An English Fish Soup

Almost every nation with a tradition of sea fishing can boast a good fish soup or stew.  Almost every nation, it seems, except England.

If there’s a single dish that captures the flavour of Provence it’s surely Bouillabaisse – well it is for me anyway.

The Scots brought us that wonderful, hearty winter soup Cullen Skink; smoked haddock, potatoes, leeks or onions and cream.   It’s an Arran sweater of a soup, made to wrap warm around you and keep a gale blowing in from the North Sea at bay.

The Italians have wonderful tomato based seafood stews.

I fell to thinking about this because I took Luca out to an Italian restaurant in Tunbridge Wells.  Il Vesuvio, on Camden Road, is run by a Napolitano family and I get a strong sense both of family and of Naples every time I visit.

Frankly when there are places like Il Vesuvio around I wonder why people bother with chain faux-Italian places like Pizza Express or Prezzo.  A lack of confidence perhaps?  Is it that people are happier somewhere a little bland where any authentic Italian-ness is filtered out and replaced by ‘International-ness’ as in ‘International Italian restaurant’ or ‘International Parisian restaurant’ – national identity reduced to homeopathic proportions so as not to scare the horses or people from Bromley?

I digress.  I’m sure that nothing beats the real Naples but I like Il Vesuvio.  It’s food with heart from people with heart.  It’s food that’s unafraid to be what it is.

So a couple of weeks back I took Luca there and he had his usual; pizza al’olio with cheese and I had the Coccetto di Pesce, a seafood stew.  It was great.  It was doubly great because it’s one of those things that people can do really badly but it was terrific.

I tried making an Italian fish stew a while back.  It was pretty good but it wasn’t as good as the one in Vesuvio.  If you want a good recipe I’d recommend the fish stew recipe in Marcella Hazan’s ‘The Essentials of Italian Cooking’, a book worth having if you like Italian food full stop.  The recipe she offers is for a stew her father made.  When I made it, a couple of years back, I learned the hard way that her point, that one should use fish that don’t disintegrate while they’re cooking, is a good one.

It stood me in good stead while trying to make a fish stew that evoked white cliffs and fishermen’s huts rather than balmy Mediterranean ports.

So what I came up with was something that used local ingredients and I have to say the result was pretty damned good.  Key to the taste were liberal quantities of cider.  Now, as it happens, my father makes cider and it’s very good; lethal but good.  It’s not pasteurised, it’s typically Bramley dominated with a few Arthur Turners, Tom Putt, Michelin and sublime Blenheim Orange in the blend for good measure and it tastes very appley and quite dry.

If you substitute quantities of what passes for cider in your average supermarket you’ll probably get a rather different effect.   If you can find some proper artisan stuff save some of it for this soup.

Sussex Fish Stew (Soupe de Poisson Sussex sur Mer)

Stock

Good fish stock is the sine qua non of fish soups (sine qua non being Latin for Worcestershire Sauce).  I guess you could say it pretty much is the soup, so treat it less as an annoyance to be bought from Asda and more as the main act.

Pete, who drives his fish van up from Hastings to Wadhurst of a Thursday and Saturday, is a good bloke.  I suspect his sunny disposition has been nurtured by filthy storms out at sea – where it falls to him to generate his own sunshine.  He’s also a brick when it comes to bits and pieces for making stock.  I gave him a call and he handed my father a carrier bag full of heads and bones.  It must have weighed in at a good kilo or two.

So into a good large pot I put;

A little oil

one onion chopped,

the stalks, fronds and top of a bulb of fennel

2 bay leaves

Three sprigs rosemary

Parsley stalks

Half a dozen peppercorns

A pint of vegetable stock made with a teaspoon of bouillon powder

A pint of dry unpasteurised Sussex cider

Additional boiling water to cover the fish

A kilo or two of fish bones and heads

Having heated the oil gently I sweat the vegetables and add the fish and liquids, cover, bring to the boil, lower the heat and simmer for about 30 minutes.

It’s worth underlining that garlic was a conscious omission.  It’s too overpowering for this soup so refrain and leave it to them over the channel.

After 30 minutes or so I took the pan off the heat and drained it into a bain marie (you could use any large vessel).  There was a huge amount of flesh left on those heads and bones so rather than eat the par of dabs I had in the fridge I picked the meat off the fish.

I covered the stock and left it to cool and settle.  After two or three hours I decanted it.  By this stage it had separated into a clear yellow layer with drops of oil floating on top, and a grey layer of sludge at the bottom.  It’s simply a case of tipping it very, very gently into something else (I have a 4 pint steel stovetop jug that served well) and taking care not to disturb the sludge.  The latter went down the plughole, the stock went onto the fridge where it became gelatinous when cold!

Sussex Fish Stew

On the day itself I chopped

One leek

One bulb of fennel (ie the remains of what was used before)

I put those in the pan with a little oil and sweated them and added

2 bay leaves

One sprig of rosemary

Parsley, fresh chopped

Ground pepper

The fish stock (a good 2 pints)

8 fl oz cider.

When this was warmed through and gently bubbling away I added

2 medium potatoes, peeled and chopped medium fine.  The idea is that you get slivers of potato in the stew. They should be cooked through but shouldn’t be mushy.  So while they’re still slightly undercooked add the fish.  I used filleted;

Hake

Cod

Haddock

Gurnard

Dabs

I skinned everything save the dabs.  The gurnard was questionable.  It has good flavour but it’s bony.  Monkfish would work (if you can afford it), turbot (likewise) or plaice.  Mussels would also work well in modest quantities.  I’d advise against smoked fish.

I cut everything into inch squares and tossed it in and left it to simmer for about 10 minutes or so.  Then I added:

125 ml sour cream or creme fraiche and

a dash of double cream,

I warmed it through again and served it with a loaf of sourdough, made the afternoon before, on the table.

The general consensus was that it was really pretty good.  Go easy on the cider at the latter stage.  You don’t want it to overpower everything.  It might not remind you of the balmy med but if you’ve ever huddled behind a windbreak at Rock-A-Nore it’ll take you right back there.

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