Skate, just for the hell of it

Skate are gentle fish, put on earth to scare the daylights out of scuba divers. They are almost all wing and seem to fly through the water, casting dark shadows on all beneath them. Imagine you are drifting serenely a few metres beneath the surface and suddenly all goes black. You would have to think the party was over, lost at sea. But fortunately, skate are not interested in humans. They are, it is said, sensitive to music. I remain unsure whether that’s music as in Mozart or INXS.

Forget their looks and size, and worry about their taste and wonderful flavour. These are fish you can really bite into — they have a dense flesh, without being tough, and a real personality. When you eat these fish, you know what you are eating. And their bones are filled with gelatine, making them a must for thick, jellied stocks. There’s nothing to cooking them, although the density of the flesh — like that of flake and salmon and monkfish and flathead — makes skate a moral for pan-frying.

Skate are sold in fillets, often skinned, but rarely removed from bones or cartilage. The skin is as rough as the roughest five o’clock shadow, but it comes away easily with a sharp knife. The flesh is attached to flat cartilage, and you will notice it looks like a row of cylindrical bones, like large spaghetti. Again, the flesh is easily removed, simply by sliding a sharp knife along the cartilage.

There are many ways to cook them — grilled, poached, pan-fried, or fried in batter. I tried one once at Le Cirque, a brilliant New York restaurant, where the chef served it as part of a warm salad. The fish was tossed in a little flour and hit in a hot pan until the flour crisped and browned. It was then sprinkled with lemon juice and placed securely atop a pile of tiny greens, all tossed in the most wonderful, sensual olive oil. If the fish is not a huge one, and therefore not too muscled, the spaghettilike flesh actually flakes apart and looks a little like chips tossed through the salad.

Skate is delicious simply grilled and covered with a little lemon juice, salt, and melted butter. The poms go gaga over skate in black butter, which is really brown. The butter is allowed to sizzle in the pan until it browns, and then the fish is cooked in the butter.

Believe it or not, skate makes for a beautiful filling for a sandwich. Try it not cold, not hot, in chunky, crusty bread, sprinkled with a little black pepper, a touch of chilli and chives and a little lemon juice.

WINE: Some of the more ‘chablis- like’ or austere chardonnays are the go here. Try the Heggie’s from the Eden Valley or Domain Leasingham from Clare.