Magazine article The Spectator

In Heaven's Kitchen

Magazine article The Spectator

In Heaven's Kitchen

Article excerpt

The gurnard is an odd fish. Known formerly as gurnet, it apparently makes a grunting sound (hence its French name, grondin) both in the water and when caught. The better known red gurnard (the grey is also found in British waters) has been called 'English soldier' by the Dutch, recalling their redcoat enemies. But it is in fact a rather foreign-looking fish, with flat, bony head, a snout and lots of fins. It may sometimes be passed off in France as red mullet, with which it should not be confused. The quality of the gurnard's flesh, however, is a great deal better than its price would indicate, though not widely appreciated. I think of it as a West Country fish: Charles Kingsley, brought up in Devon, was a gurnard fan, commenting that it was 'despised by deluded cockneys'. At about a third of the cost of sea bass or bream, I would be surprised if, in a blind tasting of the three fish, the gurnard was judged to be inferior.

The fillets may be grilled or baked, possibly with a sharp sauce. Mrs Beeton bakes the fish whole, with its tail pushed into its mouth, stuffed with veal forcemeat and covered with bacon rashers. However, having recently attended a course at Rick Stein's Padstow Seafood School, gurnard is for me associated primarily with a bouillabaisse. Yes, I know that bouillabaisse is a dish which should be eaten in Marseilles - Elizabeth David has written that there is no point in making it away from the shores of the Mediterranean - but our Atlantic equivalent was pretty damn good, with the red-skinned rascasse, essential to the Provençal dish, being replaced by the red gurnard.

We gathered early in the morning at Newlyn fish market to await the daily auction. There were boxes of gurnard, many of them very small which would be bought as bait for lobster pots. With the help of an auctioneer, our little party of prospective cooks returned to Padstow with a selection of white fish: gurnard, John Dory, monkfish, turbot. (The turbot, I thought, was a bit spoiling, since bouillabaisse is meant to be a fisherman's dish. The ling and tope for sale in the market might have been more appropriate.) After a sustaining late breakfast of kedgeree and fresh orange juice at the seafood school, we began to learn, under the guidance of an excellent Irish chef/tutor, how to make what he, in his soft Cavan accent, called 'boolabess'. …

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