Once upon a time it was mackerel and herring, then it was mackerel not herring, then herring was reprieved and it was mackerel and herring again, and now, shock horror, it’s herring not mackerel. A poke on the nose (or rather, a slap round the face with a wet fish) for those smug buggers, like Hugh F-W and Yotam - and me actually - who thought they’d got it every which way with mackerel – delicious, healthy, sustainable. Now it’s just delicious and healthy. As usual it’s all about greed – Iceland and the Faroe Islands unilaterally upping their quotas, which turns out, curiously, to be legal because they’re not part of the EU Common Fisheries Policy.
So it’s back to herrings, for the moment anyway, nice if slightly tasteless. Are they losing their taste? Or is this middle-aged nostalgia? For me, they’re better in their preserved versions - salted, smoked – examples of our amazing ingenuity in the preservation of food. First it was the red herring: an ungutted herring, salted for weeks and smoked three times, would last for months. Eliza Acton recommends soaking it in warm milk for just a couple of hours before cooking it. It would still have been a pretty hardcore experience - gamey, intensely smoky and salty. Then came the bloater: ungutted, salted for just one night, smoked once – no soaking necessary, delicious grilled, still with the gamey taste imparted by the guts. Then the kipper (a surprisingly recent invention – about 1840): gutted, salted briefly, then smoked over a slow oak fire. Delicious grilled of course, but don’t grill them too quickly or they’ll curl up and become hard. Mustard is a good accompaniment, as it is for herrings themselves.
In parallel, and equally good, the pickled herring: first soaked in vinegar, then cured in a mixture of salt, sugar and spices. Variations of this method give us matjes, rollmops and Bismarck herrings. Try them in this salad: chop up a few cold boiled new potatoes, a couple of apples, half a head of fennel, some gherkins, chopped parsley and chervil, and 4 pickled herring fillets; and mix with a mustardy vinaigrette. Or this: chop up a few cold boiled new potatoes, two or three cooked beetroots, some spring onions and 4 pickled herring fillets; the dressing could be crème fraiche, oil, vinegar, mustard and possibly a little horseradish. Don’t mix this salad too carefully or the beetroot sends it a nasty Barbara Cartland pink.
And then came refrigeration, canning, bottling, vacuum packing, food additives, irradiation (heck)...... But these old-school preserved foods have survived because they taste interestingly and significantly different from the original raw ingredient.
Last week I met the delightful nephew of my friends Anthony and Clare. He had recently arrived in London to start a challenging engineering job: to make ready-cooked meals hardy enough to send in the post. Apparently it’s called Retort Cookery. The food is put in a multi-layered pouch and heated for several minutes under high pressure. This process cooks the food and kills all known micro-organisms. I thought this sounded a very interesting job, but was at the same time completely horrified by the idea of having to eat the resulting food. For the moment I’m probably in the clear (Waitrose is just up the road), but I happen to have been listening to a chilling programme on the radio about the elderly becoming malnourished because of their difficulty in cooking, and subsequently even obtaining food; so I’m now imagining a dystopian future where it’s either Retort Meals or starvation. Give us back our micro-organisms!
Footnote: the person who transformed refrigeration in the 1930s with the idea of using chloroflourocarbons (CFCs) instead of ammonia was Thomas Midgley, the same Thomas Midgley who had the equally brilliant idea of putting lead in petrol, thus rescuing the nascent automobile industry by solving the problem of ‘knock’. He is a key character in Lives of the Great Poisoners, a piece I wrote with the marvellous playwright Caryl Churchill, which tells the stories of Doctor Crippen, Medea and Madame de Brinvilliers (who poisoned almost everyone she came across in 17th century Paris). Midgley is an innocent abroad in these stories, a man who desperately wants to do the right thing but doesn’t entirely succeed. As we were working on the piece we became very fond of him.
We’ve published a book of Orlando’s recipes full of similar tales. For more about Orlando Gough Recipe Journal click here.