We've just about swallowed the idea of nose to tail eating when it comes to meat. Most of us are now familiar with seeing the likes of bone marrow, trotters, tongues and tripe on gastropub menus without batting an eyelid. But when it comes to the "funny" bits of fish, we've swallowed fish soup from boiled bones and taramasalata, from smoked cod's roe, but that's probably as adventurous as we get.
Until now. Across the country, chefs are boning up on fish and introducing us to a shoal of fishy delicacies from cheeks and tongues to livers, roes, skeletons, even skin and scales. Many of these piscine parts, they say, are at least as tasty, if not tastier, than the normally favoured fillet – which is perhaps why, until recently, these parts were often kept aside as chefs' and fishmongers' perks.
Pop into Salt & Malt, Michelin-starred Josh Eggleton's fish café overlooking Chew Valley Lake, south of Bristol, and on the menu alongside the usual fish and chips you'll spot cheeks and chips. The café's bite-sized Atlantic cod cheeks, each the size of a small pear, are divine; being mostly muscle, they have a bit of bite and are wonderfully moist. On the day I visit, they're being served with a home-made tartare sauce, and the queue of customers proves they're going down a storm.
"Cheeks are the best bit of any animal," says Eggleton. "Cod cheeks are the easiest thing in the world to cook. At home you can breadcrumb them, pan-fry in butter and serve with tartare sauce and home-made chips, or a crunchy salad." Could cheeky fish nuggets, I can't help wondering, be a tasty replacement for factory-farmed chicken nuggets?
Fish cheeks – of skate – are a favourite of Jenny Chandler, a Bristol-based cookery writer and teacher and mother of nine-year-old Imogen. When Imogen was a toddler, skate cheeks made the perfect supper. Chandler says she sees them as scallops without the price tag. "Cheeks are cheap, quick and easy to cook, and utterly delicious. They're also boneless, which is what every Brit dreams of when it comes to fish. They're the pearl of the fish, so it's ludicrous that they're usually thrown in the bin."
UK chefs are also rediscovering fish heads, influenced by the likes of René Redzepi, the Danish chef at Noma, who goes crazy for the meat just underneath a cod's eye. In Grimsby, a company called The Cheek House sells nothing but fish cheeks and tongues to restaurants. In Spain's Basque country, the most prized part of a cod or hake is its gelatinous chin, known as kokotxa, and at London's Ametsa with Arzak Instruction, it's used by Basque chef Elena Arzak – joint head-chef at her family's three-Michelin-starred San Sebastian restaurant –to make the emulsion for her famous cod pil pil.
If heads seem a little indigestible, one bit of fish offal most of us are more comfortable with (provided we don't think about what it is) is the roe – the eggs. Roe from sturgeon (caviar) has long topped cocktail party canapés. Smoked cod's roe is the key ingredient in taramasalata (originally made from the roe of grey mullet), although restaurants such as Story in London prefer to call it cod's roe cream, and serve it with a cod-skin wafer.
The roes our grandparents enjoyed as a tea-time treat, though, are the creamy soft roes from male herrings, called milts. Known as poor man's caviar, herring roe is tasty, cheap and quick to prepare, which may explain why it's been making a comeback.
But it's the roe of another marine creature, the scallop, that excites Josh Eggleton. The roe, or coral, lies alongside the big white adductor muscle we know as the scallop, but all too often it's used for pet food rather than human consumption. Eggleton salts and dries the roe, then grinds it into a "salt", which he sprinkles over the scallops before cooking them. "The dried roe adds a depth of flavour to the scallop," he says. "It tastes more of itself."
Eggleton also uses the frilly tripe encasing the scallop in the shell to make a fishy tartare, which he serves with roe-sprinkled scallops as a starter at his Pony & Trap gastropub. "The key thing is to buy scallops in the shell to ensure that you get all the bits. If you're nervous about taking it apart, you can ask the fishmonger's advice or get them to do it." The same applies to bones, says Eggleton. "Even if you're buying a fillet, ask for the bones for soup. Many fishmongers give them away. Flat fish such as brill, turbot and plaice have the best."
Some chefs are even getting excited about eating the bones themselves – and we're not just talking whitebait, but sizeable fish including mackerel, brill and turbot. The practice is traditional in Japan, so it's no surprise that the London-based Japanese restaurant Yashin Ocean House is leading the way, offering an entire mackerel skeleton, accompanied with its crispy skin, as one of its signature dishes. Before being deep fried (twice), the mackerel skeleton is soaked in salt water with kelp to add saltiness and umami flavour. "We believe bones, heads, eggs and organs are far more delicious and interesting than the fillet," says Yasuhiro Mineno, the restaurant's Nobu-trained chef patron.
Bone-eating is catching on among British chefs, too. Earlier this month, for instance, Mark Hix kicked off a pop-up Crab and Mackerel Feast in Lyme Regis with a starter of crispy mackerel bones with oyster mayonnaise. In similar vein, at Pennyhill Park in Surrey, two-Michelin-starred Michael Wignall offers sardine skeletons as nibbles.
We're also rediscovering fish liver, largely neglected since the days of daily doses of cod-liver oil. Many London chefs are rediscovering monkfish liver; Marcus Eaves, for instance, calls it the fishy equivalent of foie gras and regularly puts it on the menu at London's Pied à Terre, and at Lyle's in Shoreditch, James Lowe pairs it with sea purslane as a summer starter. But the king of fish livers is that of red mullet, traditionally cooked inside the creature, as with woodcock.
Bristol fishmonger Matthew Smith describes eating red mullet liver as a "mini taste explosion" and says that he always has a waiting list of customers wanting red mullet complete with livers.
With all these goodies on offer, many more of us are likely to give fish-based nose-to-tail dishes a try in the not-so-distant future. Which makes Josh Eggleton very happy. "These cuts are far too tasty to waste," he says, munching another crispy cod cheek. Maybe it's time to steal the scraps back from the cat.
The ones that didn't get away...
Cheeks from cod, monkfish and skate are all delicious and at their best from around now. Dip in batter and deep-fry to make fish nuggets, place on a skewer to grill/barbecue, include in fish pie, or pan-fry as you would scallops. Looking ahead, they'd make great Christmas canapés, too.
Try making your own taramasalata – meaning literally "fish roe salad" – from smoked cod's hard roe. Some fishmongers blanch the hard cod roe and sell it in slices. The soft roe of herring, at its best in winter, makes the perfect high tea: dust your soft herring roes (or a mix of hard and soft) with seasoned flour, gently fry them in a mix of oil and butter, and pop them on to a piece of toast. Sprinkle with chopped parsley and a squeeze of lemon, and devour.
If you've been throwing away your uncooked fish bones and heads, you've been missing a trick. Boil them up with water and vegetables to make stock for a superb fish soup.
Loveliest of livers is red mullet; cook the fish whole with its liver in. Or mash the liver into a sauce, or pan fry it with whole cloves of garlic, to serve with your mullet. Monkfish liver is more pungent – give it a try.
You've nibbled pork scratchings and novelty crisps, so why not sea bass scratchings and cod-skin crisps? Provided your fish skin is free of scales it can be delicious deep-fried and served as a fishy snack, ideal for dipping.
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