Food: Do you mind if I smoke?

WE TEND to eat more fish in summer than at other times of the year because it is light and easily digestible. For those who take their summer holidays by the sea, it is also - theoretically, at least - more readily available and fresher. Each day the fish spend travelling inland in vast refrigerated lorries to the wholesaler, and then on to the local fishmonger, makes a big difference to their taste, delicacy and firmness.

I say 'theoretically' because living by the sea all year round as I do, I should always be able to have fresh fish. But my local fishermen on both sides of the Atlantic have an astute prejudice in favour of selling their catches wholesale; what is left over, they consume themselves; and what they don't want they will graciously dispense at retail prices. The four o'clock haggle in Sete is a sight worth watching; the fish goes for very little but is also of very little worth. Which is why every quay I can see from my window is filled with nocturnal fishermen, on the off chance.

The perfect solution to the problem, and a great delicacy in itself, is smoked fish. While the British are considerable consumers of smoked salmon and less so of smoked trout, the lack of variety is surprising. One of the great joys of my life as a boy was eating rich, buttery smoked eel. It is still obtainable but by no means common. About the only good thing I can say about the World Cup of 1982 in Spain was that while there I discovered angullas, the tiny elvers which madrilenos serve up in pannikins, smothered in olive oil with garlic and peppercorns.

Smoking is the third of the four ways of eating fish: live (as in oysters), raw (as in Japan, for which your fish had better be really fresh), smoked and cooked. I adore oysters, especially those in Sydney, and I've put down my share of sashimi; but smoked fish I especially prize, for the variety of its texture and flavours, for its appetite-enhancing properties and for the fact that it requires almost no preparation to please even the most discriminating tastes.

Almost any fish can be smoked, and almost all smoked fish is a delicacy. I have friends who own smokers and this year our local fish wholesaler intelligently opened a retail shop devoted exclusively to smoked fish: anchovies, sardines, eel, a carpaccio of tuna, mullets of several kinds, trout and - a great delicacy - angler-fish. All of them are vacuum-packed and therefore practical, if not exactly cheap.

Smoked fish need not, of course, be eaten on its own, just with bread and butter. It may also be used in interesting ways in cooked dishes, the fish lending its inimitable flavour even when used in small quantities.

With a little invention, there is almost nothing in the summer cooking repertory that cannot be illuminated with smoked fish. The finer, more delicate fish may be best eaten solo (if you can find any tuna carpaccio, just trickle the slices with oil, fresh black pepper and some chopped basil), but the coarser ones are delectable in cooking.

Tuna makes an excellent accompaniment to pasta, but smoked tuna is even more delicious (smoked mackerel is good also, but needs more careful boning). Cook your pasta and add sliced smoked tuna, together with about 200g/7oz of creme fraiche and a little fresh grated nutmeg.

As Alan Davidson points out in his recipe for a Georgian dish, Satsivi iz riby, walnuts make an excellent accompaniment to fish; they are even more successful with a solid smoked fish. An appetising salad can be made of smoked salmon cut into strips, almost any white cheese such as feta, some boiled new potatoes, a sweet onion thinly sliced, a dozen crumbled walnuts and cayenne pepper, the whole sprinkled with walnut oil. This is best left to 'cook' for an hour or two so the onion blends with the flavour of the salmon.

Here is a recipe for a wonderful dish using smoked trout:

Tarte au cresson et aux

filets de truite

(Serves 6)

350g/12oz shortcrust pastry

2 bunches of watercress

3 eggs

150g/5oz fresh goat cheese

200g/7oz smoked trout

Roll out your shortcrust pastry and line a shallow pie tin with it, then cook it blind (weighed down with dried beans or equivalent with foil between the weights and the pastry) for 10 to 15 minutes. Wash the cress, remove the stalks and coarsely chop. Separate the eggs and crumble the cheese in with the yolks, mix thoroughly, then add cress and the smoked trout cut into thin strips. Stir the mixture well and season to taste. Beat egg whites until stiff and add. Pour the whole into the pastry tin and bake in a hot oven (200C/400F/Gas 6) for about 20 minutes. Serve immediately.

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