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British Dishes

 

 

 
  Have a little fishy on a little dishy
   

The British are an island race and it is not surprising that fish and shellfish from our shores have long been one of our staple foods. However, what is surprising is the way that fashions and tastes change.

 

What is scarce is always more desirable than what is plentiful - but how strange nowadays when salmon is relatively expensive to think of the eighteenth century Irish apprentices who looked on glumly as the great silver salmon leaped up the river Liffey, and insisted on marking in their indenture papers the number of days on which their masters could feed them this cheapest of fish. Oysters too were the food of the poor. They were eaten not by the dozen and half-dozen then, but by the hundreds. In fact they were so common that they were even made into sausages.

Nobody in the seventeenth, eighteenth or even nineteenth century thought much of trout; but whale, sturgeon or porpoise were such extra special delicacies that they were saved for the king and were his property alone. In practice though, monarchs often waived their rights and almost inevitably awarded the tongue of the whale, or even the whole head, to the tenant of the stretch of beach where the whale had landed, who would bear it home on a cart and salt it down for the winter.

While whalemeat was a royal perk, kings and subjects alike favoured 'small-fry'. Elvers (tiny, transparent baby eels) from the River Severn were a well-loved food together with whitebait, which were caught in the Thames and sold on the quaysides to be cooked on the spot and eaten by the promenaders as they strolled about watching the busy life of the river.

 

 

For those who lived inland in earlier times, however, the eating of fish was a far less agreeable business. People then, with the wretched roads and horse transport and no ice, could not buy sea fish that was anywhere near to being fresh. However, they were obliged by the Church and the State (who were desperately trying to boost the ailing fish industry) to eat fish not only on Fridays and during Lent, but on Wednesdays and Saturdays as well. The result was a heavy diet of salt herrings and dried cod, so hard and salty that it had to be pounded with a stone or hammer for an hour before it was usable. An Elizabethan schoolboy wrote: "I have ate none other than salt-fish this Lent, and it has engendered so much phlegm within me that it stoppeth my pipes that I can neither speak nor breathe."

Today we are extremely lucky. Fish, although scarcer than before, is always fresh, and we can buy it with confidence. Whether fish is frozen straight out of the sea on board the deep-sea trawlers, or 'wet' and packed in ice, it has never reached the shops fresher than now.

So freshness is no longer a problem. Our problem, if we have one, is that frozen fish is so easy to buy and to prepare, that we are in great danger of forgetting some of the less common varieties of fish available 'wet' at the fishmongers, and as a result the fish-shop may soon disappear. This would indeed be a pity, since many of these fish are so delicious and can bring so much variety to the table.

Do not be put off cooking fresh fish by the idea that the smell will invade the house. Fish baked in the oven covered with kitchen foil makes no smell at all, and if grill pans are covered with foil they will not absorb a fishy smell. Frying fish makes no more smell than frying chips and if you are worried about cleaning the pan afterwards, rinse it in cold water first before bringing it to the boil with a lump of soda - or use a non-stick pan