Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Pêcheur Niçois

The first day of spring, and the sun is shining. Mostly. It's not as cold as it was last week in any event, and I have the windows wide open, with the breeze sending gusts of fragrance from the just-bloomed hyacinth on my desk towards me. The daffodils on the lawn that were beaten down by the frosty mornings are upright and bright again, and I'm almost hoping that the weather doesn't stay nice for tomorrow, because I'm going to be in a seminar most of the day learning about shipboard dining from the Middle Ages onward, tastefully titled "Du biscuit et des vers?", which I somewhat queasily translate as "Want some wormy crackers?" Though for all I know, that's what waitrons on recent ill-fated cruises have been saying, holding up the centuries of seafaring tradition. No ice to keep things fresh out there.

Toulouse-Lautrec painted a watercolor of a fisherman near Nice some time around 1880, and a good part of La Cuisine de Monsieur Momo is devoted to fish and shellfish. Many of the recipes instruct the cook to gut and stuff the fish through the gills, rather than slicing open the belly, which seems like a lot of work to me. The famous truites au bleu recipe is in here, which requires live trout to be boiled in vinegar for a few minutes as soon as they're killed and cleaned, which makes them curl up and turns their scales steel blue. I learned the names of many different fish, though how long I'll remember them is hard to say.
brochet = pike
lotte = monkfish (a recipe for sautéed monkfish livers in champagne)
vairons = minnows
barbue = brill (a type of turbot)
morue = salt cod
sandre = pike perch
alose = shad (be sure to save the roe, fried lightly and spread on bread)

There is a recipe from Monsieur Noël Balley, Governor of French West Africa, for a casserole of porpoise "harpooned while you are straddling the bowsprit of a cutter" and cooked with garlic, red wine, and spices. There are day-long recipes for bouillabaisse that are as extravagant with the fish and vegetables as any Parisian chef with his sauces. And there's a recipe for poutarde, which sounds interesting. Monsieur Bertaut de Pont-Clapets in the Camargue directs us as follows:
Towards July, when the mullets come up from the Mediterranean into the estuaries to lay their eggs in fresh water, catch them and open them up by their bellies; take out the egg sacs, being careful to keep them whole and retaining a bit of the flesh of the fish. Put them in salted water for 48 hours, then use the side of a spoon to clean them and remove any blood vessels. Put the egg sacs between two very clean hardwood planks. Starting with a light weight, gradually add more and more weight on the top plank so that the egg sacs flatten out without breaking, until they are as flat as a flounder. This being done, hang up the egg sacs by the fleshy bit in bright sunlight, exposed to the mistral winds. Let them dry. Now you have poutarde, which can be eaten like chocolate with bread, and which, with its distinctive flavor of fermented fish, will please educated palates, though it is not as refined as caviar.
I went to the fish market last Tuesday after my walk, and bought fresh anchovies in a wonderful vinegar brine with garlic and parsley, not salty at all, or at least not the highly-salted rolled canned anchovies that are better for melting into sauces than eating plain, at least in my opinion. These were tender and just slightly fishy, tangy and sweet-fleshed and very, very good mixed into a bowl of steamed endive and cooked lentils. I added a little white balsamic vinegar to the endive, and fresh ground pepper.

Maybe it's because it's spring, and the cold dark evenings that call for heavy stews or savory roast chicken (heating up the kitchen as well as the belly) are gone now. Lighter skies, lighter food. I'm craving fish.

‘Lazy Kwasind!’ said his mother,
‘In my work you never help me!
In the Summer you are roaming
Idly in the fields and forests;
In the Winter you are cowering
O’er the firebrands in the wigwam!
In the coldest days of Winter
I must break the ice for fishing;
With my nets you never help me!
At the door my nets are hanging,
Dripping, freezing with the water;
Go and wring them, Yenadizze!
Go and dry them in the sunshine!’

- from "The Song of Hiawatha" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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