to smoke mackerel this year, as I’m keeping it all for canning, but I did get, the other day, two fat sacs of cod’s roe, one of which I smoked to be made into tarama salata and the other of which I will dry brick-hard and grate or shave over slick ribbons of pasta, a taste of distant seas in the landlocked depths of winter.

Yes We Can

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The Italians, who, despite their supposed reverence for the ingredient have as much of an interest in cooking techniques as do anybody else, express a certain penchant for extremes when it comes to the application of heat. A sauce is cooked for either five minutes or five hours, beef either raw or collapsing to the touch; when something is to be overcooked, as in that rather lovely broccoli cream used to dress pasta, they will overcook the hell out of it – which is just as it should be. If something is not at the extreme end of what you are trying to do to it, then it is not, to my mind, as good as it could be. The correct amount of salt in any food is nearly-too-much; anything less is not enough.

The thing with overcooking is that it comes in circles. The most obvious example is one of the cheaper cuts of steak, hanger or some other kind of skirt. Cook it fresh and bloody, and it cuts like butter under a questing knife; cook it medium-well, and your diners will think you have grilled them one of your worn-out Crocs. Cook it for three hours, perhaps with some sweet onion, some anchovy and a bosky Pinot Noir, and there it is again, melting to tenderness, just the thing to spread onto a piece of almost-burnt toast and eat, standing up, with some nearly-too-sharp pickles on the side. This is true, broadly speaking, of almost any sort of protein. You wouldn’t do it to a fillet steak, but then who eats a fillet steak in this day and age? Hamine eggs, to take another example, boil through grey rubber and on into soft cream, and are all the better for it.

We might not, perhaps, think of doing this to fish. Cephalopods, of course, demand the all-or-nothing treatment, with cuttlefish especially demanding a cooking time of either three hours or close to zero; even the apparently intractable octopus can, with a little judicious preparation (freeze / defrost / brine / dry / marinate) be successfully flash-fried. Your actual backboned swimming fish, though, would seem to be another matter, with even a fish stew only including the fish for the last few minutes of cooking – except, that is, for tinned fish. I’ve written before about the luscious texture, reminiscent of tinned tuna, you can get by slowly poaching fish in olive oil; since then I have also become enamoured with a Japanese preparation, involving entire mackerel cooking in a deeply flavoured marinade. The true, melting nature of actual tinned fish, though, requires the extra heat available from a pressure cooker; as luck would have it, I got one for Christmas.

I’m aiming to get hold of some tin cans to try this with, but for now I am canning fish in screw-topped Kilner jars; the principle is the same. Oily fish (it needs that fat, I think) and some strongly flavoured things go into a sealed jar, and are cooked at pressure until rendered delicious; conveniently, this also kills off botulinum spores. I wanted to try this with the pomegranate mackerel recipe, but I could get neither mackerel nor pomegranate molasses; instead, I’m trying chunks of salmon with fermented pepper paste, blood orange juice, and a few other things. I have high hopes.

Eight Legs Better

 

 I’m fairly comfortable with my meat-eating, generally speaking. I don’t buy a huge amount, and when I do it’s often game, or odder cuts from well-reared animals; having been vegetarian for 10 years, I’m conscious of the ethical arguments, but feel that informed meat-eating is a better choice than the outright protest of vegetarianism, quite apart from the ecological ramifications of removing the entire meat industry (and I’m conscious there’s a counter-argument to that, thank you). We’re lucky in this country that animal farming is comparatively well-regulated, and that while the horrors of battery farming still continue, its products are easy enough to avoid; if we keep making informed decisions, perhaps it will wither away – although that may be a trifle optimistic.

Fish-eating, in comparison, is a bloody minefield. Although we have the MSC certifications and so forth, the actual state of fish stocks change so frequently and vary so much from sea to sea that the best of intentions often go astray. I get round this by almost never buying fish – something of a copout. At the restaurant we’re lucky in having a small fishmonger (his operation, I mean – he’s of average size) who deals only with dayboats and sustainable sources; he makes the informed choices so we don’t have to, which is good, and means we often use things we might not have otherwise tried, such as sand soles, cuttlefish, and fresh, British octopus.

Now, I don’t have a lot of time for the argument that we shouldn’t eat the more intelligent animals. The intelligence of dogs is, I think, highly overrated, and while I’d happily eat them I don’t think their meat would taste very nice. There’s a reason we don’t generally eat carnivorous mammals. Pigs, while smart, are also quite smart enough to up and leave if they aren’t happy with the situation; there’s a good argument that their ‘domestication’ was something of a reciprocal arrangement in the first place. At any rate, pigs are quite happy to eat their own young if the situation requires it, so I don’t think they’re squeamish about such things. So much for pigs.

The intelligence of the octopus seems of a quite other order. The more I read about them, the more chillingly intelligent they seem. When captured, they refuse to participate in research which could teach us more about them; they escape from their tanks in the dead of night through holes the size of their beak, walking on dry land if necessary to reach their goal; in the wild, they decorate their homes, they use tools, they communicate. They are an intelligent alien life form, and when they rise up out of the sea with their stolen weaponry, I fully expect to be held to account. The problem is, they’re just so tasty. 

Maybe it’s their intelligence that makes them so delicious. Just as pigs are, objectively speaking, the tastiest of animals, so the flesh of the octopus is nicer by far than that of their dumb, brutish cousins the squid and the cuttlefish, really rich and sweet, capable of standing up to the thick, beefy flavours of stifado as well as the subtle astringency of a celery and potato salad. If we don’t get them much here, I think it’s because people are rather afraid of cooking them. There’s all kinds of nonsense about how to tenderise their flesh – beat with a hammer, dry on a clothesline, add corks to the cooking liquor – but the best way to do it is just to stick them in the freezer as soon as you get them, and leave them at least overnight. The violent effect this has on their cells, undesirable in delicate white fish, tenderises them perfectly.

The next day, I normally braise them in oil, wine and herbs before chopping their tentacles and adding to salads, or leaving them whole and blackening on a hot grill; if you clean them properly (brains out, beak off) you can cook them directly in your tomato and purple olive ragu, and so much the better for everyone. Just be prepared for the day when the sea-spiders rise up and come seeking revenge.

 

Cheek to Cheek

One of the best things about moving to coastal Suffolk (and working with a curious, conscientious fish supplier) is the real variety of seafood on offer. Up to last year I’d barely cooked more than mackerel, bass and bream, with the seasonal additions of mussels or sardines; now we regularly use sand soles, gurnard, cod and monkfish cheeks, octopus and clams, thick slices of dogfish or turbot, our own salted hake and ling. Not, of course, that these are all from round these parts – cephalapods might come from Cornwall, salmon from Scotland, while the vast shoals of herring which sustained Lowestoft and Yarmouth have moved on to other waters – but the interest which people have in seafood, and the extent to which it has formed part of the local cuisine, is always evident; there is, for example, a biennial herring festival in Halesworth – a small inland town on a trickle of a river.

People, as I think I’ve mentioned before, make a lot of fuss about cooking fish. The angst of a crispy skin & juicy flesh! Rick Stein, with his hot pokers and his face, only helps to obscure the point, which is that all you have to do to cook fish is cook it – until it’s cooked. Fish skin, like potatoes and totally unlike the muscle of land animals, has the capacity to be taken gently from cold to brown without suffering for it. Do that to a steak and you will have a weeping grey mass – you will be a weeping grey mass; do it to a neatly-trimmed fillet of good, fresh sea bream and you will have a perfectly cooked piece of fish which only needs a brief rest on its cut side before proceeding to the plate, with the added bonus that you can, in the intervening time, see exactly what is happening to that flaked white muscle. I’m repeating myself, however.

Browning seafood without that nice, protective skin, is to be fair, a slightly more difficult proposition – but that’s only to say it’s slightly more difficult than shooting sleepy sea urchins in a wide-topped bucket. In the case, say, of scallops or of cod cheeks, you should put on a frying pan, wide enough to take the seafood in a single layer with about a centimetre in between each piece, and leave it to get extremely hot – slightly hotter than you think is sensible. Make sure each cheeky little nugget is nice and dry. Add some oil, add some coarse sea salt, add the (for the sake of argument) cod cheeks, and then leave them where they are; leave them until they are pretty much cooked through, which you can tell by the pearlescent sheen and beads of moisture which appear on top of the cheeks. Flip each cheek, one by one, then take off the heat and add a spoon of butter. When it stops sizzling, they’re done. See! That was easy. Serve with a salsa verde AND some aioli, if you’re feeling frivolous. Very cold white wine, good bread and butter – dinner.

Invisible City pt. 1

“In Esmeralda, city of water, a network of canals and a network of streets span and intersect each other. To go from one place to another you have always the choice between land and boat” – Calvino, trans. William Weaver

 

Venice, it’s fair to say, is a city mainly composed of bridges and water, a fact emphasised when you enter it, by vaporetta, on a chilly, rainy day in late February, the kind of day when the sky and the water seem composed of the same great sheet of grey. The canals lap at the seaweed-bearded streets; bridges appear out of nowhere, and any alley might lead equally to a church or to the sea. Why anyone chose to build a city there is beyond me, but I suppose they made a good go of it, becoming “excellently amphibious” in response to their waterlogged, sinking surroundings, bringing, for a while, large parts of the Mediterranean under the control of their largely mercantile empire.

 

I always find it fascinating to trace the history of a place through its cuisine; part of what I love about Sicilian food is the little touches of Arab and Spanish flavour, the faint whispers, even, of Roman and Greek – seemingly un-Italian spicings, sweet fruit and meat, the absolute ubiquity of the anchovy – but apart from the occasional flourish of cinnamon, little seems to remain of La Serenissima’s once-vital place on the spice route. Apart from a few remnants of later occupations – the cream doughnuts and the peculiar Venetian lust for strudel – their cuisine is as amphibious as them, entirely a product of the lagoon and its immediate surrounds; which is to say that they eat a hell of a lot of fish.

 

Apart from breakfast, which for Venetians means an espresso and a cornetto and for us meant the bountiful purgatory of the Continental buffet, almost every meal we had was largely aquatic. The first night was cuttlefish in sticky ink, thick bigoli pasta in a dense sauce of anchovies, sardines in their beautiful sweet-sour bath, and simply boiled king crab; the next, tiny, toy-like octopus and spaghetti vongole; for lunch, the little soft-shelled local crabs, no bigger than the palm of your hand, which stuff themselves with Parmesan batter in a morbid frenzy before a quick end in hot oil. In between, very often, there was baccala. Although, as far as I can gather, this is made with stockfish rather than salt cod – that is to say, dried without being salted, giving it all the hairy texture without the sometimes overpowering flavour – it shares a lot, in its most common preparation, with the Catalan brandada and the French brandade.

 

Although all these (and salt cod in general) seem totemically Mediterranean dishes, they are essentially a product of trade, early fusion cuisine. The fish, from cold and teeming northern waters, was salted and dried on cold Scandinavian beaches, in dry Scandinavian winds, travelling almost to the other end of the known world to be revived and mixed with good southern olive oil and cracked eastern pepper – and, for the last few hundred years, served on grilled cakes of ground Mexican corn.

 

I make my own salt fish (normally with hake or ling, for various reasons) but don’t generally dry it; I’ll give that a go, and work on a recipe for baccala mantecato. In the meantime, look for Russell Norman’s POLPO recipe; or go and eat it at Polpetto, where it is perfect.

Simple Suppers

  

If you take a clear, well made, lightly gelatinous fish stock, season it with salt and sweet white vinegar and infuse it with lovage, mint and celery leaves, the result is a clean soup – a bone broth, if you must – which sits happily in the sometimes awkward period between summer salads and the dense potages of winter, although it might seem a little austere. Add some diced golden and orange tomatoes and gently warm through until the jelly round the seeds seeps out into the pan, then spoon the lot into a plain white bowl, where it will glow with brisk, late summer health. You might have started the bowl with some flakes of salt-baked gurnard, poached, shredded skate wing, or a lightly cured mackerel fillet, barely cooked through in a little spare broth; you might finish it with a fistful of chopped dill, fennel tops and parsley or a spoonful of a pungent, quivering aioli.
This is a way of cooking, precise and simple, that can only proceed from abundance, and as such is incredibly irritating to read about. No-one wants to hear about your well-stocked larder, your fridge full of home-made condiments and seasonings – I’m sorry for bringing it up. In my defence, ours is professionally so, with space to spare in cupboard, freezer, and dishwasher, and the time, inclination and imperative to do the kind of housekeeping, the straining, simmering, bottling, pressing, potting and drying which formed the backbone of our imaginary peasant cuisines; outside of work, it’s a fantasy, but one that it’s nice to inhabit for a while. I don’t think I’ve ever made fish stock at home. Meat broths can be thrown together out of ham bones or roast chicken carcasses, a few scraps of veg, simmered for hours with little attention, but fish needs a bit more care.
If you wanted to follow the non-recipe above, taking the mackerel option, then you’d need to start with another fish entirely. The bones of oily fish do not make a good stock. You want white fish carcasses (flatfish are good), which you’d need to ask your fishmonger for, if you have one and he likes you, or save from a previous meal of, say, fat bream you’ve filleted yourself – which brings us back into the realms of fantasy. I don’t think I’ve ever filleted bream at home either – I roast them whole, and the roast bones do not make a good stock. Cheap white fish fillets will do. Put them, or the bones, in a pan with onion, fennel, celery, peppercorns, bay – you know, all the standard stock accoutrements you have lying around your well-stocked pantry. Cover with water and bring to a bare simmer, which is where it should stay for about half an hour. “There was silence throughout heaven for about half an hour” – that’s when they were making fish stock, carefully watching the bubbles to ensure it never broke out into anything as frantic as a putter. I assume so, anyway.
When it’s ready, you can lift out all the bits with a sieve and pour the clear liquid into a bowl or tub containing lovage, if you can find it, mint and celery, leaving behind any fishy sediment. Lovage is an excellent herb, something like an intensely astringent celery, which I have never seen for sale anywhere, although it grows in this country fierce and strong. You can leave all that to infuse like some unpleasant, medicinal tea, before straining and, if you like, freezing the result. If you do the latter, then take the opportunity to clarify it upon defrosting – it’s an extremely easy process, but one I can’t be bothered to explain here; just writing all that about stock has exhausted me. Google, google, google. Time to cure the mackerel, if you’re still with me. You need ridiculously fresh fish for this. Red gills, bright eyes, rigor mortis, the works. You’ll probably need to find it whole, to ensure freshness, and then fillet and pin-bone it as quickly as possible. The flesh of oily fish degrades incredibly quickly. I generally put the fillets in a tub, floating in an ice-bath, then put the lot in the fridge and make the cure. Equal parts salt and sugar, some crushed fennel and coriander seed; mix together and spread out in a tray. Pin-bone the fish with your fish tweezers and place the fillets, flesh side down, in the cure. Put back in the fridge for half an hour, then wash the cure off and do any necessary trimming. A faff, yes, but it really helps to keep them in the first freshness – and as we know, there is no second freshness.
It’s plain sailing from here, anyway. Warm a saucepan of the stock, add salt, pepper, white balsamic vinegar (fine, white wine vinegar and a pinch of sugar if you must) and some very good, very ripe diced tomato. Separately warm a couple of inches of stock in a pan wide enough to take all the mackerel in one layer. When it’s just bubbling, add the fish and cook very gently for five minutes; lift the fillets out into bowls and spoon over the tomato broth. Top with herbs, and if you want more of a kick, some good, strong aioli, which of course you have in the fridge. Or if you’ve run out –

2 large egg yolks
a spoon of Dijon mustard
8 cloves of garlic, crushed with salt
pomace oil
juice of two lemons
extra virgin olive oil

Blitz the first three in a food processor or whisk together in a bowl. Slowly add pomace oil until it goes really thick. You DON’T have to do this in a constant stream, but it does have to be gradual. When it looks a bit too thick, mix in the lemon juice. Slowly add the olive oil until it looks and tastes right. That was easy, wasn’t it?

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.

Fish/Fruit

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I’ve never been a particularly keen fish-eater. Fish depends, I think, more than any other food, on a sense of place for its enjoyment, and while some of my favourite ever meals have been simply- or barely-cooked white fish or shellfish, eaten within pissing distance of the sea, I have never felt much of an urge to recreate them at home. Grilled cuttlefish or prawns, sea urchin scooped from the shell, lose their piquancy without the seasoning provided by the crash of waves and the tang of the salt air.

 

The flavours of oily fish, on the other hand, seem to travel a little better. (Although their flesh does not – the meat is really only good for one day; mackerel fishermen, in times when such things mattered, used to have special license to trade on Sundays so they did not waste their catch). They are more robust, and will stand up to bigger flavours, – smoke and vinegar and punchy fruit – than the vague wisps of fennel and lemon which so often accompany more delicate creatures; this also allows for a little more leeway in the quality of the fish itself. You will never recreate that beautiful bream you ate on the beach, with a squeeze of lemon and a glass of something cold – not with a supermarket specimen, anyway. With oily fish, though, the spices and sauces carry the burden that the flesh can not.

 

Some of the nicest seafood I have ever eaten has been in Turkey, but very often in the form of the fresh, the white, the inimitable. Fish are everywhere, live in buckets or slithering on ice, twisted with rigor, in varieties unobtainable in Britain, and are often very simply grilled or fried. Sometimes, though, for mezze dishes, the treatments are a little more complex. The following is based on a dish we ate in Kadikoy, the Asian side of Istanbul, a very unusual preparation of mackerel, almost confited in a spiced, syrupy oil.

 

POMEGRANATE MACKEREL

For 8 as a mezze, perhaps 4 as a starter, with some bread and salad

8 mackerel fillets, pinboned

2 tsp coriander seeds

 

200ml pomegranate molasses

100ml red wine vinegar

8 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced

grated zest of one orange

6 banana shallots, thinly sliced

500ml good olive oil

salt

You can leave the fillets whole, or slice them in half widthways and then again lengthways for ease of eating as a mezze, either way, salt lightly and set aside.

In a wide pan (ideally wide enough to fit the fish in one layer, and deep enough to hold all the ingredients) gently toast the coriander seeds until they start to give up their aroma, then pour in the molasses and vinegar. Stir them together, then add the garlic, orange zest, and shallots. Let the mixture simmer for a bit, although you don’t want it to cook particularly.

Lay the fish in evenly, and then pour the oil over it. Warm it over a very gentle heat – you will see bubbles coming up through and from the fish – until the pieces of mackerel are just, just cooked, having lost their translucent grayness. Remove the pan from the heat, cover, and set aside – the mackerel will carry on cooking as they cool.

Serve with some of the juices and some appropriate accompaniments.