Simon Courtauld

Carpe piscem

Carpe piscem

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Where are the pike, the char, the carp of yesteryear? Still in English lakes and rivers, but they are not to be found in the English kitchen. Pike, then called luce, are mentioned in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and they were on the menu at King Henry IV’s coronation banquet at the end of the 14th century; but today the cooking of them is left to the French. Char live in the Lake District: salted char was sent down to Hampton Court for King Henry VIII’s pleasure, and potted char was popular in the 18th century. It was good to see Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall cooking them on television the other day, on the shore of Coniston Water, but I wonder how many others have eaten the fish. As for carp, it was a favourite of Izaak Walton — ‘the queen of rivers: a stately, a good, and a very subtle fish’ — who provided a recipe for it which began, ‘Take a carp, alive if possible...’ Nowadays it is widely farmed, though not for the table in this country but to provide sport and trophies for anglers.

Carp, which had been brought to England from China by the 16th century, is commonly eaten in winter throughout central Europe, and in parts of Germany it is the traditional dish for Christmas Eve. I had heard that the supermarket chain, Morrisons, was offering carp on its more extensive fish counters, but it wouldn’t be available, I was told, until after Christmas. A wholesale supplier said he could get me carp from France if I was prepared to buy a 15-kilo box of the fish. However, I was able to track down a five-pound farmed fish, from Belgium, at Selfridges in London, and another via a local fishmonger — for only £3.50 per pound.

The cookery books tell you to soak carp in vinegar and water if it has been fished from a muddy lake or pond. With the first of my apparently clean fish — I think it was a Mirror carp — I followed a recipe, à la Juive, very popular in Jewish cooking. (Gefilte fish is often made with carp.) Having softened some chopped onions and shallots in a deep frying pan, flour, sugar and fish stock were added, together with a little vinegar, a bouquet garni and some raisins and flaked almonds. The boiling mixture was then poured over the whole fish in a large pan and simmered for about 15 minutes. (If the liquid does not cover the fish, add water.) Carp and liquid should be separated while the sauce is reduced, then poured again over the fish and allowed to cool and turn into a jelly. The cold fish, firm and mild in flavour, was surprisingly good with the raisin and almond jelly, and even better when sharpened up with a sauce ravigote (french dressing plus mustard powder, chopped capers, gherkins and herbs).

Other recipes recommend grilling carp and serving it with sauerkraut or puréed spinach and sorrel, baking it with sour cream, stuffing it with fish forcemeat, stuffing it with chestnuts, or cooking it au bleu, in vinegar and court-bouillon, as you do with those delectable little trout caught in mountain streams. A creamed horseradish sauce would go well with this simple dish. And so to the carp for Christmas Eve.

The German and Polish way, which I have just followed, combines chopped onion and celery, cloves, peppercorns, crumbled gingerbread and draught beer (sweet and sour?), all poured over the fish and gently stewed. The sauce is then sieved and reduced, butter is whisked in and lemon juice added, and the dish is usually eaten with boiled potatoes. One of the tasting panel thought it was ‘interesting’, which scarcely needed elaboration, another commented that the sauce went well with the potatoes, and a third, aged 12, said she didn’t eat goldfish. I have to say that I found the sauce rather typical of heavy middle-European cooking and not well suited to fish. If carp, in Isaak Walton’s words, is a very subtle fish, it requires a subtle sauce, which that German concoction is not.

A simpler method of cooking the carp, with a lighter sauce made perhaps with sorrel or horseradish, would make a perfectly pleasant dinner for Christmas Eve. And one might then follow another German tradition, keeping one of the fish’s large scales to bring luck during the coming year.

Having covered, over the past nearly three years, most of the edible fish and shellfish found in European waters, this column is switching to game and poultry in the new year. Next month, as always with the adornment of Lucy Vickery’s beautiful watercolour illustrations, the subject will be pheasant.