My cure for fish phobia

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Indy Lifestyle Online
THE OTHER day, on a family outing of sorts, we wound up in Bouzigues, near Montpellier. This is the site of one of the largest and best oyster beds in the Mediterranean. There were the usual jokes about oysters, which seem to raise extraordinary prejudice in many people. For my wife, it is a matter of texture: oysters compete with offal in the 'disgusting' stakes.

Then there are those who will not eat anything still alive: fair enough, though I have seen a man in a market-place in Nigeria down a series of baby chicks. There are also those who have had a bad oyster (it has happened to me twice) and very little in the edible world is nastier. Still others have never tasted an oyster, and I admit it takes courage to tackle them for the first time.

Finally, there are those with an invincible prejudice against fish. In our group this included my father-in-law, a gentle man who does not object to much; his friend, a doctor from New Jersey and a vexillologist (one who studies flags), who was in France for the D-Day anniversary; and the children.

In my view, you can quiz people most excellently about their fish prejudice, and never get anywhere. It is not rational at all (and yes, there are rational prejudices, even among the politically correct). But I suspect it is something with its roots either in an unadventurous youth, gastronomically speaking, or in a childhood trauma such as I inflicted on my first five children one day in Boulogne-sur-Mer. Having asked for packets of fresh, tempting shrimps, they did not like them; and I, French enough to dislike waste, insisted they eat them.

Number Four Son reminded me of this recently, and I felt as much shame as I am capable of. For he and my whole family have reason to know that I have a prejudice about fish.

First it is a question of bones, a fear that many parents, my mother included, pass on to their children. For that, there are fillets, and many other expedients, so rule that out. Second is texture. The sea is a strange element, fish live in it and are different; they have slime, scales and inexplicable innards. Still, Maman-in-law, a formidably determined lady, had decided on an excursion to a picturesque little restaurant overlooking the oyster beds. So having, say, lamb chops for lunch seemed silly. Madame Doctor, to her credit, agreed. She tucked into the oysters, as I did, and topped them with a baudroie en brochette.

In my summer home in Sete, the baudroie is the good part, the tail, of what is known as the lotte in France, rospo in Italy, rape in Spain. In English we tend to call it monkfish, though it is more properly anglerfish, as Sophie Grigson discussed last week.

If you wanted to overcome a prejudice against fish, a baudroie is a good way to start. Its bones are mainly large and removable; its meat is succulent, firm, white and reminiscent of crayfish or lobster-tail. It was excellent the way our restaurant cooked it: chunks on skewers, with lemon in between, over an open fire made from vine roots.

Alan Davidson (in his wonderful Mediterranean Seafood, Penguin) gives another recipe for baudroie which I strongly recommend. The fish is sliced (rather thickly, ring-finger thick) and fried in a mixture of olive oil and butter, a superior mixture for almost any kind of fish, having both high heat and flavour. When the fish is golden, it is reserved apart.

In the same pan, fry chopped (sweet) onion, 2 roughly chopped tomatoes, 2 anchovy fillets pounded to a pasty consistency, and a smidgeon of flour. Dilute with a little white wine and water, until you have something like a sauce, then restore the fish to the pan with some mashed capers (properly drained), some black olives and a bouquet garni (I dispense with that and fiddle with whatever herb is doing well on my balcony, usually a little basil and a sprig of tarragon) and cook for a few minutes more.

Either of these dishes is, or should be, sufficient to overcome anyone's prejudice. Of course, I could not persuade my Beau Pere or the good doctor. I find it easier to forgive the latter: he had just spent three days being nostalgic in the vicinity of Strasbourg and was, I suspect, sated.

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