The relationship of the Irish people with fish has been marred by the years of Friday abstinence imposed by the Catholic Church as a consequence of which, fish acquired a penitential label and as such was avoided, or rarely eaten when meat was also on offer. I grew up in a town in the West of Ireland and I can safely say that almost no fish was consumed there. There were, of course, some exceptions to this general rule. On Fridays, a vegetable shop did a sideline with a small supply of frozen cod and plaice which, although we lived only a few miles from the coast, came down from Dublin. It was from this source that my Mother obtained our Friday dinner. Plaice fried in breadcrumbs always appeared on days of abstinence. But even then, my grandfather, who originally hailed from rural West Limerick and presumably had never known or eaten fish, was served a fried egg. Not for him, my mother’s humble offerings from the sea! And I must not forget the local fishermen. In the summer months, they provided a ready supply of wild salmon, sometimes caught by nefarious means, and when the mayfly came up on the nearby lakes, the town emptied, as everyone tried their hand at fishing and suddenly there was a glut of fresh trout. Then, and only then, would fish be eaten on days apart from Friday. Those who belonged to other faiths did not feel the same way about fish. My father-in-law, for example, was a Scottish Presbyterian and he certainly did not confine his fish-eating to Fridays ! Nor did he see it as a penance to consume large quantities of smokies – small smoked haddock – which he used to order specially from Arbroath in his native Scotland.
This attitude towards fish was not confined to the West of Ireland; it was prevalent throughout the country. Last month, in writing about vegetarian food, I dwelt on how our eating habits had changed so much in the last fifty years.
These changes have also affected our views on fish, the consumption of which has been rising. But historic attitudes are slow to die and I feel that many of us cooks have drawn lines in the sand about cooking fish at home. A modern day deterrent, of course, is the cost and there is no doubt that fish has become expensive, but that is not the only reason why we are deterred from making it part of our regular diet.
We appear to think there is something complicated about cooking it, but nothing could be further from the truth. This misconception is probably due to the failure of past generations to transmit cooking skills in this area, skills which they did not posses because they did not cook fish. Neither do we have role models n the form of a parent buying fish in a fishmonger and taking it home to cook and feed her/his family.
Compare our experiences with that of our near neighbours across the water, where fish and its consumption is an integral part of the national culinary fabric. For example, who has not met that Englishman, who drooled at the thought of fish and chips wrapped in newspaper, a culinary experience that has never gained popularity in this country ? I confess that I came to like fish rather late in life and it is only in recent years that I have begun to cook it on a regular basis.
I am fortunate that not only is there a fish counter in my local supermarket, we also have an excellent fishmonger, who is always ready to help his customers with advice about how particular fish should be cooked. I live alone and so it is very easy to bung a bit of plaice on to a pan. I usually just coat it with a bit of flour, but if I feel more energetic, I sometimes do it in egg and breadcrumbs. Lemon sole gets the same treatment. I also sometimes treat myself to a thick slice of sword fish or tuna. These lend themselves to barbequing, but can also be cooked on the pan. All of these should be served with wedges of lemon and/or a piquant sauce of some kind. In my youth, the ubiquitous accompaniment to fish was tartare sauce, which consists of nothing more than a little chopped parsley, capers and gherkins added to mayonnaise.
If cooking for large numbers and I have more time, I resort to kedgeree, a dish inherited from British India, which uses smoked haddock, or a fish pie, into which one can put almost any kind of fish. Perhaps because I was spoilt when young, I do not much like farmed salmon; I find it distastefully oily as compared to its wild counterpart. It does not therefore form part of my diet. Finally, fish can be baked in the oven and this month, I want to share with you such a recipe. In doing so, I hope that I can persuade you that cooking fish is a doddle. I came across this simple recipe in the Sunday Tribune last year and since then it has become a fixture in my repertoire.
Roast hake with salsa verde
4 thick hake steaks or fillets about 250g each
For the salsa verde
3 tbsp roughly chopped fresh parsley
1 tbsp roughly chopped fresh mint
3 tbsp capers
6 anchovy fillets
1 clove of garlic, chopped
1 tsp Dijon mustard
Juice of ½ lemon
120m extra virgin olive oil
1/2/ tsp salt
Pre-heat the oven to 230°C/gas 8. Brush the fish with olive oil and season with freshly ground black pepper. Roast in an oiled dish for about 10 minutes, bearing in mind that overcooking really does destroy the texture of fish. Blend all the ingredients for the salsa verde together in a food processor or mortar and pestle. This dish of baked hake and salsa verde can be served with puy lentils or, as I prefer, with the more traditional potato chips.