Fabulous fish – learning what to do with it
You know me well enough by now – I struggle to be anything but honest. Try as I might to disguise, my true feelings are always writ large over my face. So at the risk of offending KP I must admit that I wasn’t that thrilled with the gift of a fish course. It took almost two years from receipt of voucher to arrival at the door of Manna from Devon, based in a house perched high above the Kingswear crossing to Dartmouth (Devon, UK). Taking a seat on the outside deck taking in the view of leafy branches and distant fields, with a cup of tea poured from a huge, bulbous white teapot, I discovered that there was a bread course taking place simultaneously. Further salt in the wound as I long to do a bread course.
Why was I so reluctant? Partly as KP wants to eat more fish, so this is one of those presents you give for yourself as well as the recipient (we’ve all done it). It just didn’t set my world on fire.
Standing round a large wooden table, Holly asked the seven of us to confess our fish-based skill hopes, wants and dreams and then we ‘met’ a variety of fish – all fresh from Brixham.
Very early on I had an ‘aha’ moment when Holly classified the seemingly endless oceans of fish (in my mind) into white and oily, flat and round, plus shellfish/seafood. Thinking in simple terms rather than getting in knots about the name of the fish (often very difficult to determine at our fish markets in Dubai) instantly opened a door of exploration.
We gutted and filleted mackerel, brilliantly marked, shiny and ram rod firm. We were given clues to the freshness of fish – if you can see a finger print in the flesh then reject them, for instance. Then was the turn of the triangular gurnard, tougher in skin and with a flotation sac that made us squeal with delight when Holly extracted and popped it. We picked meat out of lobster and learned how to deal with a cooked crab. We made homemade mayo and portioned monkfish tail. We inspected John Dory and cooked megrim sole a la meuniere in foamy butter so its skin became deliciously caramelised. We pan-fried mackerel and poached some in a homemade shell-fish stock with other fish to make a deeply savoury soup. We removed the scales of a beautiful black sea bass with a scaler, table knife and plastic bag). We didn’t all do every stage but there was enough hands on experience to give everyone a go and practice the main skills like filleting and skinning. Thrilled to be chosen to dissect squid for the first time, I chopped off its head, removed the guts (something I handled a lot throughout the day) and beak, scored the skin into diamonds, and portioned the tentacles. Due to the gentlest of simmering, the squid was meltingly silky within the soup. Fish should be cooked at very high temperatures or very low and slow.
We had several breaks to eat the fruits of our labour: monkfish lightly cooked among stewed peppers, pan-fried mackerel fillets, fish soup with mayonnaise (and the lobster and crab), oven baked plaice and John Dory, sea bream en papilotte and more accompanied tea, coffee or wine (as preferred).
This is not some sterile kitchen; a dog wandered in now and then (not in the food prep area); a baby robin appeared on the deck; a tiny blue tit chick pecked at seeds on the window feeder; the bathroom has seen better days; this is a cookery school run by people who love to cook. Holly, with quick wit and relaxed manner, passed on her frankly encyclopedic knowledge of fish and fish cookery in an unassuming way. Trained at Leith’s she admitted that growing up in Worcestershire, making a great fish finger sandwich formed the basis of her fish eating experience until she moved to Dartmouth a decade and a half ago. She was quick to acknowledge the role of local fish seller and his generosity of sharing information and passion for his product.
As delicious scents of bread baking wafted up from the basement and the other course members took their places at the table with a wooden tray of local cheese I didn’t feel at all envious. In fact I felt slightly superior in my new position as a fish gutter, scaler, skinner and squid decapitater. But above all, I left Manna from Devon with a new-found confidence to tackle any fish thrown at me. Actually please don’t throw fish … but show me the way to the fish market now.
A few moments of the day on (very bad) video, including making sole meuniere – you get the gist.
Do visit Manna from Devon and not just for fish cookery either.
Holly gave us a lot of background about how fish is caught, sold and exported in the UK (masses goes to Spain). They obtain their fish, via fishmonger Mark Lobb, from Brixham, one of the most important fishing ports in Europe and the UK’s largest fish market (now bigger than Billingsgate in London). Take a look at nearby Newlyn fish market and a Cornish seafood safari with Helen.
Jude shows you how to cook live lobster here.
I hope to bring you lots of new ideas for cooking with fish once I’m back in Dubai but in the meantime try Kavey’s recipe using firm white (sustainable) fish, chorizo and potatoes; Thai fish cakes and baked mackerel with red onion and rosemary on MCP.
Do you eat fish? How confident are you about cooking it, what do you like to do with it and what do you find most challenging?