The Scots know plenty about fishing. The cold waters around their +6000 miles of coast give up some of the best fish and seafood we eat in Europe. Some 60% of all the fish landed in the UK comes from these seas.
Sad for us is that continental buyers pay premiums for the landed catches – British buyers tend towards opening with talk of discounts. The best heads off for Boulogne, Rungis and Bilboa for onward sale. Walking London Billingsgate today is a sad affair compared to just 20 years ago. Even the traders and buyers say this.
We once gathered a good kilo or more of perfectly sized porcini (cèpes) close to Loch Lomond – delighted with the cache, we showed them to our landlady who told us we’d be dead in the morning if we ate them. She came and knocked on the door early the next day to see if her thought had come true.
Soon we talk of Scottish lobsters and their remarkable life – a beauty weighing in at 1.5 kgs will be 15-20 years old, depending on where it lives – the 750g standard for many restaurants will be somewhere between 8-10 years says my fish expert. Now it is the turn of the turbot.
To me, the turbot is the king and queen of all fish. The bigger the better is my rule. So let’s talk age. Flat white fleshed fish like turbot, sole, halibut and brill grow far slower than round species like cod, hake and bass. A good sized Dover sole can be 18-20 years old – restaurants will buy smaller ones aged 12-15 years. The turbot that fed 8 good portions would have notched up 20-22 years and maybe older. Ours was rich in roe, so being female would grow a little faster than a male. Whenever I mention this, I find most are amazed to know the age of fish and seafood on the menu.
Whilst on turbot, the smaller fish called turbotin much favoured on the northern French coast make for good eating, but lack the unique stickiness of mature turbot. Farmed turbot are definitely on the ‘to be avoided at all costs’ list. We tasted our first one in Asturias and tried another in London – never again, we say, regardless of location. Like all farmed fish, they are extremely fast growing – turbot-charged in fact.
Classically the preparation for turbot was poaching in a specially designed kettle called a turbotière – the fish was then portioned and napped with a rich sauce of roasted lobster shells, beurre blanc, Hollandaise or the very special Maltaise (effectively a Hollandaise, but flavoured with blood orange).
As an aside, white asparagus served with Sauce Maltaise is on the one of my ‘last meals on Earth’ list. As another aside, used and with rich patina, copper turbotières are currently going for an eye watering £200-£350 on eBay (I just checked). On the other hand, a new one from Williams & Sonoma sells for 1,975 US dollars. Little wonder jointing the larger fish for cooking is so popular.
With head and tail removed, a fish weighing 3-4 kgs will cut into 8-10 good sized portions. Again, it is best the fishmonger does this for you as the turbot skeleton is made of heavy bones and he will have the tools.
The portions we took from Bob Fish (Deptford Market), simply grilled or pan fried. would have each cost +£30 on the plate in a good restaurant. So £25 for a whole, fresh caught turbot was a good buy – as in good-bye restaurant and hello home.
The thickest pieces were 2″ thick, so pan frying is best in the home unless one is blessed with a Salamander grill – we had one in Wales when I was growing up, so how kitchens have gone backwards.
A large enough, non-stick heavy frying pan is what’s needed. Reckon on non-stick pans for fish only lasting a year or so – once the surface spoils from cooking over high heat, the pan is best relegated to oven work like roasting chickens, ducks and game birds.
Heat the dry pan over a high flame for 5′ – until it is painful to hold your open palm 3′ above the pan for more than 15 seconds. Add olive oil and heat for a minute or so – you want the oil hot but not smoking. Smoking means the oil has de-natured – if you ever make that error, best throw away the oil, wipe down the pan and start again.
Never feel rushed when cooking – all the more so when cooking the king of fish. Slightly lower the flame a notch and cook on. A 2″ thick piece of turbot will need around 4′ a side – best to only turn the once.
Once turned and cooked on about 2-3′ short of ready, add pea sized pieces of farm butter – as it melts and foams, spoon generously over the fish. Check with your forefinger that the fish is to your liking and serve immediately onto cold plates – never please feel tempted to use warmed plates for fish (or anything else bar lamb).
When fish is this good we go for simple. A good splash of dry vermouth or white wine, pastis or Champagne into the hot pan and cooked on for a minute or two also makes a simple sauce to nap the fish. We prefer no more than a fresh cut lemon and a twist of black pepper when fish is this good. With these pictures, above and below, we attempt to show the various flesh textures of this finest of all fishes.
Steamed potatoes – a waxy variety like Charlotte, Annabelle or Pompadour – always peeled for going with fish complete the feast. A side plate of spinach, dressed with olive oil or butter is always welcome as long as it’s not the hideous ‘baby leaf’ spinach. Baby leaf anything is a scam – flavour comes with some age. If leaves are in a gas-flushed bag, washed in chlorine, best to pass on by to the old fashioned muddy bunches of large leaf spinach. Watercress is the same – and watercress is essential to go with roast chicken.
Our turbot was a feast. It marked the end of a magnificent Easter at No 19. Now I prepare for roasting chickens for a knowing crowd of writers – where will I find bunched watercress? Most of the chickens will come from France – maybe I’ll have to bring in the large leafed cresson too. That’ll be another story and all in good time.
For now, I explain why my turbot was a fluke. Scottish fishermen in the old days would call the turbot a ‘bannock fluke‘ – bannock being a round oatcake like the shape of a turbot and fluke being a left-eyed fish. Thank you to the fish supremo above all others, Alan Davidson, for such a fitting endpiece. This was new to me too.
Nothing is wasted – the final pieces are lightly steamed to be served up with fresh aioli and the remaining, now cold potatoes. We’ve saved the cheeks until last.