ANN and PETER FROST have been eating some extraordinary fish in some interesting places.
Eels? Kippers? Not to everybody’s tastes but we can’t get enough of them. Nor of the humble fish and chips.
Our beloved East Anglia provides good fishing but in this blog we’ll also visit the land of myths and mists that is the watery Somerset Levels in search of the rare and delicious delicacy smoked eel.
In Great Yarmouth we’ll sniff out more about the town’s famous Kippers and head further up the east coast to meet some fish and chip heroes.
Why not follow our example and head for where the unusual but delicious fish are not so much biting as bitten.
We love eating fish. Something like posh skate in black butter and caper sauce (below) or battered cod and chips served in paper suit us equally well.
Fish and chips can be found anywhere but I also like some of the more unusual and under appreciated fish. Let’s start with the much maligned eel.
As a young girl in London eel was very much part of my diet. Jellied eels are still often seen. They were sold cold alongside whelks, cockles and shrimps.
Ian Drury might have loved his Jellied Eels but They are our least favourite way of consuming eel we always preferred the shell fish to the jellied eels. Ann’s Mum used to stew eels. She would buy them live and wriggling and boil them in a bright green parsley sauce that was always called ‘liquor’ to be served with mashed potato.
The London of my youth was full of eel, pie and mash shops. They served stewed eel, mash and lots of ‘liquor’ and you could add a simple minced beef pie to complete what is still for me one of the great dishes of world cuisine.
Eel pie and mash shops can still be found in London but you need to search them out in the less gentrified corners of the East End. Today many cockneys have migrated out to Essex and Kent. The good news is they have taken their eel pie and mash shops with them.
A favourite of ours is the Maldon pie ‘n’ mash eel house in Essex.
Peter enjoys eels too but he prefers his smoked. “Ten times as good as smoked salmon” he declares to anyone who will listen. He also moans loudly about British and particularly Northern Irish eels that are caught and flown to Holland or Japan where they seem to appreciate smoked eel much more that we do at home.
Smoking has always been a popular way of preparing and preserving fish. It still is. At one time the East Coast ports of England and Scotland fed an empire on various kinds of smoked herring. Kippers, bloaters and the wonderfully named red herrings were caught processed and packed in their millions.
For us a nice pair of kippers is still the perfect breakfast.
Today shortages in fish stocks are worrying. Fish farming is becoming more popular and who would have thought that salmon, once a real luxury would have become so cheap and plentiful. But fisher folk still go out in small boats on great waters – for fish is still a food that is hunted more than farmed.
For me that makes it fascinating as well as delicious.
Eel, pies and mash, Maldon, Essex.
Bill Ferguson was a fireman in East Ham until he retired to the delightful little barge port of Maldon on the river Blackwater in Essex.
Bill only has to say hello to betray his cockney origins but his accent is one quite common in Maldon. Many east Londoners have made this their home to enjoy the clean sea air and the countryside.
Bill and many of his fellow east enders loved their new home but missed their East End eel pie and mash so Bill has set up an eatery to provide just that.
The look of the shop is traditional with lots of white tiles and so is the food. A plate of eels, mash and liquor with a minced steak pie will cost £6.50 and it is the real thing; filling and nourishing yet delicate and delicious.
The place always seems to be busy and the talk from the other tables might convince you are the Queen Vic in TV’s Albert Square. You might be best not to say anything rude about West Ham football club!
Once you have enjoyed your eel and mash the puddings here too are traditional, spotted dick, treacle sponge, rhubarb crumble all served with custard, what else?
There is plenty to do in Maldon, walk down the Hythe where the Thames Barges – the brown sailed traders of the LondonRiver are tied up alongside other historic craft.
Barge trips are available and there is a floating museum to tell the bargeman’s story. There is always something going on along the bustling water front in this pretty Essex port.
The National Fishing Heritage Centre, Grimsby, Lincolnshire
There is an amazing and heroic tale behind the humble fish and chip supper and it is told wonderfully at the National Fishing Heritage Centre on the old Alexandria dock in Grimsby.
The award winning museum uses huge stage sets, sound, smells and blasts of icy air to recapture the life of the trawler men who braved the freezing waters of the North Atlantic to catch the cod and haddock that provided a million Friday night suppers from the local chippy.
As you progress through the museum you can stand talking on the dock with your mates before going aboard for your next few weeks off the coast of Iceland.
I loved the rather clipped accent of the BBC Home Service announcer on the old bakelite radio crackling out the shipping forecast threatening force nine gales in Forth, Tyne, Dogger, Humber and German Bight.
You can ride out those gales on the pitching bridge of a 1950’s trawler off the coast of Iceland, or shiver on deck as the crew sort the catch and pack it in ice.
Tragedy was never far away. Deep sea fishing is still one of the most dangerous jobs there is. And you can hear more contemporary radio reports of a missing trawler in the front room of a skipper’s house where his wife waits for what seems likely to be the worst news ever.
The journey ends, as it should, in the chippy, the humble end result of all that heroism and effort.
Once you have enjoyed the museum’s make believe, realistic as it is, you can tour a real trawler from the 1950’s. The Ross Tiger (above) is moored outside the museum and a hour on board will show you just what was the real price of the humble piece of cod that certainly does passeth all understanding.
Follow the smoking eel, Curry Rivel, Somerset.
Follow the smoke, that’s the instructions that Brown and Forrest give to find their smoke house out past Curry Rivel on the Somerset Levels. This is a strange watery landscape crisscrossed by drains, channels and waterways that make a natural home for the eel.
The humble eel is one of the most fascinating of all fish species. It is believed to spawn in the Sargasso Sea, the larvae drift on the Gulf Stream for three years reaching our rivers as tiny silver elvers.
Some of them make their homes in the rivers that run from the Bristol Channel into south west England and Wales. They can even wriggle across wet grass to make their homes in ponds and lakes.
After15-20 years, the adult eels, now long, fat and silver, return down river to make the long journey back to the Sargasso – to breed and then to die leaving their offspring to repeat their fascinating life cycle.
They have always eaten eels here in the Levels. The Domesday Book mentions that the local abbot had the right to 1400 eels a year from the fishery here in Somerset. Even after the last war blacksmiths in the area sold eel spears with which local people would fish the ditches.
At Brown and Forrest’s smokehouse on the Levels they use very simple wood fired smokers. Hot eel smoking is a short process – about two hours – that cooks and smokes, and retains the succulence of the product, ideal for an oily fish like eel.
There is a shop selling all kinds of smoked and other produce and a great restaurant where you can sample the various delicacies.
Time and tide, Great Yarmouth, Norfolk
Smelly things kippers; so smelly in fact that although the converted kipper factory that now houses the Time and Tide Museum in Great Yarmouth cured their last kippers back in the 1960’s you can still smell the distinctive aroma today.
No this isn’t some clever museum trick, this is just the smell produced by decades of oak smoked herring getting deep into the very fabric of the building.
The relatively new award winning museum tells the story of the herring industry of this East Anglian town. Once, there were so many herring drifters that when the fleet was in port you could walk from one side of the harbour to the other across their decks.
So huge were the catches all down the East Coast that teams of Scottish fishing girls (below), some from as far north as Shetland, would follow the fleet south to clean and gut the herring ready for curing.
Today we are once again discovering that kippers aren’t just delicious but are also very good for you. It’s something to do with long chain Omega 3 fatty acids. Healthy and great to eat? What more could you want?
There is no shortage of good kippers still available in Great Yarmouth today. If the weather is nice grill them outside on the barbecue. I do, it keeps the motorcaravan smell free and makes all your on-site neighbours really jealous.
Finally there is still a shop on Regent Road in the town that will post a pair of kippers to a friend back home in a pretty box bearing the legend ‘A present from Great Yarmouth’ ; beats a email postcard any day I reckon.
The humble herring had so many uses and brought such affluence in earned the name Silver Darlings from the fishermen. Here are some of the ways herring were preserved
A Kipper is a split and gutted smoked herring.
A Bloater is a whole smoked herring.
A Buckling is a herring hot smoked.
A Red Herring is a very, very smelly smoked herring and thus perfect for leaving a false trail – hence the common usage.