Bit of a rave from the grave, this one – but I thought the amateur cooks like me might enjoy it.
Buying Fish in Newlyn (1st November 2008)
The first time we tasted scallops was at Corsham when we were at Art School. There was a party and Chubby came back from Kirkcudbright with a salmon and some scallops. As always the cooking was accompanied by fierce debates as to the correct way to deal with them. I imagine, ‘though I can’t remember for sure, that Tim was at the heart of the arguments. He always was. Cooking and eating were, for him, explorations of the extreme. The question was always – “how raw could you eat beef fillet?” We were different. We were working class and we liked our food cooked.
Looking back (and of course that’s the only way to get a nice joined-up narrative with no loose ends); looking back the lyrical and epiphanic experiences always had an additional element. There was more than food going on. My mother’s spices were kept in a circular white painted tin divided into segments into which each ingredient would go. At the very centre was a small circular compartment in which dried ginger root was kept. I can remember clearly that you could never get your fingers into the compartment to lift out the mysterious looking root, so it had to involve jiggling with a knife or some other tool. The tin came out primarily at Christmas when the puddings were made. My sister and I were allowed to stand on a chair and stir the mixture. In reality the mixture was so stiff we could only move it at all with a little help from our mother. The tin, though, was a metaphor. Just like fish and chips on the back doorstep. It was about something bigger – it might be a wonderful sunny day with no quarrels – something simple like that.
There were other experiences. Barney once said he could understand how people could live in little houses like mine. I don’t think he was being patronising, not deliberately. He just hadn’t ever though that a family could live an entire life in and end-of-terrace 1930’s house. My mother always said it was semi-detached but I thought that was pushing it. It wasn’t joined on to a row of houses on one side.
It was Barney’s mother that would start cooking supper (new idea) at around six. Out would come the sherry and cooking would take place. We only ate there a couple of times. On one occasion he said “don’t break the glasses they’re Jacobean” They felt wonderful in my hand. There was a Hiroshige print in the toilet (lavatory); a Tang dynasty horse upstairs and paintings by Paul Feiler just like the one in the Museum. You can get seriously seduced by that kind of stuff.
So, forty years later we went to Newlyn last week to buy fish. Over the years, since that time in Corsham I’ve bought and cooked scallops all over the place, always, though, so far as I can remember, frozen ones. Actually I know that’s the case – for reasons I‘m about to explain.
An amateur chef, like me, has to find everything out the hard way. In fact it was Barney who gave us our first cookbook. He must have seen the way I was looking at his mother. She was very sweet but probably thought I was a bit exotic, being properly working class as I thought then. Cookbooks in the sixties were not like cookbooks now. For a start there were virtually no useable illustrations. There were plenty of charming illustrations, line drawings most of which involved Chianti bottles. Nothing, ‘though, to tell you how to skin a rabbit or draw a chicken. Many years later when we started to keep chickens the local butcher showed me how to do it. I probably wasn’t paying enough attention because the first time I actually did it myself I steeled myself to kill the bird – so far so good I thought – as it expired without too much fuss. However when I shoved my hand up its rear end to extract the guts I must have pressed on the lungs and so the cock, which had previously seemed irrevocably dead suddenly crowed. My blood slowed down, went backwards for a bit and then froze. In the end I learned but it was a slow process. One thing I did learn was that the bigger the animal the greater the challenge. A friend once asked if he could borrow our kitchen to butcher a deer he’d caught. Don’t ask!
The recipe says ‘take a dozen small onions and peel them’. That’s an Elizabeth David. In Stoke on Trent market I wandered around for an hour buying two small onions here and comparing them with two there. I’m anally retentive when it comes to recipes. So a couple of dozen scallops seem straightforward enough. Actually it’s more complicated than that because there is significance to numbers. How many is too many and how few are too few?? Five sounds a bit cheapskate, as if you’re just trying them out. What if a dozen turned out to be beautiful but just too few? We’re talking about a forty mile round-trip here. But two dozen puts you in a good light; a man who knows his scallops. You might think this is all a bit silly but I’m very intimidated by experts. Maybe I should get counselling some time.
And why Newlyn? Well, that’s where the fish come in: are landed. Romantic Newlyn, Cornish Newlyn; home to the Newlyn School whose luminaries – Stanhope Forbes, for example, loved the romance of the fishing life. Take almost any municipal art gallery on a wet Saturday afternoon and look in the gloomiest corner and you’ll probably find a Newlyn painting. Largely ignored, beyond the indifferent gaze of the children out for a funless afternoon of access with their estranged fathers, there will be a painting with a story. A narrative involving impossibly handsome young fishermen leaning seductively against glistening granite walls, as their winsome young ladies gut mackerel with happy smiles against the backdrop of a gathering storm in which you know SOMEONE IS GOING TO DROWN.
Actually Newlyn, these days, is no great shakes. One local fishing fleet owner is in the midst of being prosecuted for faking fishing quotas. There’s nowhere much to park. The local heritage Pilchard Experience has closed down and there are one or two faintly dangerous looking men leaning against the wall of the Fishermens’ Institute. Stanhope Forbes it ain’t. But the sea is as blue as only the sea in Cornwall is capable of being. It’s a breathtaking mixture of turquoise and ultramarine, shining and glinting in the light. We try the newly refurbished Newlyn Gallery but it seems to be closed. The Guardian What’s On? Says there’s meant to be an exhibition called Social Systems which is dispersed over several sites in Newlyn and Penzance. It’s responding to the potential of everyday life practices. We can see a couple of women talking, and downstairs there’s a table with decorator’s equipment on it so we go away. Later in Tate St Ives they told us that the exhibition was on, so maybe we missed something.
Still, there were the scallops to buy, so we walked hand in hand along the road past the ice works, the trawlers, the sheds where they auction the catch. What I’m saying here is that there’s a load of freight attached to buying these shellfish. This is not fish fingers we’re after here, it’s a piece of conspicuous consumption. I don’t need bloody Tim, or bloody Barney’s mother or anyone else to tell me how good this is, or how I’ve got to cook them. I’ve got a bottle of Muscadet in the fridge. Ten years ago I wouldn’t have dared to admit that, but on the telly I saw Rick Stein saying there’s nothing better than a nice bottle of Muscadet with shellfish. Fair do’s, I’ll buy that one Rick, and in any case there’s only the two of us so there’s no need to be even secretly embarrassed.
So we got to the fish shop. It’s like arriving at Canterbury after an arduous pilgrimage as we peered through the door, a little nervous about going in. There was a family in there already gathered around a young, dark haired man who seemed to be explaining something to them over the slab. They all looked so intimidatingly absorbed that we left the shop and walked up the road a bit to another fish shop. But the display there wasn’t that great. In fact I’ve seen a bigger variety of fish on display at Tesco. So we went back again to shop number one. The family appeared to be leaving empty handed; perhaps they’d ordered something for later? The dark haired young man was still bent over the slab. He was filleting a piece of fish very very slowly, and as he cut into the fish his head was gyring and bobbing almost imperceptibly. I’d seen a similar affliction in the workers that jiggered and jollied in Stoke on Trent. “Look here” he said, motioning for us to come closer. “Ringworm” he said as he teased one of the parasites out of the rapidly shrinking fillet. And then, just in case we weren’t really sure we’d seen the whole horror of the infestation he pulled out several more tiny worms, slightly bluish against the white of the fish flesh. I remembered reading in Michael Bourdin’s book Kitchen Confidential about infestations in swordfish, but when I mentioned it to the young man he said he’s never seen it in swordfish.
I could see a big basket of scallops on the floor covered in ice, but I didn’t want to buy them immediately so I said “Have you got any fresh haddock?” “How fresh do you want it?” he asked, meaningfully pulling a very small haddock from the display. Was it a haddock? How did I know it wasn’t a cod? Could I safely identify half a dozen white fish varieties?? Probably not, I was on the back-foot again.
“Do you want me to fillet it for you?”
He took the knife, the same knife he’d used to prod out the worms. He didn’t sharpen it. He hacked away inconclusively at the wretched fish until it yielded a couple of absolutely tiny ragged fillets. The plump remains looked almost capable of swimming away. I’ve seen dead fish look all sorts of ways but never complacent before.
Stella, meanwhile, was inspecting the freezer. “They’ve got whitebait!” She knows how much I love whitebait, but I can rarely find them. I think it offends the sensibilities of most people to eat the whole tiny fish, bones, scales and guts as well. We had a bag of whitebait.
I was loosing confidence fast. The pilgrimage was going a bit awry at that point, but I would have my scallops. Two dozen live scallops in their shells. He counted them out and we negotiated some extra ice and a polystyrene box. We returned to our rented cottage.
I’ve been ill on shellfish. I once truly thought I was going to die after a desperately greedy meal of live shellfish in France. It wasn’t so much food poisoning as toxic shock I think. So here are the rules for shellfish. If they’re open and won’t close don’t eat them. If they’re closed and won’t open in water don’t eat them either. You want your mussels, your clams and your scallops to function like Olympic opening and closing athletes. You want them to slam shut at the tiniest tap.
These scallops turned out to be a bit sluggish in the opening and closing department. Those that weren’t already dead were suffering. But worse still was the smell. Rule three is this – if fish stinks don’t eat it. But there were still a few, maybe thirteen scallops that passed tests one and two. I thought if I removed the obviously deceased the smell might go away.
Then there was the learning experience. I’m sure I can remember Rick Stein opening scallops with a penknife and downing them whole and live. It was one of those paeans to the wholly fresh and natural that they do on the television; more lifestyle and spirituality than straightforward eating. But that must be a false memory because when I prised open the first scallop it was – well – full of the mildly unpleasant stuff that living things always have. Stuff you don’t want to think about let alone eat! It turned out that scallops are more complicated than you’d imagine. You have to clean them, removing frills and black bits and sand and membrane and oh God stuff. By the time you finish you’ve got the muscular bit that joins the part you’ve just thrown away to the shell and, if you’re lucky, a fragment of coral that you didn’t manage to burst while you were peeling the rest off. And from two dozen shells four inches across I got less than half that number of very small scallops – the kind I think they sometimes call noisettes in France.
I put them in the fridge but by that time I’d suffered a crisis of faith. I kept getting them out and sniffing them but somehow the smell wouldn’t go. It was the smell of the fish trains at Temple Meads when I was a child. So forty miles of driving, half an hour of fiddling about and any sense of the lyrical possibilities of holiday food lost forever I threw the scallops in the bin, tipped half a bottle of oil into a pan and cooked the whitebait. Bottle of muscadet, slice of brown bread, salt, black pepper and a squeeze of lemon; sunshine and the sound of the sea in our ears. It was good.