Crossed cultures and making stock

The bream looked terrific.

Bright of eye, red of gill, J.L something like a dasher at a fancy party. Down the back of the shop were the real workers, the cleaners of fish.

About the cleaners stood a rather excited bunch watching the last rites of a huge carp, not dead long, but dead all the same. One day I’ll learn what to do with carp, but not just yet. The audience left, head with one, bones with another, fillets with a third. Then it was my turn to watch. The filleter started to fillet, which is when I started to giggle.

The fish cleaner was bristling with knives and scissors, and a cigarette hung from the corner of his lip. He was one of these smokers with that wondrous ability to speak with the fag attached miraculously to the lower lip. The ash, lengthening slowly, somehow hangs on like grim death.

As the ash grew, the fish quickly disrobed. I was transfixed by the sideshow. I had no doubt the ash would not drop and, such was the display of cleaning, I knew this was a man who had done the same job thousands of times. The fillets were separated and washed meticulously, the bones snipped into manageable pieces. He looked around and smiled, packed the fillets and bones in separate bags, and, at last, flicked the wildly extended ash into the rubbish bin. It was all I could do not to cheer.

He had made such a point of trimming the bones, and the culture of the shop was clearly to utilise absolutely every portion of the fish – I just had to take the lead and make a stock. And I did, flamboyantly, somehow imagining I had a huge cigar hanging from the corner of my gob. In went the bones, onion, white wine, carrots, fennel, galangal, coriander, chilli and the last of the bottled tomatoes from the summer just gone. Soon the room was filled with a magic aroma.

Fish fillets on to a plate, into a colander, over the steaming stock. Steamed for a few minutes. Set aside for a minute, the fish still slightly undercooked. Stock ladled into a saucepan, and a little tomato puree. A quick bubble, to bring the flavours together, a little flick with a wooden spoon. Salt, black pepper, rosemary twigs, and the fish into the pan for 30 seconds, sauce on top. To table. Eat. (The cigar in the corner of the mouth is optional.)

Leave the stock bubbling. Turn off after dinner. Allow to cool overnight. The next day, strain the sauce into a new bowl, re-heat with fresh rosemary, chilli, lemon grass and galangal root. Bring to boil. Turn off, and leave for the rest of the day. Strain, check seasonings, and serve with rice or curly pasta. The moral of the story is simple:

Ashes to ashes, Dust to dust,

If the steamed fish doesn’t get you,

Then the stock must.

WINE: For the steamed fish: the white wines from Graves in France are produced from a hlend of semillon and sauvignon hlanc. 1 actually prefer a few Aussie wines that use this same blend - they are great fish wines. Try Tim Knappstein Fume Blanc.