Bones worth picking

Simon Hopkinson enjoys the austere charms of oily fish
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Indy Lifestyle Online
I bought these nice-looking fresh herrings the other day and immediately thought of baps and butter, a cup of tea and an anxious child - the anxious child being me. I was fair terrified of those bones, but just loved the taste of the fish, particularly when there was the bonus of a creamy pod of roe inside the cavity, secretly returned to its belly by MacFisheries, after cleaning. I would eat that first, before gingerly easing off the milky grey fillets and laying them neatly on bread and butter. Once folded over to sandwich the fish and its whiskery bones, I felt all better, hoping that the pappy bap would blanket any fear of tell-tale tickles in my throat.

Nowadays, of course, only a few children will know how to remove fish from its bones and frame, as pretty well all fish is filleted. Further evidence of an essential expertise demolished in the name of progress, like the calculator in place of the two times table.

I'm not really sure when herrings are in full season. Spring sort of sounds right, as does late-summer running into autumn, with mackerel teeming around local shores in between. But I suppose they are really available all year round, or how would the constant supply of kippers, bloaters, bucklings, rollmops and the Dutch matjes be cured, smoked and pickled on such a massive scale? And all fashioned from the simple herring. They are also one of the cheapest and most nutritious of fish.

And so is mackerel, when as fresh as can be - and people who know these things say it must be terribly fresh because a mackerel scavenges on anything and everything that it can shove in its mouth. In fact, really fussy mackerel fanciers say it is not worth eating unless you have just fished it out of the sea, timely eviscerated its innards over the side of the boat and cooked it over a wobbling Primus on board. They are correct, of course.

But then you might happen to live in Kidderminster. If the Japanese - who are the fussiest fish buyers in the world - are happy to serve it as sashimi in London restaurants, then I think mackerel should surely be allowed a little travelling time before total putrefaction kicks in. Fresh is good, fresh is best, always, but the amateur British mackerel fisherman can sometimes be the most tedious bore.

Most people of my age were always led to believe that all sardines lived in tins - pilchards, too. However, these days, a fresh sardine (imported from Spain and Portugal in sturdy wooden boxes) is often more easily found than the humble fresh herring. I still love tinned sardines, but only really good ones that have been preserved in olive oil. Draped over a piece of toasted sourdough bread, moistened with lemon juice and splashed with a little Tabasco sauce, these will always be a real treat.

Curiously, it took me some time to appreciate fresh sardines. I think the reason may have been that, in many cases, the fish had not been gutted before being cooked. I don't rightly know what the form is in the back streets of Lisbon. There, apparently, sardines are regularly to be found burnishing on small braziers, kerb-side, as a late-morning snack to passers- by on their way to or from the market. But for me, an un-gutted sardine, with its "bitter as any gall" liver - and other inner bits and pieces - cooked together with the flesh, spoils the delicate taste of the sardine entirely. It takes but a few seconds to gut a small fish; please do it.

Baltic herrings a la creme has been a fixture on the a la carte menu at Bibendum since the day we opened (aged 10 this month). The kitchen does not actually make these herrings; we buy them from an expert pickler in Brittany who, we believe, brines them better than we do (home-made bread does not necessarily mean it is good bread - that sort of thing). I love the immediate astringent first bite, which is then softened by a smear of creme fraiche and "seasoned" with a couple of wafer-thin slices of raw onion. That is the way we do the dish in South Ken, anyway.

The cooking of all these oily fish demands austerity and an unfrivolous presentation. Something tart as an embellishment is almost obligatory, to cut the fatty richness. A gooseberry sauce, as most of you will probably know, partners mackerel famously well - as it would herrings, too. To be honest, grilled sardines are possibly at their very finest when simply squirted with a jet of lemon juice and little else. But the Italians do a nice dish called sarde in saor, which I have always loosely translated as "sour sardines". Well it sounds right and it tastes right, too.

Sarde in saor, serves 4

Most often found amongst the antipasti, this piquant preparation could also be successfully applied to small herrings and mackerel, or even large sprats.

And, incidentally, I would imagine that the Portuguese or South American escabeche is also affiliated to this dish. The following recipe seems to crop up in Venice rather than elsewhere in Italy, and is very rarely anything more than simply onions, vinegar and sardines.

3tbsp extra virgin oil

350g/12oz onions, preferably the white-skinned variety, peeled and thinly sliced

2-3 bay leaves

3 tbsp white wine vinegar (I have also done it with sherry vinegar to great effect)

salt and 20 peppercorns

12 medium-sized sardines, scaled, heads and guts removed

salt and pepper

a little flour

olive oil for frying

Stew the onions in the extra virgin olive oil with the bay leaves until soft and translucent, but not browned. Add the vinegar, allow to bubble for a few seconds and remove from the stove. Season with salt and stir in the peppercorns. Cool.

Season the sardines. Dust thoroughly with the flour and fry briefly in the olive oil on each side until pale golden and just cooked through. Place a third of the onions in a white oval dish, for example (and very traditional), and lay six of the sardines on top. Add more onions and another six fish, then cover with the rest of the onions. Cover, and leave at room temperature for at least six hours before serving. If I was eating this by the Grand Canal, I suppose it might be with some of that rather dull Italian white bread. If, however, it was at my own west-London table, it would be served with brown bread and butter, probably Hovis.

Grilled herrings with gremolada and aged red wine vinegar, serves 4

Take this as more of a good idea than a real recipe, as it hardly needs putting into that form. It is important to find excellent vinegar for this preparation. My favourite is the one called "Forum". It is Spanish and made from cabernet sauvignon wine. I sometimes have a spoonful neat, because I love the taste so much: sweet, very aromatic and deeply winy.

8 herrings scaled, be-headed and guts removed (pop the roe back in if you like, or keep them as a treat for yourself)

a little olive oil

salt and pepper

grated rind of one fine lemon

2 finely chopped cloves of garlic

2tbsp of chopped curly-leaf parsley

3-4 tbsp fine red wine vinegar

1-2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

Brush the herrings with a little oil and season. Using a very hot ribbed cast-iron griddle, burnish the herrings well so that they become crackly and slightly blackened. They will take about 3-4 minutes to cook on each side. Mix the lemon rind, garlic and parsley together in a small bowl (the gremolada). Place the herrings on a serving dish and spoon over the oil and vinegar. Sprinkle with the gremolada and serve.

Japanese grilled mackerel, serves 2

I first ate rather a lot of this sitting at the bar of Ajimura Japanese restaurant in London's Covent Garden, with Alastair Little and Kirsten Pederson, about 12 years ago. Fillets of mackerel were first briefly marinated in a mixture of soy, mirin and sake, and then gently cooked over a small Hibachi grill that heats from below, with the fish suspended above on a rack. We could see the fish cooking whilst we consumed rather a lot of sake, and then ordered more fish (and sake) once we had tasted how delicious it was. This entertaining and exciting experience continued in this manner for some time. I remember that Kirsten sort of lost the use of her legs when we all stepped into the night air. Typically, at the time, Alastair and I both thought that this was the funniest thing in the whole world.

2 large mackerel, be-headed, gutted and filleted

4 tbsp mirin (available from oriental grocers and posh supermarkets)

3 tbsp soy sauce

1 tbsp sake

If you have a small barbecue, cook the mackerel over this; otherwise use a conventional over-head radiant grill. Do not have the fish too close to the heat.

Cut several small cross-slashes through the skin of the mackerel fillet. Mix the mirin, soy and sake and pour into a shallow dish. Place the mackerel fillets in this flesh side down, for 15 minutes and then turn over for a further 15 minutes. Tip the marinade into a small saucepan and simmer until syrupy and a bit sticky. Put on one side.

Cook the fillets 5 minutes, flesh-side to the heat source. Turn over and continue grilling for a further 10 minutes, or certainly until the skin is starting to become nicely blistered and pock-marked. At this point, brush the skin with the syrupy marinade, then turn over and do the same to the flesh side. Repeat this a few times, returning them to the grill between brushings, until the fish is glossy, crisp and caramelised. Delicious eaten with sliced cucumber that has been steeped in a little rice wine vinegar