England is part of a large island with plenty of access to both deep sea and river fishing. Fish used to form a large part of our traditional diet, but less so these days. So here’s some great old recipes and a showcase for some, particularly river, fish that are not eaten so often these days. But I start with one of our national dishes.
Fish and Chips
I come from a part of the country with a very strong tradition of this dish. The most important quality of the fish is that it must be absolutely fresh. Even slightly ‘off-fresh’ mars both the texture and the flavour. Also vital, in my opinion, is that beef dripping rather than vegetable oil should be used. Not only does this give a much better flavour but it allows the food to be cooked at a higher temperature and so absorbs less fat. Some regions use beer batter.
In England, three types of fish are traditionally fried; haddock, cod and skate. In my part of the world, the dish comes with mushy peas, bread and butter and a hot cup of tea. It is also common these days to include tartar sauce – though I prefer it without myself. In southern England you are more likely to get garden peas and in the Midlands a much heavier batter. Whilst this dish has to compete with a whole range of new style fast foods, it remains very popular and fish and chip restaurants are still common – particularly in coastal towns.
Portion sizes do vary; usually small, medium, large and jumbo (extra large).
And if a large portion of fish and chips aren’t enough – try some scraps as well! Scraps are the bits of batter that come loose off the fish when its frying. They are periodically scooped out of the fryer (not by hand) and put aside for those who want them. They are very tasty!
And yes, they did used to come wrapped in newspaper, although in my day the food itself was in grease proof paper which was wrapped in newspaper.
A lighter version, made with the bits of the white fish meat left over from filleting, formed into finger shapes and coated with breadcrumbs before frying. They are something of a children’s dish really, but one you never quite grow out of! Fish finger sarnies (sandwiches) have recently become very trendy and popular.
Fish cakes are also made from bits of fish left over from filleting, mixed with potatoes, coated with bradcrumbs and fried. It is worth making your own as they can be really good. They can be made from white fish, but also from salmon, trout and other river fish. Often eaten with parsley sauce.
Scampi is another name for langoustine and are a sort of small lobster. Whilst they can be prepared in a variety of ways, including plainly poached, or pan fried with a little butter, garlic, bacon and parsley, the most common way in the UK is as Scampi and Chips. Usually served with garden or mushy peas and tartar sauce – with or without salad.
A traditional Fish Pie in my part of the world is made simply with fresh haddock, a little smoked haddock and mushrooms poached in milk, seasoned with a little salt and white pepper which is then thickened before applying a mashed potato top and baked with a little cheese and tomato on the top (optional). We always eat ours with baked beans and brown sauce, although you could use peas or green beans instead. More modern and commercial versions of this dish often use a mix of different white fish, salmon and prawns.
White fish in a sauce
There are far more ways of eating cod and haddock than fish and chips. Baked or pan fried in a butter sauce, a light cream sauce, a white wine sauce, a chive sauce or a parsley sauce are just some of the options. These days, other fish such as monkfish and hake are also prepared in this way.
Haddock in a cheese sauce becomes Haddock Mornay.
The classic way of eating this is over a bed of spinach and with a poached egg on top.
This is a wonderful ‘Anglo Indian’ smoked haddock and rice dish, usually with a hard boiled or poached egg. It is thought to have been developed from an Indian lentil and rice dish called Khichri, probably fusing that with the traditional smoked haddock and poached egg. It is most often eaten as a breakfast, but sometimes as a lunch and evening meal.
Skate with a black butter sauce
Whilst there are many ways of eating skate, this is a classic. The sauce is made by frying a little butter and adding capers and a little of their vinegar.
Delicious whether just plainly grilled, served with a white sauce or a black butter sauce. Dover sole and lemon sole are the most popular. The Victorians used a play on words with the old dish ‘Soles in Coffins’ in which rolled baked soles were placed in a bed of mashed or baked potato and covered with a sauce of mushroom and onions with the juice of the sole. Another way of cooking it is to wrap it around a number of prawns with a light seasoning or herb and gently bake or pan fry, say with butter and lemon.
Halibut and Turbot
More expensive, but well worth the cost. Usually eaten with a white sauce of some kind, seasonal potatoes and light veg such as asparagus.
More delicate than Halibut and turbot, but also very tasty.
Poached or baked salmon is a lovely, light tea typically served with parsley, dill, watercress or hollandaise sauce. Usually served with mashed or new potatoes and green veg. Poach an entire salmon side with lemon and serve cold as part of a buffet.
As with Beef Wellington, this is an adaptation of the French dish ‘salmon-en-croute’ by which it is also known. Spread mushroom pate or a mix of shallots and mushroom, gently fried in butter, on top of the salmon, sprinkle some dill on top, encase in a puff pastry and bake. Serve with seasonal potatoes, veg and a white sauce, plain, dill, parsley and so on. Alternatively, fill with watercress and serve with a watercress sauce.
Fresh trout has a lovely earthy flavour as it tends to live on the river bottom. Can be gently grilled, oven baked, pan fried or barbequed. Trout is good with lemon or stuffed with leeks and/or almonds and served with new potatoes, salad or veg.
King of the river fish, with a rich flavour but bony.
Less of an earthy flavour than trout, but stronger than white fish.
A strong flavoured, oily fish this is usually served cold as part of a cold meat salad, but there are several recipes for serving it hot. One of these is to bake it and serve with a gooseberry sauce. Alternatively, you could just grill or barbeque it and serve with a twist of lemon.
Common around British waters, herring has a delicate flavour but unfortunately a complex bone structure. It goes well plain or with a light sauce, dill or mustard for instance, accompanied by potatoes or potato salad. Herring is commonly smoked where it is called a kipper (see breakfast section). Herrings can be stuffed with herbs and are sometimes coated and pan fried with oatmeal.
Whitebait is a general term applied to ‘sprats’ or the small young fish that have not yet matured to adulthood. Technically, the term can apply to any fish, but in the UK is usually taken to mean herring. Often lightly battered, pan fried and eaten whole – heads and all! Serve with a squeeze of lemon and a little mayonnaise.
Whilst we can’t lay claim to caviar being a traditional English dish, herring roes are also very nice and a lot cheaper! Traditionally eaten on toast as a lunch or light tea, with a dash of Worcester sauce. Another roe that used to be commonly eaten is cod’s roe, this time cut into slices, battered and fried with fish. But you can also serve it with a white sauce.
Many cultures of northern Europe have their version of pickled herring and the English version is called a ‘roll-mop’ or saused herring. They are good on their own or with a dill or creamy chive and onion sauce. They also go well with potato salad.
Strongly associated with the East End of London. The eels are chopped into segments, boiled in a stock, then set in a jelly and eaten cold.
Sardines and Pilchards
Neither of these fish are native to British waters and so can’t really be seen as ‘traditionally English’. However, the tinned variety have long been eaten with salad or on toast as a lunch or light tea. Both were common during the war.
As with many other peoples, these have long been a main stay of the English diet.
There are a myriad of different ways of preparing lobster, although I think it is traditionally eaten fairly plain and cold in England. Lobster tails are good on their own with a squeeze of lemon or as part of a fish salad with a seafood cocktail sauce. Whilst many recipes involve fancy sauces, I personally feel the traditional plain method is best as it highlights the wonderful, delicate flavour of the lobster.
Prawns and crayfish
Prawns can be eaten much the same way as lobster, again traditionally they are eaten fairly plain. They are nice as part of a seafood salad, pan fried with bacon or with a fish sauce of some sort. Shrimps are small prawns and eaten much the same way.
Crayfish are a nice alternative with a slightly stronger flavour and usually served with rocket.
Fannie Craddock, one of Britain’s first TV chefs, is often credited with inventing this dish, although she was more likely adapting something much older. Similar dishes were popular in the States in the 19th century. However, it became a ubiquitous starter on both sides of the pond in the 1960’s and 70’s. It is making something of a come back. And it should, as it is really very good.
European crabs are small compared to their Pacific Ocean cousins. Consequently, our crabs tend to be dressed, in which both the light meat from the claws and the edible dark meat from the body are extracted from the shell and then served within the main body. Alternatively, they are eaten as a crab salad or in sandwiches.
These are now considered to be a luxury food, but actually used to be as cheap as chips and a regular part of many people’s diet. A way of preparing them in days gone by was as an Oyster Pie. Best known these days eaten raw with a little lemon, worcester or tabasco sauce. Angels on horseback is an old recipe where they are grilled with bacon and served as a starter or appetiser.
Angels on horseback
Oysters wrapped in bacon and then grilled. Popular in Victorian times, but almost unheard of now.
In many ways, some of the old fashioned ways of cooking with oysters are now used for scallops.
Still commonly available, especially around the seaside where you would eat them on the move. They are traditionally eaten with just a little vinegar and white pepper. However, they can also be cooked in a wine sauce with herbs and a little cream – a bit like Moules Marinere.
These are also eaten in vinegar at the seaside like cockles, but are more commonly steamed in a white wine and usually cream sauce. Whilst ‘moules frites’ is recognised as a classic French or Belgium dish, the basics of cooking shellfish this way go way back to the earliest times of our history.
Like most shellfish, clams can be eaten on their own, mixed with other shellfish or as an accompaniment to other fish. Samphire goes well with most fish dishes.
Winkles and Periwinkles
Who says the English don’t eat snails! Winkles and the smaller Periwinkle are edible sea snails, usually eaten with vinegar. Like all shellfish, they need to be soaked a couple of hours before boiling and then letting cool to eat. Unfortunately, many of these shellfish are no longer popular, having gone much the way of things like tripe. But they can make a really nice light dish, such as medleys of different shellfish, served with samphire and/or salad.