i had to go shopping, yesterday, in Manchester city centre, to pick up some more cards and other craft stuff. While mooching around in the swanky new indoor market in the Arndale Centre, i saw the fish section and i thought.. hmmm. Why not, fish for tea?

in my family, usually, we’ve not eaten a great deal of fish. Dad doesn’t do fish unless its white, battered and fried. He also hates the smell of cooking fish, it stinks the house out. Mom and I did experiment a couple of times – I’ve fond memories of a white fish rolled up with some prawns inside and cooked in a pink sauce, although i can’t remember what it was, this is going back about 10 years or so – but on the whole, fish was missing from our menu. I also have problems with bones in fish: picking bones out of my mouth (actually, not just with fish, with any meat, if i have to pick bones out, i retch) and its kind of put me off fish over the years.

Then i went to the Netherlands. The Dutch, having such a close intimate relationship with the sea, are very good with fish. Herring is a delicacy over there: the first summer we were there for Michiel’s sister’s wedding, the wedding happened to be the day after the opening of the official herring season. Or something like that. At the reception were some canapes of herring fillets atop a piece of dark, crumbly rye bread. I gingerly took a bit. the family around me watched while i popped it in (brave person that i was – they knew i’d not tried it before). I chewed. cold, wet, slimey, fishy texture filled my mouth. Apparently my face was a picture – one of Michiel’s uncles near collapsed laughing (I liked him, he had wonderful big bushy moustaches!).. but once i’d gotten past the unexpected cold, wet, slimey texture.. the taste was absolutely amazing. So much so that i went back for another one. And later that evening, at the wedding breakfast, the starter was salmon. raw salmon, thin slices of exquisite flavour, “cooked” in vinegar, that just melted on the tongue and.. ohhhh! my toes are curling just thinking about it. I’ve not had anything like it before, or since. and man, oh.. man.. i want to.

me, eating herring

me, gingerly eating herring the dutch way (with onion and gin)

And then, a couple days later, Michiel’s mom cooked salmon for me. fillets of salmon, gently poached in the microwave, until the flesh had just turned its familiar coral pink colour. Served with green beans and potatoes, and some kind of white sauce ontop… it opened my eyes to it all. Before this, i didn’t like salmon. Now i do. I love the stuff. And then, to top off my fishy experiences, they introduced me to eating herring the dutch way: fillets, held by the tail, dipped in finely chopped onion, and eaten with shots of gin. That took a little more getting used to, i admit, and i only managed half a fish. Michiel was very happy though!!

Michiel eating fish

Michiel, after eating his herring fillet.. a very fishy tale!!!

Anyway. i resolved then and there to try to eat more fish. I go through phases with it: i go months with no fish at all (except the occasional fish finger meal or tunamayo, which doesn’t really count) and then i eat a lot in one go, especially my beloved salmon. And with HFW of River Cottage fame doing a programme about fishing recently.. it stirred up memories for me.

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So i wandered over, took my time in choosing and eventually got 2 herrings, 2 sardines and a bag of mussels, mostly cos i know Michiel adores mussels.

Now at this point i should explain something: because i know of Michiel’s love for raw herring, i asked the fishmonger to carefully fillet it. I also asked him to leave the tail on and his answer was to butterfly it (not quite how the dutch do it). I also asked him how he would cook the sardines and he said he’d only ever had them on a BBQ but thought a grill ridged pan would do the trick.

so i lugged my fish home: picked up some watercress and garlic to go with it (HFW of River cottage had done a recipe, stuffing trout with watercress and this seemed like a good way to go), and some wine to cook the mussels in.

Come tea time.. the first impression was not good.

Michiel inspected the herring. Tried a bit, declared it wasn’t filleted well enough to eat raw, and that it would have to be cooked. No problem, thought i, I’ll do it the same way as the sardines. THEN i find out that the fish has scales. it hadn’t been descaled. If you’ve read any of the Belgariad/Malloreon books by David Eddings you’ll know that whenever Durnik catches fish, Polgara insists that he descale them before she cooks them. I now understand why. Descaling is a horrible, disgusting, mucky job. The scales get everywhere. Your hands smell of fish. If i had been eating alone, the fish would have gone in the bin. But since i was doing this primarily for Michiel, i persevered. scraped the scales off. washed the fish carefully. in doing this, i could feel quite a few bones in the fillet, but since the fishmonger had said he couldn’t get all the bones out, i just trusted that they were the little ones that disintegrate when cooked and you don’t even know they’re there. I put the watercress into the middle of the fish, some garlic slivers, rubbed oil over the skin, and seasoned (both inside and out), for both the herring and the sardines.

With the remainder of the watercress, i made a quick salad. the watercress leaves in a bowl, some chopped orange, some chopped bread and butter pickle that i had made the day before, and some chopped dill. It made for an unusual, but aromatic and acidic salad that was ideal for slicing through the oiliness of the sardines and herring. Some chunks of home made bread would be enough, i thought, especially as we had the mussels to eat too.

Then, finally, i was ready to cook.

The grill ridged pan came out. whacked it on high, to get it smoking, then i gently laid the sardines on the pan. Immediately the skin side contracted, and the butterfly opened up. oops. I flipped it back over and held it until it would stay there. Then laid the other one on the pan, and did the same. Gave it a few minutes. Gingerly flipped them over. They had a tendency to fall apart a bit. (fish in those sandwich things on the BBQ suddenly make a great deal of sense.) when they were done, i carefully slid them onto a plate, and did the same thing with the herring. Took about half a sardine and a bit of herring for me, gave the rest to Michiel.

and after all that.. it turned out to be a bit of a disappointment.

The sardine i could hardly taste. The salad overpowered it a bit, but it was good with the bread and butter pickle. when i could taste it though, it had a nice flavour. Too many bones. The herring was something else. Gorgeous flavour, Michiel complimented the way it had been cooked. but the amount of bones in it.. the fishmonger seemed to have done a very very bad job of it. he eventually had to give up with half of a fillet left – and if you know Michiel, you know how bad it was.

at this point.. i wasn’t looking forward to cooking the mussels, i admit. But i pulled my trousers up and trooped off to the kitchen. Melted some butter in a pan. chopped some spring onions and finely sliced a chilli. Minced some garlic. put the lot in the butter, then tipped the (cleaned – another gross job) mussels into the pan. popped a pint of water and white wine ontop, brought it to the boil and stuck the lid on for 4 minutes, till they opened.

The mussels were good – rather gritty. I think if i was doing this again i would leave out the water, just cook them in half a pint of white wine. other than that, the flavour was lovely. needed a tad more garlic, i thought (but then, we both adore garlic).

In the light of all this.. i put opened up a thread over on the MoneysavingForums, asking if my expectations of the fishmonger were unreasonable, should i have asked to have the fish descaled or should it happen automatically, should the mussels be non-gritty, and was the filleting a bad job or is it up to me? the answers were illuminating: descaling should be automatic, but rarely is (so you have to ask). mussels shouldn’t be gritty – if they are, they’ve been dredged rather than rope farmed (which is the ethically better choice). and yes. the fishmonger didn’t do a good job with the filleting. I’ve also been recommended to try Morrisons for a fish department, and there is one sort of nearby. bit of a trek, but worth it i think. And when the new shopping centre is built up the road, the supermarket in it will be a Morrisons so its worth checking out.

so: note to self. 1) ask for it to be descaled. 2) learn how to fillet fish properly yourself (you know what they say.. ) 3) check out Morrisons. And don’t go back to that fish stall again.

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