Simon Courtauld

Terrific turbot

Terrific turbot

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You don’t often see a large turbot these days. My guess is that the big ones, like most of the lobsters and crabs caught in our waters, go to Spain or France. The specimen which I saw in Paris earlier this year was being cut into fat steaks for sale at 90 euros per kilo, or about £27.50 per pound. Perhaps there is no market in Britain for the king of white fish at this sort of price.

I have in the larder a long, oval fish kettle suitable for salmon, but I wonder whether anyone still uses the diamond-shaped kettle which was designed, probably in the 19th century, to take large flat fish and especially turbot. In France it is called a turbotière and is no doubt still in service in grand kitchens. A 25-pound turbot is not unusual; when cooked it can be simply lifted by the handles of the perforated rack which sits inside the kettle.

Brillat-Savarin was said to have been invited one evening to cook a large turbot in a country house which had no turbotière. He found instead a flat wine pannier of a suitable size to hold the fish and covered it with chopped onions and herbs. The turbot was then laid on top, covered with a washtub, and steamed over a water-boiler on top of the stove. The great epicure commented afterwards that the excellence of the dish caused him no surprise.

The fish which I was able to buy the other day weighed two pounds, cost a little less than £13 and was an ideal size for two people. (This was a wild fish, but farmed turbot of a similar size are often available.) I cut a slit down the middle of its back (dark skin), then poached it gently in water and milk with a few lemon slices. A sauce was made with butter, cream and mushrooms, adding (apparently from a Danish recipe) a little fresh grated horseradish, which seemed to lift the delicate flavour of the turbot.

Myrtle Allen, the original owner of Ballymaloe House in County Cork (the only public restaurant I know where you are offered a second helping), has a way with turbot which involves making an incision in the dark skin all round the fish, as close as possible to the fins — which some say are a great delicacy, though I cannot confirm this. Having baked the fish in a little water, she lifts the skin and pours over the white flesh a herb butter made with chopped thyme, chives and parsley. New potatoes are the only vegetable recommended. Though I think that turbot is best cooked on the bone, a piece from a large fish, bought if possible for a little less than £27.50 per pound, can be successfully grilled, though it should be basted with butter during the cooking. It goes well with a hollandaise sauce, or one made with shrimps and cream.

In the days of turbotières, the similar-looking but smaller and more humble brill was considered a poor man’s fish. Today, brill is a very acceptable substitute for the 2–3 lb ‘chicken’ turbot — so acceptable, in fact, that it is only a few pence cheaper per pound. But it does not have what Jane Grigson calls the ‘tender firmness’ of turbot. While not perhaps wishing to go as far as Madame Prunier — she invented a sort of brill and salmon sandwich, spread with salmon mousse — the combination of brill and shellfish can be rewarding. In Cornwall last month, where the brill are often line-caught, I baked some skinned fillets in olive oil with shallots and various herbs, then mixed crab meat (white and brown), melted butter and capers, together with the shallots, herbs and pan juices. The capers were a particularly good addition to the dish, which we ate with braised fennel.

Continuing the theme, and consulting a few cookery books, I find recipes for brill with mussels, with oysters and with scallops. One might combine all three shellfish, adding a sauce made with their liquor, cream, lemon juice, tarragon and cayenne pepper. Another idea which appeals to me is to bake a whole brill, or turbot, in a marinade of anchovy sauce, olive oil, vinegar and paprika. It might go rather well with a salad of sliced tomato, onion and mint leaves, and might even have impressed the author of The Physiology of Taste, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin.