Drool Britannia, Part II: fish and quips
After listening to a Frenchman talk about the superiority of French cuisine, the Englishman responds by saying, "Yes, but what about your dreadful lavatories?" To which the Frenchman replies, "Alors, in France one eats well, in England one shits well, it's all a question of priorities."
- Leon Rappoport, How We Eat: Appetite, Culture, and the Psychology of Food
One of my favourite sidetrips whenever I travel abroad is a visit to the grocery store. Yes, proper markets -- La Boqueria in Barcelona springs immediately to mind -- dazzle, but to really feel the culinary pulse of a culture in the modern age, there's no substitute for a Megamart. A dozen rows of shelves packed with a society's culinary inventory is a cultural anthropology primer from heaven. These stores are designed, after all, to cater to popular taste quickly and conveniently.
That's why Rachel and I happily accompanied our friends Katy and Steve on a grocery shopping expedition during our visit to London six years ago. Once I got over the sticker shock, I started surveying the food. I was unable to resist two items novel to me: Marmite, as English as a stiff upper lip; and frozen pizzas topped with baked beans, which Steve labeled "British fusion cuisine."
Marmite was a disaster. Having never tasted it, I treated it like peanut butter and smeared it thickly over my toast. That was a mistake. "Who spreads this shit on their toast every day?" I ranted after disgorging the offending toast and leaping to the sink to vigorously wash out my mouth. "It tastes like cheap instant beef bouillon cubes." And it does. Yet it remains remarkably popular in some quarters. Aussies even have their own equally loved and loathed equivalent, Vegemite. This leads me to believe that Australia's sizable republican movement is actually a covert anti-yeast spread crusade motivated by broad-based resentment over the devastating colonial inheritance that is Vegemite worship.
We shall not dwell upon baked bean pizza.
English food is not without its triumphs, however. Last year, for example, I made stupendous sticky toffee pudding (and sticky toffee pudding ice cream) for the St. George's Day event. When I learned that Sam from Becks & Posh planned to hold a Fish & Quips event this year to prove that English food is no laughing matter, I began searching for another classic English dish.
Inspiration came in two forms. The first is a memory of our aforementioned trip to London. Rachel and I wanted to visit a proper "chippy," so Katy and Steve took us to their local haunt, the Sea Shell, rated among the best fish and chips shops in London. Our haddock and chips were superb. The haddock was lightly battered and served with its skin still attached. The net effect was fish that tasted like fish, not deep fried batter.
When I read Harold McGee's article about Heston Blumenthal's efforts to fry a better fish, I finally had the means and the method to celebrate one of England's most laudable contributions to cuisine, and I mean that seriously. It also gave me a chance to see whether Blumenthal's not-so-secret ingredient really resulted in a crust that lived up to its light and crunchy billing.
The key ingredient is alcohol, lots and lots of it. Yes, there's beer, but that's not nearly enough. In addition to approximately three hundred millilitres of lager, Blumenthal adds a further three hundred millilitres of vodka. That's more than ten shots of hard liquor, in case you're wondering. Alcohol's chief advantage over water is that it evaporates faster, which means it's ready sooner, so the star of the dish, the fish, isn't overcooked. But it doesn't stop there. Water is better than alcohol at developing glutens in flour, therefore substituting alcohol results in a lighter batter that stays crispier longer. After thirty minutes, for example, our fish was still almost as crispy as when it emerged from the oil.
There are two ways to make this dish. Since we don't own a soda siphon, I used Harold McGee's adapted recipe from the New York Times (click here to read a copy of the article and view the recipe), rather than Heston Blumenthal's original recipe. For those familiar with beer batters, the logic for carbonation should be clear: bubbles mean a lighter batter. Carbonating the batter just takes this idea to its logical conclusion.
The fish was almost an unqualified success. Our eyes lit up after our first bite. The batter came as advertised, a feather-light and shatteringly crisp crust enrobing the tender white flesh of lemon sole. At first blush, I was thinking it was the finest fried fish I'd ever tasted. Rachel felt similarly. My only problem -- and the problem really is mine -- is that the batter covering the thickest parts of the fish, though crispy, tasted powerfully of vodka. Mea culpa, I'm sure, since that likely indicates I didn't cook the fish long enough. Of course, if you'd like to blame one of the finest chefs in the world instead of me, please do.
Fried fish just will not do by itself, of course. Fish and chips is the de facto standard around the globe. We didn't include them here, but we'll be featuring chips soon in their own post. As odd as this may sound, we're waiting for a special ingredient. Besides, french fries deserve their own post, and the accompaniments we made, mushy peas and tartare sauce, deserve a little respect.
I've always had an issue with mushy peas. Why anyone would take a perfectly good vegetable and turn it into pablum, I don't know, though I suppose I'm in no position to criticize, since my culinary repertoire includes turning perfectly good peas into liquid ravioli. My tastes are changing slowly, however, and I've now begun to recognize some of its charm. Mushy peas are excellent comfort food -- Rachel fondly remembers eating creamed peas on toast as a child -- and the soft texture also provides a foil for the crunch of a well fried piece of fish. English mushy peas are traditionally made with marrowfat peas, and are related to the pease porridge of nursery rhyme fame, but Blumenthal offers a fairly sophisticated version using frozen garden peas and mint. The herb punctuates the fresh flavour of the peas, which somehow makes you forget the large amount of butter that makes it such a luscious accompaniment.
Likewise, Blumenthal's tartare sauce has a freshness to it that outclasses any of its peers. Capers give it salt and acidity, as do cornichons, which also complement the herbal punch of tarragon, chive, and parsley. A bit of whipping cream and a hard boiled egg round out and extend the flavours. Zesty and creamy, this tartare sauce combines with the peas to counterpoint the delicately crisp fish without being cloying. Recipes for all the elements of this dish are available here.
England once forged a reputation based on its mastery of the sea, not seafood. Today, England is forging a new reputation, this time for superlative cuisine. Chefs like Heston Blumenthal, at The Fat Duck, and Fergus Henderson, at St. John, are doing this by enhancing, not rejecting, traditional English dishes like fish and chips. England, it seems, is now making food a priority over lavatories. Even the unspeakable baked bean pizzas seem to have disappeared thanks to market apathy. Challenges remain, however, though I'm sure Marmite will one day be a distant memory, too.