I came back to York University early in order to spend New Year with some friends, and I’m alone in the house tonight. Well, alone except for the wonderful smell of grilled herring that’s wafting up the stairs. I ate it with steamed green beans and boiled potatoes, and felt like Bilbo Baggins before the rascally dwarves burst in to steal his supper. Best of all, the herring cost me precisely 67 pence, and it wasn’t even going off! What a preposterously undervalued fish it is.
You would not catch the smell of fish wafting up the stairs in my home in Winchester. My father doesn’t like it, and while my mother has always had a thing for sardines, she refuses to let me eat my beloved breakfast kipper underneath her roof for fear of the smell. Given my oily-fish deprivation, it’s amazing I’ve turned out as smart as I have.
It all started with kippers, really. I ate my first kipper in a guest house near Campbeltown in Scotland, on the morning of the 27th of August, 2007 (O, historic date!) It was fresh, local, and delicious, and once I’d figured out the challenge of separating the fish from the bones, I was hooked. By the time I came to Cardiff University in October 2009, the two things I wanted to cook and expected to live off were kippers for breakfast and yorkshire pudding for tea.
I never really managed to do yorkshire pud successfully (I kept forgetting to add hot oil to the pan first) and I now shudder to think of those breakfast kippers. They were cheap fillets from Tesco, three-to-a-vacuum-pack, which I’d microwave and eat. I liked them well enough at the time, but the rest of the flat weren’t terribly happy with stumbling hung-over into the kitchen of a morning to be confronted with the rich, kippery scent of my breakfast. After I found ‘AARGH KIPPERS’ spelled out in fridge magnets a few too many times, I quietly dropped the habit. And for six months, I returned to the fishless days of my youth.
And then, as my second year in Cardiff began, I discovered Keith the Fish.
Keith the Fish takes some discovering. Tucked away behind Marks and Spencer‘s off of Queen Street, he’s definitely off the beaten track. To make matters worse, his operating hours are 9-12 Tuesday through Saturday, so he’s quite hard to catch. I forget what dire exigency could have gotten me out of bed before noon, but I happened to pass by and ask if he did kippers. Turns out he did Manx kippers a pound a time, so I bought one and ate it jugged the next morning. To jug a fish, you pour boiling water over it and leave it for six minutes, then pull it out, slap it on a plate and eat it. It’s not pretty, but it’s fast, it’s delicious, and provided you don’t leave the bones lying around, surprisingly fragrant.
My visits to Keith the Fish became weekly, and I got to know Keith himself, a grand old survivor of the fishmonger’s trade who recently celebrated
his seventieth birthday. Our conversations always began the same way. ‘The fish trade in this country is going to the dogs!’ he’d growl, before going on to lambast supermarket fishmongers for their smelly fish, or the Arab Spring for driving up the price of his petrol. His main complaint was the lack of fish getting into children’s diet. He loved kids. He had a wonderful trick to pull if any kid came by. There was always some mighty salmon sprawled out across the shopfront, his tail tucked away beneath the display. Keith would pretend to be fussing with something up another end of the stall, lay his hand on the fish’s tail and give it a few twitches. When the screams began he knew he’d done his job!
I slowly got up the confidence to attempt something requiring more complex cookery skills than the application of boiling water. I can’t say I ever really cooked white fish to my satisfaction, but my grilled rainbow trout was so fresh I could taste the water it was caught in, and moule mariniere remains the best thing I have ever cooked for myself.
Now, alas, I have moved into York and all is changed. I have yet to really get a taste for Whitby kippers, and fresh cockles are impossible to find. I was forced to purchase my grilled herring from Keith’s despised supermarket. If I really wish to remain true to his standards, I reckon I’m going to have to take up rod and waders and go angling.
- Kedgeree with kippers (blogsytestblog.wordpress.com)
- A Holiday Feast of Sustainable Fishes, Nova Scotia style (smallscales.ca)
- King Scallops & Boned Kippers Recipes (susankmann.com)