Belly up on Price

When we read of a sushi-perfect 489 lbs blue fin tuna recently making $3,600 a lb at the auction in Japan – and the sushi master buyer admitting the price was ‘a bit high’ – we know the world has gone mad. $500-700,00 a fish has not been uncommon these past years since the Pacific became polluted with fall out from Fukushima began in 2011.

IMG_0417My Spanish nephew makes a living fishing for tuna and can sell a sushi-quality fish for enough to fund a fishing boat as fast, well equipped and luxurious as his sports car waiting at the marina. He has trained in some of Spain’s best kitchens, knows the fish and has the right numbers on his mobile. I’ll keep his location secret to add to the mystery of this trade.

Shortage coupled with insatiable appetite of the wealthy Japanese for blue fin tuna makes good wages for the few in the supply game. The price multiplies fast from quayside, through the dealers and on to the restaurants. Blue fin belly (the lower section above) called ‘toro’ and is rarely priced on a Japanese menu, so adding to the legend of this most athletic of fish.

Nuclear power station leaks are a fact of life where energy is the big debate. The terrifying 2011 Fukushima leak was caused by the double disaster of an earthquake followed by a tsunami. The inevitable happened with Fukushima’s  melt down – cesium, strontium and other radioactive agents leached into the Pacific and polluted the fish. As greater mass as is the ocean, the radioactivity will take many years to disperse safely, resulting in Mediterranean blue fin becoming more prized than ever.

By comparison, lamb reared on the Welsh hills close to where I grew up had restrictions only lifted in 2012, 26 years after Chernobyl exploded. Welsh lamb always was prized by those who know the pleasure of eating young mountain lamb which has spent its short life grazing on heather, sparse grass and little else but mother’s milk. Welsh hill farmers suffered greatly long after the horror of Chernobyl was largely forgotten.

Back to blue fin tuna, the crazy prices quoted above are based on a Japanese market which consumes around 80% of the world’s blue fin catch. Food photographer Anthony Blake famously visited Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market in the 1980s when sushi quality tuna would be piled to the roof morning after morning. When he expressed concern about over-fishing he was greeted with blank faces. Thirty years later, the game is very different.

IMG_0979 (270x300)Yellow fin is a more available fish, so to fall on yellow fin tuna belly in the market was special indeed. The cut rarely makes it outside the Japanese restaurant trade. “It eats like the best fillet steak”, says our man Bob Fish. “Well, that’s what my Billingsgate seller told me at 3am.”

A good sized piece weighing in at just over the pound comes to me for just £5 cash. My large wild sea bass is £7 and that too is a good price for fish this fresh.

Tuna belly is a choice cut because it is inter-leaved with the only fat on the tuna’s body. This is fat rich in Omega-3 – that’s the oil that stops the fish from stiffening up in cold water.  Without Omega-3, oily fish like herring and mackerel shoals would fall to the ocean floor on their annual migration from the cold North Sea to the slightly warmer Atlantic.  With it, they stay supple and swimming. The ‘Eskimo Diet’ tried to explain this simple concept but the people found it hard to swallow – literally.

IMG_0987 (225x300)When fish are very high in essential Omega-3 they are alive but inedible; as they swim south, the oil level lessens and the flesh improves.

food blog etretat oct 10 292 - Copy (300x225)There are optimum fat levels and times of year when the fish are celebrated, hence why all along the French Channel coast there are herring festivals through the autumn as the shoals move west from Dunkirk to Dieppe and on to Fécamp and Étrètat through November.P1040718 (225x300)

Cans of ‘ventresca‘ sell for 2-3 times and more of high end tuna loin. I hear of some being canned to order from the deep frozen fish caught in the traditional but bloody mattanza in high density seawater corals – and still goes on to make high prices, some from Carloforte selling for €20-25 for a 350g can.

Some tuna from even the best brands gets over-processed and in a can one has no way of knowing until the can is opened only to find we have forked out for fish that both looks and tastes like a bathroom flannel.

We have a large piece of fresh tuna belly, so what’s to do? Raw as sashimi is an exciting option with fish this fresh, but I want to continue experimenting with preserving fresh fish. The loin I preserved was successful, now for the belly.

IMG_0990 (225x300)Make sure the fish is as dry as possible before slipping as a piece into warmed olive oil. I could have flavoured the oil with bay, garlic or lemon, but prefer to keep it plain so as to fully enjoy the fish once cooked and cooled.

IMG_0993 (225x300)The cooking is like with a confit – the fish is gently stewing in the deep oil and changing from red to white. It must not fry. I choose to leave it rare in the middle, so 3-4′ a side is enough. This does mean we must eat the fish within days not weeks.

IMG_0995 (200x300)Remove from the oil onto kitchen paper to dry and allow to go cold. Transfer to a tub that allows the fish to be entirely immersed in fresh olive oil. Leave for 48 hours to mature and take up flavour from the fruity oil. Store in a cool, dark place, but do not refrigerate as that will destroy the fresh flavours.

IMG_1003 (210x300)Serve as an anti-pasti or in a Niçoise inspired salad with soft boiled eggs, olives, tomato, good leaves and barely blanched fine haricot beans.

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I feel we’ve equalled if not improved on the best brands I have tasted. A triumph for Blue Collar Gastronomy.


Posted in Nicoise, Salad, Sashimi & Sushi | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Funny Little Bird

Chicken may be my first bird love as a cook, but all poultry sits well in my back catalogue. When I hear ‘Civitavecchia’ sung loud in ‘Tosca’ I immediately remember my first taste of quail (quaglia).

IMG_1541 (225x300)In a roadside inn one summer in the early 1970s, we feasted on split and spatchcocked quails grilled over a wood fire – these here not spatchcocked but pegged with fresh cut rosemary. There were three birds set on each plate for il secondo – I remember well the rosemary twig for a skewer holding them together and half a lemon from the tree sliced in half as I watched cook send our quail to table. Traffic passed by on the road to Rome and in a mad moment we decided to follow on after that lunch. To hit Rome at 4 in the afternoon on a hot July day, with not a clue where one is going, says something for the craziness already in my soul for Italy.

IMG_0881 (194x300)Quail have come and gone in England. The mother of  one of the original Longhouse Kitchen team was a pioneer in raising quail for eggs. Like dairying and egg production, even farmers with highest welfare standards have little need for males. A quail will lay dozens of valuable eggs in her life; the male birds are set for the table as a by-product of the quail farm.

Once when down in Castelnaudary I was invited by the Lauragais farmers’ cooperative to their newly opened  abattoir for quail (les cailles). I’d been to many a chicken slaughterhouse, but this was my first time at one designed for quail. Imagine, if you will, a child’s toy version of an abattoir designed by Playmobil. The place was immaculate, fitted out with the same shackles and chains as a large scale chicken abattoir, but all in far smaller scale and set in a place little bigger than a garage for two big tractors.

IMG_0876 (225x300)The quail is a funny little bird. Part of the pheasant and partridge family, they will do all they can to avoid actually taking off. They have rounded bodies and small wings, so are not best suited to flying for anything but fleeing their predators. Beaters know one can tread on a pheasant’s tail before it will take to the air. Partridge are more skittish and take off in coveys which fly over the guns in seconds – that could be the only partridge you’ll see all day and it was gone before you could re-load. Wild quail are rare in England now and I confess to having never seen them in the wild.

Outdoor rearing is essential for a good tasting quail. The Spanish and French do the job well – they are always to be found in the poultry cabinets of their supermarkets and in the markets. In England one needs a good butcher or a Chinese grocer to provide fresh quail. The yield is good and the price fair – four birds for £5.50 was this week’s price. In France we usually pay €8 for eight birds. There they often come effilé (part eviserated) with heads still attached and that makes for good presentation as one tucks the head through the wing. There also good eating around the neck and back of head.

Fresh quail will always be cock birds of around 8-12 weeks of age – so considerably older than the British supermarkets’ standard, accelerated growth, ‘Eggs-on-Legs’ chicken at a hideous 30-32 days from hatching to table weight.

IMG_0874 (300x298)Quail cooked outdoors and eaten with the fingers are a treat – but summer is not quite with us for evening dining on the lawns. Instead, I roast the birds in a cazuela – gentler than a steel roasting tin – prepared as follows.

IMG_0861 (225x300)Each bird has its legs pinned together with a cocktail stick (or rosemary twig) having had a piece of unwaxed lemon, a torn bay leaf and a sprinkle of coarse sea salt in the cavity. A peeled, part crushed garlic clove works well too, as does juniper, rosemary or thyme. The quail is popular in kitchens around the world, so Indian marsala’s, Chinese five spice, chilli pepper and more are all successful. In Valencia we’d often cook quail (codorniz) from raw, with morcilla, whole heads of garlic, saffron and pimenton in the Arroz al Horno – the name ‘Rice in the Oven’ is dangerously mis-leading as this is, for sure, an inspired dish.

IMG_0877 (300x225)I prefer to stay simple. I oil each bird and set it on a slice of bread – gild the lily here by spreading the bread with paté, fresh boudin or tapenade. The bread will crisp on the underside and makes a good accompaniment for the bird.

A creamy polenta is a sympathetic starch – that would be the North Italian way with all tiny birds (uccelletti), from quail and thrushes (tordi), to snipe, woodcock and fig-peckers. Having been asked to comment on Elizabeth David by the Chicago Tribune only this last week, I have re-read her sections on uccelletti and beccafichi from her 1954 ‘Italian Food’ with drawings by Renato Guttuso – some of his paintings recently on show at London’s Estorick Collection.

IMG_0899 (226x300)At No 19 we ate fresh peas cooked with guanciale and lettuce, carrots in the Malmedy-style and thick cut roasted Cyprus potatoes – a short season so cook them whilst you can find them in Turkish shops and better greengrocers.IMG_0903 (225x300)

Quail roasted this way also eat well when cold – try to avoid keeping them in the ‘fridge overnight as that will toughen the meat and lessen their taste.

In Malmedy, in the glory days of Madame Thérèse Thomas’ reign at La Ferme Libert, her chef would prepare carrots in a way that has become known at No 19 as Malmedy-style.

IMG_0893 (225x300)It’s this simple. Use only large old variety carrots – not the perfect, pre-washed, no-tasters sold in supermarkets. Peel, cut in half lengthways and in half again if larger than 2″ diameter. Then cut on the bias into mouth-sized pieces. Only just cover with cold water with sugar, salt and two walnuts of good butter. Bring to the boil, then simmer until al-dente. Remove carrots and reduce the cooking liquor to a glaze – return carrots, warm through and watch them sparkle like orange jewels as they come to table. Voilà, les carottes Malmedy – as good as a Malmedy Kiss.

Chef at the La Ferme Libert liked to prepare quails in the Liègeoise way – simmered in veal stock flavoured with juniper berries and Pékèt – a young jenever (gin) special to Liège. The pink breasts would come first to table in their juices with the crushed juniper berries. Ten minutes or so later another dish would appear with the leg/thigh portions – these we’d eat with the fingers.

IMG_0901 (300x225)IMG_0913 (300x264)Civitavecchia and Malmedy – two places with great histories. To us, many memories too.

Each town and the quails all amount to pure Blue Collar Gastronomy©, although I have read of Jane Seymour craving for quails when pregnant with the future King Edward VI. So much so that royal missives were sent to the courts of Europe to request they had in place plenty fresh quail, should she and Henry XIII be visiting.




Posted in Alcohol, Blue Collar Gastronomy, Food travel, French Markets, French supermarkets, Game, Gin & Jenever, Good Potatoes, Polenta, Quail, Quail & Quail's Eggs, Quail Eggs, Real Italy, Simple Food, South West French Cuisine, Spanish Cooking | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Rich Food from a Rock

‘Of all the sawces (of which there are many) there is none so pleasant, none so familiar and agreeable to Man’s body as samphire’

This was a 17th century eulogy to a vegetable that became almost forgotten until its re-discovery around the British coast and in the kitchen in the second half of the 20th century. This is not a seaweed as has often been suggested – it is part of the fennel and celery family.

IMG_0747 (281x300)Although my source has been forgotten I remember being told how samphire was a precious enough food for it to be taken by boat from England to Genoa in the 14/15th century. I think these were the same boats that took salted pilchards (salacche inglese) from Cornwall through the rough seas of the Bay of Biscay to sell in Genoa.

It is said the English never took to salted pilchards, whereas the Italians of the north relished them with polenta and pasta. Slow Food recognised the dying art around 2005 and granted it Presidia status.

“There is a cliff whose high and bending head looks fearfully in the confined deep… The crows and choughs that wing the midway air scarce so gross as beetles; halfway down hangs one that gathers samphire, dreadful trade!”.

Shakespeare wrote this into King Lear having frequently visited Dover in the early 1600s and the cliff to the west of the port stays known as Shakespeare Cliff. Here too we find Samphire Hoe, so named during the construction of the Channel Tunnel when an area of land was reclaimed from the sea, thus being a ‘hoe’.

IMG_0757 (225x300)Samphire was part of my growing up in Wales, then later visiting the Norfolk / Suffolk coast and spending time in Brittany as guest of my culinary mentor, Monsieur Merle where his family has a summer house in Sainte-Marguerite de Pornichet where I first learned to dig for cockles. It was here M Merle – he never had a first name for me – told me firmly that if I wanted to become a good cook I should be able to make food in a bucket. How true he was.

Samphire sold on the roadside in Brittany was then as commonplace as the wet grey Sel de Guérande where the sellers would shovel it by the kilo into your plastic bag and the tiny sweet moules au bouchot (now more likely rope grown mussels) often sold from washing up bowls outside gatherers’ houses. ‘Au bouchot‘ was originally the technique of encouraging mussels to grow on wooden stakes set close together in the sand that could be harvested when the tide was out. The word is rooted in Poitevin dialect – and that means ‘of Poitiers’, a city some distance from the coast in Western France.

The Bretons follow the old tradition of mostly pickling samphire – there called salicorne. Sometimes the older people in France will call it ‘perce-pierre‘ (meaning pierce rock). I prefer it fresh and treated as minimally as one can. I will taste before I buy because as the season continues and the plants grow bigger, samphire can develop a ‘blade’ which means dragging the green through one’s front teeth – not the most elegant way to serve one’s guests at table.

Rock samphire is the most prized although much on sale will be the less rare marsh samphire, also known as glasswort. Alan Davidson, in the Oxford Companion to Food, notes that the North Americans call both varieties ‘chicken claws’ and one can see why.

IMG_0746 (235x300)Back to fresh samphire, expect to pay around £1.80 per 100g so it is neither cheap nor expensive. Beware of farmed samphire – it is salty yet has no depth of flavour.

Samphire is best bought from a traditional fishmonger where you can find one – and like a good butcher, when you do find one, make him your friend.

IMG_0592 (300x225)Funny too how I write ‘him’ because in this country it is rare to find women doing either job.

The opposite is true when one crosses to the mainland – from the fish ladies of Boulogne to the female butchers in Mediterranean markets from Valencia to Genoa. This is easily explained as traditionally the women stayed ashore to prepare and sell the catch whilst the men were out at sea.

Camogli, now a chic little seaside town to the east of Genoa, was said to have taken its name from the Genovese dialect meaning ‘wives’ houses’, meaning just as said before. If you must visit Camogli please promise to tell few of what you find as we want to keep the secret to ourselves.

I have seen fresh samphire on sale on my many happy visits to Genoa’s Mercato Orientale – I never thought to ask where it comes from. I have learned that samphire grows around the Venice lagoon which may have bearing on the tradition of glass making on Murano.

One London chef we knew once stirred fresh samphire through dark green shredded cabbage to serve with roast beef. He was a Welshman called Blades then installed in Simpson’s-in-the-Strand. That was inspired and a trick to bring out with roast lamb too. As roasted lamb responds so well to anchovies, samphire hits the similar umami note.

IMG_0777 (300x126)Ours this week was stirred through spaghetti – not any spaghetti, but a traditional spaghetto quadrato much like a hand made spaghetti alla chittara said to have been first invented in the town of Chieti in Abruzzo. Just as I wrote of the ‘mouth feel’ of Puglia’s orecchiette, this square sided spaghetti also has a feel that makes it special.

IMG_0750 (225x300)The samphire was dropped in with the pasta for the last minute of boiling – then immediately transferred to a deep frying pan with the corals cut from fresh Rye Bay scallops – by all means sear the corals, or when this fresh, just use the heat of the pasta to warm them through. Olive oil, the fresh zest and a good squeeze of juice from a large Sicilian unwaxed lemon finished the dish.

IMG_0765 (300x225)I wanted to write of it being a dish fit for a king,  but with Lear’s madness on the cliff above what’s now called Samphire Hoe I will leave the reader to decide.

IMG_0766 (225x300)Gathering samphire from the cliffs was always considered a dangerous trade – as Shakespeare wrote. Many a gatherer is said to have fallen to their death as they harvested samphire – ‘incredibly dangerous….yet many adventure it, though they buy their sauce with the price of their lives’ wrote one Robert Turner in 1664 speaking of samphire gathering on the Isle of Wight.

IMG_0538Feast on fresh samphire whilst you can. Lamb from the Sussex salt marshes will be our next instalment in the samphire story. If we can save enough pennies, so will lightly boiled gull’s eggs, with dressed samphire in place of cress, as we have a source where we can buy them uncooked.IMG_4688 - Copy (225x300)


Posted in Food of the Ancients, Foraging, Genoa, Gull's Eggs, Mercato Orientale, Wild Food | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment