Last post I wrote about the delicious gooseberry. Since I wrote it, I have seen them in quite a few shops, including Morrison’s, so I am feeling good about the gooseberry’s culinary future.
It is important to remember that gooseberries can be served
with meat and fish in rather the same way as tart Bramley apples are: oily fish
such as mackerel is the classic pairing, but I have found recipes that match it
with chicken, goose, pork and mutton or lamb. Sauces and stuffings are made
with the small new tart berries, with just a little sugar. The simplest sauce
being made from halved berries, chopped mint and sugar. The ingredients are
mixed, covered and left to macerate for several hours. Delicious with barbequed
mackerel or herring, and the fact it isn’t cooked means the gooseberries retain
their vibrant green colour.
I mentioned that in France it is known as the mackerel
currant, because it is only ever really served with the oily fish, and even then,
it’s considered particular only to Normandy. It did start life as an English
dish, but as there was much communication between England and Normandy during
the mediaeval period, it’s no surprise that they picked up some tips from the
English during centuries of toing and froing.
I’ve taken elements from three different recipes to come up with mine: Jane Grigson’s English Food (1992), Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery for Private Families (1847) and Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book (1604). Talent borrows, genius steals and all that. Many of the ingredients are optional, so if you want a cleaner tasting sauce, omit the cream and maybe the butter too. If you are interested, there’s also a great recipe for a gooseberry stuffing for mackerel on my other blog.
It’s a delicious combination – simply grilled mackerel and
the tart sauce, and maybe a green salad on the side. It’s telling you that
summer is here! This pairing is largely forgotten now, but look in some older British
cookery books and you’ll see it crop up again and again.
Young, green, small gooseberries are required for recipes
that are served with savoury food – the later, large sweet ones are best used
in desserts (recipes for those coming soon).
250 g gooseberries, topped and tailed
50 ml water
50 ml white wine, or a dash of cider vinegar
50 g sugar, or to taste
good pinch of ground ginger
salt and pepper
a knob of butter (optional)
2 to 3 tbs double cream (optional)
Put the gooseberries, water, wine or vinegar and sugar in a saucepan and cook until the gooseberries go pale in colour and start to become very soft, crushing them against the side of your pan with a wooden spoon. Season with salt and pepper.
If you want a very smooth sauce with no seeds or pulp, whizz
the whole thing in a blender and pass through a sieve. I like to leave mine
with some texture, but it’s up to you. If you did pass it through a sieve put
it in a clean pan and put it over a medium heat.
Smooth or pulpy, beat in your butter with whisk or spoon
until it becomes glossy, then add the cream.
Add more sugar if you like – remember it isn’t supposed to
be sweet like apple sauce.
Serve alongside grilled or fried mackerel, but also pork,
chicken or goose.
This is a recipe that is inspired by the Tudor love of combining fish with candied sweetmeats. Large medieval banquets had to contain dishes with lots of spice; after all how else could you display your vast wealth other than to use that exciting spice, sugar? When first brought to Europe from India, sugar was considered a spice and therefore medicinal. It lost its rank as a spice once it gained popularity as a more general addition to the dinner table; albeit a giant banqueting table.
The addition of the salmon, then, you might feel was also a mark of an ostentatious lord. It is not the case, back in the day, before such things as pollution and overfishing, streams were teeming with fish like salmon. In fact they were so common on the River Mersey that people used to feed them to their pigs! The same, of course, goes for oysters too, and yet we can now buy a pound of sugar for 30 pence. How times have changed.
This dish is very attractive: a lovely fish wrapped neatly in pastry with some sweet spice, fruit and nuts, plus a nice piquant herb sauce. It’s pretty easy to make to boot, as long as you have good shortcrust pastry. This was so good, that it became the main course at my last pop-up restaurant.
Yours Truly, with the fish
This recipe is actually from Jane Grigson, who did the tricky bit for us and worked out a recipe. It comes from her book English Food and I suggest you buy a copy (see the other blog about that!). The only real difference I’ve made is to multiply up the amounts; I used a whole salmon, rather than just a piece as in the book.
You will need:
1 salmon, filleted, skin on or off
250g butter, softened
8 knobs of preserved ginger, chopped
1-2 tbs of the ginger syrup
2 heaped tbs raisins or currants
2 heaped tbs slivered almonds
salt and pepper
shortcrust pastry (see method)
For the herb sauce:
4 shallots, very finely chopped
2 tsp parsley, finely chopped
2 tsp of chervil or tarragon, or a mixture, finely chopped
2 tsp plain flour
600ml double cream
2 tsp English mustard
salt and pepper
4 egg yolks
juice ½ lemon
Beat the softened butter with the preserved ginger, raisins and almonds. Sweeten with the syrup as you see fit. Use half of the mixture to sandwich the two pieces of salmon together and then spread the remaining half over the top piece. Season with salt and pepper.
Now you are ready to encase the beast in pastry. I used a batch made of 800g flour and 400g of fat (200g each lard and butter), 2 eggs and a little water, but you might need more or less, depending upon the size of your salmon. Roll out a third of the pastry into a shape larger than the fish and place it on top. Trim around it, leaving a two centimetre gap.
Next, roll out the rest and carefully place it over the fish, trimming the pastry away so there is a one centimetre gap between it and the lower layer. Brush with beaten egg all around the edges, and fold and crimp the pastry all the way around; rather like a huge pasty. Use the trimmings for decoration. There were a few small cracks in my pastry, but I hid them most cleverly with some pastry leaves that I placed here and there. I must say, I was quite impressed with my effort.
Make two or three slashes on the top so that steam can escape and bake for around 45 minutes at 220⁰C (425⁰F). To tell that it is done use a temperature probe; if the centre is around 50⁰C it’s ready to come out. As the fish rests, it will increase in temperature.
As it rests, you can get on with the sauce. Gently fry the shallots and herbs in butter. When the shallots have softened, stir in the flour, then the cream (reserving a little for later). Simmer for around 10 minutes, then season with salt, pepper and mustard. Whisk the egg yolks with the reserved cream, turn down the heat in the pan and pour in. The sauce will thicken as the yolks start to cook – do not let the sauce boil, or your yolks will scramble. If it seems on the thick side, add a little water. Finally, lift the whole thing by adding a good squeeze of lemon juice.
The rested salmon can now by sliced up. The best way I find to do this sort of operation is to use a serrated knife. Slice the untidy end off, but keep it pressed up against the rest of the fish as you make more slices. Don’t take away any slices until you are finished cutting, otherwise everything will crumble and collapse.
The best thing to eat with this, I would say, is a green bitter vegetable such as broccoli or kale.
Stock is the body and soul of soups – Lindsay Bareham
I have been making my own stocks for years now and it is part of my regular kitchen routine. I sequester bones, meat offcuts, fish heads and trimmings, vegetable peelings and herb stalks in bags in the bottom of my freezer so that I can combine them appropriately whenever I need to. It’s a thrifty way of living; often making a large batch of stock costs only the price of the fuel that cooked it.
For those that do not cook much at home, stock-making is sometimes regarded as some kind of alchemy, yet this is a misconception, and indeed there are many very complicated stock recipes, but the home cook (I include myself here) need not bother with these. The chances are you have made stock several times and have thrown it down the sink without a second thought, because in its most basic form, the water you cook your vegetables in is a good, light vegetable stock.
From a history point of view, one cannot pin-point when stocks were first made, and one cannot unravel the origins of stock from soup. Take this example from Good Things in England by Florence White:
[The soup] is nothing more than the water in which young cabbage has been boiled…It is extremely good and delicate and tastes very much like chicken broth. It is not merely an economy but a luxury; one of the best of health and beauty drinks.
Wise and thrifty cooks throughout the millennia used the water that their tough meat joints were simmered in or their fish poached in and used them as the base of another dish. One of my favourite dishes is poached silverside of beef which consists of beef, herbs, a couple of veg and water. The resulting broth makes beautifully-tasting soup.
Poached Silverside of Beef
Seeing as we are trying to be thrifty folk, I thought I would give you a quick guide to stock-making. As I have mentioned, it will save you money, and – like when you make your own bread – you will see how sublime it can taste. Every stock you make will taste a little different each time and it can be tailored to suit its use, e.g. add a few fennel seeds to a stock for a fish soup. Best of all, your soups and stews won’t taste of stock cubes. There is nothing wrong with having a stash of them in your food cupboard, I would do too, but with my very frustrating onion and tomato intolerances, I usually have to do my own. The point is, that when you use bought stock cubes, every soup and stew ends up tasting the same.
What makes up a stock?
This is the beauty of stock-making; there are no hard-and-fast rules with respect to ingredients.
All good stocks should contain some flavoursome vegetables and aromatic herbs and spices, often called a bouquet garni, as well as the main ingredient: this might be meat and bones, fish, or, more vegetables. The stock might be seasoned or enriched with salt, wine, soy sauce, Worcester sauce, tomato puree, mushroom ketchup or any number of other things, though it is usually best to do this once the soup or stew that the stock is being used for has been made.
The vegetables used in your stock are often key to the quality as they add a lot of depth. The three basic vegetables used for most stocks are carrots, celery and onion, though I personally add garlic and leek to this ‘trinity’ (a trinity in five parts?). My general rule of thumb is to try and include at least three of the five. Anything else is a bonus, really. Fennel is a good addition, if used sparingly, as are tomatoes, mushroom peelings, pea pods. Lentils, parsnips and potatoes add an earthiness, but should be avoided if you don’t like your stock cloudy. Brassicas such as cabbage, cauliflower, of sprouts should be used very sparingly, especially in meat or poultry stocks that have a lengthy cooking time, they are great in vegetables stocks though. Vegetables need to be roughly chopped in long-cooked meat stocks, and chopped small (a mirepoix as it is called in the trade) in quick-cook vegetable and fish stocks. A food processor makes an easy job of it.
Herbs, spices and other aromatics
Like the vegetables, the herbs and spices you add will depend upon what you have and they are essential. Must-haves herbs include bay leaves, parsley stalks, thyme and rosemary. Other herbs are great if you can get hold of them. Dill stalks in a fish stock are delicious as is a tiny mint sprig in a summertime lamb stock. I keep and freeze all my herb stalks to use later in stocks – there’s no need to throw them away. Must-have spices include black peppercorns, cloves and allspice berries.
The thinly-pared rinds of citrus fruits are also used quite a lot: a strip of orange peel transforms a game stock and lemon rind really lifts chicken, vegetable and fish stocks.
These herbs and spices are often tied up into a faggot or bouquet garni, though I never bother to tie mine up for stock, though I do for stews and soups where careful and efficient removal is required.
Poultry, meat and game
Use whatever you have – raw meat and bones, or bones from a roast. A little goes a long way: I have made game stock using a single woodcock carcass that still tasted great. It is best to avoid bones that have already been stewed as most of the flavour will already have leached out, but do add any left-over pan juices, jelly or gravy. Raw meat or bones will benefit greatly from a quick roasting in a hot oven for 20 minutes or so.
The important thing here is to treat your stock meat properly – if you boil the stock hard, the tasty amino acids and textural gelatine will not go into your stock, but will either form a nasty grey scum or will be trapped within the meat. Low simmers and long cooking times are essential.
It is best to avoid kidneys and livers in stocks, as their flavour is far too strong, but hearts, tongues and heads all make good additions.
Fish stocks, in contrast to meat stocks, can be made in minutes. Use bones and trimmings in your stock, but avoid oily fish such as mackerel and sardines. Mussel, clam, cockle or oyster liquor would be delicious, if you ever have any.
You might want to clarify your stock after straining it. This is straight-forward enough to do and there are several methods. The quick method is to whisk a mixture of egg whites and broken egg shells into the hot stock. The eggs grab hold of and magically mop-up the cloudy substances. The slow – and best – method is to freeze the stock, tie it in muslin and let the melting stock drip through. This method makes beautifully clear stocks.
There are a few tricks to avoid cloudiness in the first place: Don’t use starchy vegetables like potatoes, lentils and parsnips and avoid peppercorns. The best way is it leave the stock be; prodding, poking and rearranging items is the surest way to cloud it.
Some stock-making rules:
Start with cold water and bring to a simmer slowly. This is the most important rule of all. As the water gradually heats, the flavours leach out and don’t boil away and connective tissues break down to release their gelatine. The stock should never get hotter than a bare simmer; you want the odd gurgle, nothing more
Remove the scum before you add the herbs and spices. If you don’t the scum gets all caught up in it, making a nasty grey mess. Skim the scum, then add the aromatics.
Remove the layer of fat. Nobody wants greasy soup. The best way to do this is to let it cool and then scrape the fat layer away. If time is an issue, lay paper napkins on the stock’s surface.
The amount of water you use depends on your pot. Don’t follow the recipe when it comes to adding water. Arrange the ingredients in your pan with few gaps and add enough water to just cover.
Break the bones and cut up the meat. This increases the surface area and therefore increases the flavour of your stock.
When storing stock, cool it quickly and keep in the fridge up to 2 or 3 days. Any longer than that, freeze it.
Reducing stocks enhance the flavours and mean you can store more in the freezer. You must strain the stock and skim it of fat before reducing it. Meat stocks you can boil it quite heard, but vegetable and fish stocks need to be treated a little more gently.
Every post I write a post with a stock recipe or information about stock I tag it appropriately. Click here to see the posts.
I will post a good vegetable stock recipe in the next day or so, as it is the most useful of all the stocks and I already have posted a duck stock recipe.
The best advice is really to use stock recipes as a guide only, use what you have to hand. Keep your vegetable and meat trimmings in a bag in your freezer and you’ll find that you’ll quickly fill them.
The last of a trilogy of posts on the subject of eels. This time a recipe for an eel stew and some help with preparing them.
The first time I cooked with eel I used wild ones – something I won’t be doing from now on; the sustainable cook as we have learnt buys only farmed eels. Ask your fishmonger if he can get them for you. If he can’t then you have four options: (1) go to a fishery that supplies eels where you are most likely to have to buy in bulk; (2) if you live in or near London, go to an eel, pie & mash house and pick some up there; (3) order some frozen ones already cleaned from the very good people at The Fish Society; (4) catch some yourself in an eel trap. If you live outside of the UK, eels are much easier to find.
I remember getting my eel order from Dave Yarwood from Out of the Blue in Chorlton. He had driven all the way to Sandbach at some god-awful time in the morning only to get there to find no one around, though he found a note on the door of the suppliers saying the eels were in a bag in a stream round the back! I arrived at his shop and there they were – three freshwater eels swimming around in a polystyrene box. I got a taxi back home with three eels sloshing about in their tank – quite a surreal experience, I can tell you.
There’s a good chance that if you are going to have to do away with them yourself, this is because eels begin to break down very quickly after death. There is a lot of advice out there on what is the best way to do this. If you look in English Food by Jane Grigson says to ask your fishmonger to do the dirty work. It used to be thought that eels had to be skinned whilst still alive, but this is not the case. Larousse Gastronomique gives you these instructions on how to prepare an eel:
“To kill an eel, seize it with a cloth and bang its head violently against a hard surface. To skin it, put a noose around the base and hang it up. Slit the skin in a circle just beneath the noose. Pull away a small portion of the skin, turn it back, take hold of it with a cloth and pull it down hard.”
Well it’s not quite as simple as Larousse makes it sound; killing an eel is not like killing a regular fish, i.e. one thump to the back of the head and it’s gone, no, they keep on wriggling and writhing for a long time after you’ve ‘killed’ it. The best thing to do is to put the eels in iced water or in the freezer until they become very slow and docile, then hit them hard against a wall, stone or some other sturdy surface. You’ll find that after several hits that it is still moving about; it’s quite distressing, but the eel is dead, though its autonomic nervous system takes a while to shut down, though I’ve no idea how this happens and why it’s so different to other fishes. You can now either try the skinning method described above or behead them and then skin them. Have a look here at my original eel post from Neil Cooks Grigson, scroll down to see a rather gruesome video of some headless eels swimming about in my sink.
To skin them use a pair of pliers and a little salt to help get a purchase on the skin. Once you have got going the skin comes of satisfyingly easy like a long thin sock. Don’t be alarmed if the eels start moving again – this is from the salt triggering their nerves to start firing.
Now gut and clean the fish; make a cut from its anus – you’ll see it, about halfway down – to the neck end and pull away any innards from the rib cage. Give it a rinse and you are done.
Sedgemoor Eel Stew
One thing I have not mentioned is how well eel eats. It really is a delicious fish – its flesh is mild and delicate, don’t be put off by its snake-like form and sliminess. It is similar to salmon, but a little richer and much moister due to its high fat content and they are not in the least bit muddy-tasting. This is the first eel recipe I ever cooked and it is by far the best. It appears in English Food by Jane Grigson. The eel is cooked in a sauce made of cider, stock and cream. Sedgemoor is in Somerset in the south-east of England where most English recipes for eel come from.
1 ½ to 2 kg (3 to 4 lb) freshwater eel
150ml (¼ pint) double cream
4 tbs chopped parsley
salt and pepper
triangles of fried or toasted bread
Begin by cutting the eel(s) into even-sized portions of around two inches in length. Season them lightly. Make a stock from the eel heads and skin as well as the flat part of the tails: Place the trimmings in a pan and cover them with half-water, half-cider. Bring to a boil and then cover and simmer for 20 minutes.
Arrange the eel pieces in a shallow pan and pour over enough hot stock to just barely cover them. Gently poach the eels for 10-15 minutes depending on the girth of your eels until the eel meat starts to come away from the bones. Don’t let the stock come to a proper boil though – steady poaching is the key. When cooked, remove the eel pieces and arrange them on a serving dish, cover them and keep them warm.
Now make the sauce by boiling down the cooking liquor to a good strong flavour and then add the cream and parsley. Season again if required. Pour the sauce over the eel and serve with the fried bread or toast.
P.S. Delicious as eel maybe, beware if someone offers you raw eel, say as sashimi. Eel blood is toxic before it is cooked, so if you get served a bloody bit, it could be a bad man trying to do away with you.
As promised on the last post on eel conservation, a recipe for a dish that on no accounts must you make unless the elver (glass eel) population has reached at least somewhere close to their population size in days of yore.
An elverer on the River Severn
This is a recipe that I think I remember Keith Floyd cooking elvers still wriggling as he scooped them straight out of the River Severn in a pillowcase and tipping them straight into a hot frying pan. I’ve tried to find the clip on the web, but alas it is nowhere to be found. I did find, however a clip of Gordon Ramsay cooking freshly-caught elvers on the banks of the river. I should warn you that elvers are cooked live, so if you are at all squeamish you might not want to see the video:
Elvers in the Gloucester style is essentially scrambled eggs with elvers and it comes from Jane Grigson’s English Food and it is one recipe that I will probably never cook for my other blog Neil Cooks Grigson where I’m trying to cook every single recipe from the book. She points that back in the years of elver plenty, ‘several tons of elvers are caught between Sharpness and Tewkesbury on the Severn’. Also, interestingly, ‘elvers are the only fish fry which may be legally caught as food.’
Well that probably won’t be true for very long.
Jane’s recipe asks for 500g of elvers so if you are a little evil and know where to get them prepare to pay – they’ll cost you at least £100!
It must have been very exciting going down the banks of the river at night to see a huge dark swathe of elvers migrating upstream safe in the knowledge that there’ll be a delicious dinner in store.
500g (1 lb) elvers
8 rashers fat streaky bacon
A little bacon fat or lard
2 eggs, beaten
‘When you go to buy elvers, take along an old pillowcase so that the fishmonger can tip them straight into it.
‘At home, add a handful of kitchen salt to the elvers and swish them about, still in the pillowcase, in plenty of water. Squeeze them firmly to extract as much water as possible, then repeat the washing process again with some more salt. This gets rid of the sliminess. You may need to rinse them again and pick out any tiny twigs, leaves and pieces of grass.
‘To cook the dish, fry the bacon until crisp in a little bacon fat or lard. Remove it to a serving dish, and turn the levers into the bacon fat which remains in the pan. Stir them about for a few seconds until they become opaque, then mix in the beaten egg and cook for a few seconds longer. The important thing is not to cook for too long. Taste and add seasoning. Put the elvers on top of the bacon, and sprinkle with a little vinegar. Serve very hot.’
We we’ll just have to take her word for it, I suppose.
Around a year ago I wrote a post about jellied eels and eel, pie and mash houses in London and I have been meaning to write a sequel on the subject of eel fishing and conservation for a while, as well as looking at some traditional recipes for the slippery fish.
The European eel Anguilla anguilla is a threatened species; the IUCN has put it on its Red List as a Critically Endangered animal, yet it is perfectly legal to eat them – and fish for them if you have a licence – the funny thing is adult stocks of eel has remained stable for the last few decades. So why has the eel been given this Critically Endangered status? Well it is because the young eels – known as elvers in Britain, but more commonly known as glass eels – have had the drastic drop in population. Some of these populations have crashed by 95% in some areas. The paradox is: how can the adult population be stable whilst the young have diminished in number so much?
Well the short answer is that we don’t know! Elvers resupply our rivers of stock eels after a long migration from the Sargasso Sea where they were born. Understandably, this part of the life cycle is poorly understood, and all scientists and conservationists can do is count the number reaching our estuaries and rivers and monitor them carefully.
In Britain, the main inlet for elvers is the River Severn; indeed there are still a decent number of elvers swimming into its mouth every year. However, the population has dropped overall in Europe by 75% and so the spectacle of the great migration is no longer what it was:
In the month of April; the shores of the Severn are annually darkened with innumerable quantities of elvers, which are seen fringing the sides of the river a black ascending line, which appears in constant motion…When the elvers appear in the river they are taken in great quantities with sieves of hair cloth, or even with a common basket, and after being scoured and are offered for sale. They are either fried in cakes, or stewed, and are accounted very delicious.
Illustrations of the Natural History of Worcestershire, Dr Hastings c.1830
Elvers were an essential food source in more ways than one according to Andrew Kerr of the Sustainable Eel Group: ‘entire communities would live on them; indeed … they were even used to fertilise the fields.’
A smaller-scale version of what Dr Hastings saw on the River Severn
The UK ‘elvering’ season is from February to May with its peak in April and it is legal to fish for them if you have the appropriate license; and it can be big business when they sell for £200 a kilo. They go for these huge prices because they are snapped up by the Chinese in order to restock their fisheries.
Elver fishermen have an obligation to fulfill if they want to go fishing for glass eels – 35% of their catch must be relocated upstream. Tiny elvers entering estuaries are often impeded from reaching rivers because of flood barriers. By physically moving them upstream they can do as nature intended and live their lives in British freshwater before slipping back to the Sargasso to breed. This seems to be working – numbers of elvers in the River Severn are on the up, though this could just be population fluctuation.
The Environment find a poacher’s oversized elver fishing net (from The Guardian 2010)
The ethical elverer after relocating a third of his catch, then sells the remainder to eel farms. The nearest ones to Britain are in Ireland and Holland. This is what the people at the Sustainable Eel Group say is the sustainable thing to do. Unethical elverers sell their catch on to people that have a penchant for elvers. He also uses huge oversized nets and trawlers – some nets can be up to 18m; compare this to the legal 2.5m net. (Amazingly trawling for elvers is still legal in Britain, though the number of eel fishing licenses are restricted.)
Have a look at this BBC report about elver poaching:
So what do we conclude here? Well jellied eels are not to be consigned to the history books – with careful monitoring there should be well-stocked eel fisheries. It’s simple: only buy farmed eels, not wild, and on no account never buy elvers.
The following two posts will be some eel recipes (some you should try and some you should not!)
The Victorians and Edwardians had a real thing for what they called savouries, which were small dishes served alongside or after the dessert course at dinner. We don’t do this any more, all that survives is the cheese option one sometimes finds on the pudding menu at restaurants. I expect the gout is to blame. Savouries need a whole post to themselves so I won’t go into them here…
For me, Gentleman’s Relish is the savoury that really conjures up romantic images of that era, I think just for the name alone. I can just imagine the bank manager or maybe a member of the British Raj eating a slice of toast, relish melting and seeping into it, as he reminisces of home.
Gentleman’s Relish is essentially potted anchovies that are heavily spiced – it also goes by another name Patum Peperium which is Latin for ‘pepper paste’, and it should only be used “very sparingly”.
It was invented in 1828 by John Osborn an expatriate living in Paris which, when he unveiled it the Paris Food Show in 1849 and again in 1855, won a Citation Favorable. High praise indeed. It is still made now in Elsham, Hertfordshire, but what exactly goes in there is a closely-guarded secret.
FYI: the company have started making a salmon version called Poacher’s Relish. I’ve never tried it, but I am sure it is wonderful too.
Now, Patum Peperium is not to everyone’s taste – saying it is piquant would be doing it a gross injustice – it is very fishy, very salty and very spicy, so some may consider it totally foul. However, I love strongly tasting robust food like this. To show it off as its finest, it should be scraped thinly across hot toast. When you first try it, the first thing that hits you is the fishy odour, then you take a bite and find the fish taste is actually a perfect marriage between anchovy, salt and spice. You can’t have a marriage between three things can you? Make that a love triangle between anchovy, salt and spice. It is addictive stuff; if it is to your tasting, like Marmite, you either love it or hate it.
Gentleman’s Relish is a cooking ingredient in its own right: the fish, salt and spices all provide a great seasoning to stews, especially lamb, and is great stirred into scrambled eggs. It can be melted upon steaks, or used as a simple sauce with pasta. It is also used to make another amazing savoury called Scotch Woodcock.
After doing a bit of research I found that major players in the spice mix seemed to be nutmeg, mace, Cayenne pepper and black pepper – all classically Victorian, the amounts used vary from pinches to teaspoons, with the spices sometimes mixed equally, other times, one spice dominated.
Here is my recipe – the dominant spice here is Cayenne pepper, because it provides a good punch of chili heat and not that much other flavour, which the other – what are often called warmer – spices do magnificently. You can include less of the mix in the relish, or change the ratios or even the spices to suit your own taste.
For the spice mix:
1 tsp Cayenne pepper
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground mace
1/4 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp ground black pepper
For the relish:
1 x 50 g can of anchovies, drained
120 g softened butter
1 tsp spice mix
Start off by mixing together the spices. To get maximum flavour it is best to freshly grind your spices, but it is not essential. What is essential, however, is to cook your spices. Do do this, melt between 1/3 and 1/2 of the butter in a small saucepan. When hot and bubbling fry the spices for around 30 seconds; mind the butter doesn’t burn though. Now mix it with the anchovies and the remaining butter. The idea is to produce a paste – there are several ways to do this: blender, food processor, pestle & mortar or fork will do the job, it is a trade-off between how homogenous you like your relish and how much washing up you can be bothered doing. Spoon the mixture into a small pot, cover with a lid or some clingfilm, and allow to cool.
A Victorian hors d’œuvre that has died a death in recent decades; an angel on horseback is simply an oyster wrapped in bacon and grilled; a devil is a tea-soaked prune treated the same way. The main reason for this is that oysters were then poor man’s food and now they are a delicacy; it is odd to think of the working-class tucking into these at dinner rather than the upper middle classes. Of course, the tables were turned by the time we hit the 20th Century. If you have never tried oysters before, this is a good way to introduce yourself to them, I reckon. They should have a comeback as they are delicious, and if you can’t afford – or stomach – oysters, then at least have a go at making the devils, though they are best made together.
The best oysters for the angels are the large Pacific ones – especially if you can get them pre-shucked. The best prunes are the squidgy ‘giant’ ones; if you can’t find them, just substitute two normal prunes for each giant one. There are many elaborate recipes, especially for the angels; the oysters in one are breaded and fried, in another they are chopped up to make a stuffing. These things are best kept simple – the raw ingredients should speak for themselves.
You can make these delightful and delicious bite-size nibbles as some decadent finger-food on rounds of bread fried in butter or alongside some roast poultry instead of pigs in blankets.
Angels on Horseback
12 large shucked oysters
Cayenne pepper or Tabasco sauce (optional)
6 rashers of smoked streaky bacon cut in half
First, soak 12 wooden toothpicks in some water and get your grill nice and hot. Season your oysters with a little Cayenne or Tabasco sauce if using and roll each in a piece of bacon, securing it with a toothpick. Place them on a baking sheet and grill until the bacon is crisp and the oysters are plump. Serve immediately.
Devils on Horseback
12 large prunes or 24 small ones
Freshly brewed, strong tea
12 roasted, salted almonds
6 rashers of smoked streaky bacon cut in half
Soak your prunes in the hot tea until plump – this will take 30 minutes if no-soak prunes, or overnight if they require soaking.* Remove the stones if the prunes are pitted then fills the gap it has left with a roasted almond. If you are using small prunes, sandwich an almond between two of them. Spear with a cocktail stick and grill as described above.
*Don’t throw away the tea for it tastes delicious!
Eel, pie and mash houses are bits of living history and are very much a London invention. The houses were a Victorian creation, though sellers had had stalls since the eighteenth century. Eels were very cheap and just swimming about in the River Thames. Strangley, they took off during a time when the heavily-polluted Thames did not have any eels swimming in its waters. The eels did arrive on the Thames though; brought up on barges from Holland. These days they come from Ireland.
There are three elements to the classic meal: pie, mash and eel liquor. The pies began life as eel pies, but over time the pies were made with minced beef and onion; mashed potatoes speak for themselves; and the liquor is the special part. It is made from an eel gravy and is heavily flavoured parsley sauce. You must put on liberal amounts of salt, vinegar and pepper or chili on there too. They also sell stewed eels as well as the other London classic, jellied eels. You can also buy live eels to take home and cook for yourself, if you are so inclined.
They are impressive inside, they’re not ostentatious or anything like that, but being Victorian buildings they have the beautifully-tiled walls that we associate with the Victorians’ eating establishments, public houses and urinals!
I was in London over Christmas so I decided, upon my visit, I would find one and try its wares. There are three families that own the best shops: the Cookes, Manzes and the Kellys I went to F. Cooke’s in Hackney, the first to have a pie and mash house. Frederick Cooke opened his first shop in Clerkenwell in 1862 selling the “poor-man’s delicacy”.
One of his daughters married a Manze, who were an Italian family selling ice cream, and they opened some pie and mash houses too. Their own grandson now runs their first shop on Tower Bridge. The Kellys were an Irish family that arrived relatively late to the trade but are considered the best. At the peak of business, two tons of live eels were consumed per shop! Now there are around 25, so I wanted to go to one before they disappeared.
Walking into F. Cookes really felt like walking into the past. The place hasn’t changed at all for decades and is now a listed building. I ordered hot stewed eels with mash and liquor and a cup of tea. I sat down to eat them with a liberal seasoning with salt, pepper and vinegar. I like eels, so I knew I would like the food.
Eels have quite a delicate flavour, so they went very well with the bland potatoes and liquor; a great winter-warmer. I also ordered some jellied eels – cooked eels set in an aspic jelly made from eel bones. They are an acquired taste, apparently. The eels themselves were good but eating them cold with the jelly was not the gastronomic treat I was expecting. Hey-ho, you win some, you lose some.
The eel, pie and mash shops are under threat today, and it is not just because of the changing tastes of we Britons, it is because the European eel is becoming threatened. Long gone are the days when people set eel traps on the mudflats of the Thames, or anywhere else, because since 1980, the numbers of eel dropped by 95 per cent. No one really knows why the eel population has crashed by this huge amount, but overfishing, pollution and changes in the ocean current brought on by climate change are the most cited potential causes. I imagine that the latter reason is the most important; eels are catadromous fish, which means that they live in freshwater, but swim to the ocean to spawn (the opposite being anadromous fish, like salmon). The European eel (Anguilla anguilla) swims all the way to the Sargasso Sea near Bermuda. The eel fry – called leptocephali – take three years to swim across the ocean, until they reach an estuary.
They look nothing like an eel, and for a long time considered totally different species. At the estuary, they metamorphose into elvers, or glass eels, miniature transparent versions of the adult. You can set your clock by the elvers’ migration up the rivers, and people used to collect huge amounts of them, usually in pillowcases, to feed their families.
This no longer happens; places where they used to swarm no contain hardly any. There are only a few people that fish for them, and they hold their fishing spots shrouded in secrecy because they now go for over £500 per pound! I have a soft-spot for elvers and eels – my very first scientific publication was on elvers in Mull, Scotland.
It might not be over for the eel though: a huge amount of migrating elvers were spotted swimming up the River Severn in 2010, say the BBC (see here). Hopefully this isn’t just a freak occurrence.