Fish by Sophie Grigson and William Black (Headline, pounds 20)
Even the most ardent ichthyophile may not be overjoyed at the prospect of yet another addition to the tidal wave of fishy cookbooks. If you already possess the classic Fish Book by Grigson mere, together with Alan Davidson's pair of oceanic compendia on the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, plus Rick Stein's three buoyant volumes of briney gastronomy and the monumental Leith's Fish Bible by Waldegrave and Jackson, you may hesitate before lashing out twenty quid. I'm sorry to have to break the news that, despite a few flaws, this book is another must for fish-fanciers.

Handsomely produced, it combines 180 recipes, written with a lucid, almost scientific precision by Sophie Grigson (who is a a maths graduate), along with a host of background material by her husband William Black, who has worked in the fish biz for 18 years. Not only does he inform us of the difference between dried cod and salt cod; he also notes that there is both dry salt cod and wet salt cold. His comment that the latter "can be a more fragile product with a finite shelf-life" reminds me that I have had two chunks of wet salt cod sitting in the fridge for almost a fortnight. I am less impressed by his statement that fresh cod "is everyone's favourite flaky fish". Not in Yorkshire, it isn't. Up there, most consumers rightly prefer the smaller, less watery flakes of haddock.

Black's grasp of detail occasionally goes awry. His statement that shellfish lovers can probe for Guernsey ormers (a type of abalone) for six days after full moon may result in them being penalised by a pounds 5,000 fine or imprisoned for three months (or both). In fact, the limit is two days after full moon.

South Wales and East Anglia are not, as Black suggests, "the only areas of England still working the cockle beds". A protracted legal battle recently took place over cockle beds near Whitstable in Kent - though Black is quite right to suggest that the technique of vacuuming up the tiny bivalves can be profligately wasteful. He incorrectly states that "oysters must be bought alive". You can buy them frozen (OK for cooking). "Oddly," he continues, "Pacific (or rock) oysters are eaten all year round, despite becoming milky during the late summer". However, many oyster-fanciers reckon that the shellfish are at their best when they become laiteuse.

I'm sure it tastes fantastic, but I would think twice before embarking on Grigson's ferocious reduction of a quarter-pint of champagne for an oyster sauce. Though the combination of clams and cured pork is one of the world's great gastronomic marriages, it is peculiar that Grigson prefers to give a recipe for Manhattan Clam Chowder, which requires bacon and fish stock (not the easiest of ingredients to procure), rather than the Portuguese version, which uses white wine, chorizo and ham.

The book could have done with a firmer editorial hand, particularly at those points where the authors are excessively pleased with themselves, but it is impressive both for scope and knowledge. Best of all, it is a work of infectious enthusiasm.

Christopher Hirst

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