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Fish for Christmas - the follow-up

As a quick follow-up to a couple of posts made earlier this month, here’s how those fishy Christmas projects turned out:

I had made pickled herring before, using the same recipe – a family one written down by Allison’s grandmother – so I had few fears about that; both variants turned out well and were hits with our guests. As is the case with so many things, the home-made version (the garlic one for preference, personally) was better than its shop-bought equivalent.

The one I was worried about was the gravadlax. The fact that the cure was separated from the fish itself by a thick layer of dill concerned me; would two days be enough to cure the fish? And then there was the rye bread to go with it; that didn’t rise and so was very dense (should’ve realised that that would be the case where the proportion of rye flour to white was 50-50). It turns out I shouldn’t have worried – a thin slice of dense (and buttered) rye bread worked better as a base than a cracker would have done. And the gravadlax itself was fantastic! Much better than smoked salmon; I’ll be making that one again. Shouldn’t have doubted the recipe, of course. The success of this means that there will in all probability be more appearances by recipes from Tim Hayward’s Food DIY book on this blog in 2017.


The Christmas Eve meat auction at Smithfield

To Smithfield on the morning of Christmas Eve, to pick up a bargain or three at the annual meat auction. This event, which takes place annually at London’s famous meat market, is one of the London Christmas traditions that I wrote about for Londonist recently, but not something Allison and I had ever gone and seen for ourselves. Clearly, this was something that needed to be rectified. After getting off the train at Farringdon, we saw a few people with shopping carts making their way towards the north-western corner of the market building, close to the junction of Charterhouse Street and Farringdon Street; they, and we, congregated by Harts of Smithfield, the butcher’s that does the auction and which has a sign (there all year, apparently) proclaiming their shop-front to be the location of “the one and only” Christmas Eve auction, starting at 10:30am. The crowd was spilling out onto the road, which was closed off by the City of London Police shortly before the fun started. Punters, be they people who come here every year or first-timers, were excited at what lay ahead.

As the appointed hour approached, the crowd had swelled to several hundred and three catwalks extending out into the crowd were constructed of wooden pallets; it was from these that the meat would be sold. Not long after 10:30, the main butcher – the man who conducts this sale every year – made his way onto the central catwalk and announced how the auction would work. This was all about making sure that “everyone gets something” and unlike at a regular auction there wouldn’t be any bidding – here, there was a fixed price for each cut of meat and anyone wishing to have one of these would have to hold up the appropriate amount of cash (change, we were told, would not be given).

First up were some legs of pork – English legs of pork, complete with trotters on the end – going for £20 each. A forest of £20 notes appeared above the crowd as punters vied to get the attention of the butchers who were holding up the legs along all three catwalks. A brisk trade was done, with a few dozen legs being sold. “What are we going to do with this?”, I heard a woman ask a man, presumably her husband, who’d just bought one. “You’ll need to buy a bigger oven,” quipped another man standing next to them. More hands holding banknotes went up for the next bargain, topsides of beef; “fifty quid anywhere else, twenty here,” proclaimed the master of ceremonies. English loins of pork were next, each one at least three feet long (how many chops could you get from that?) and costing £10 each. “We could probably make room in the freezer for that,” said someone who did not sound at all convinced that they could. Be that as it may, for bargain pieces of meat, Smithfield on Christmas Eve is clearly the place to go. Many seemed very happy with what they got!

A few professional-looking photographers were in attendance, looking for money-shots such as a little girl sitting on her father’s shoulders, holding up a £10 note (the nearest butcher spotted her too, and made sure she got something). It was even claimed that a TV crew (from Brazil, of all places) was in attendance. Large pieces of belly pork (£10 each) were followed by the turkeys, which went for £20 – or at least they did once one of the assistant butchers, an evidently put-upon chap called Charlie, was able to get them out of the boxes (although not before his colleagues had got the audience to chant the man’s name several times). Shoulders of pork, sold in bags of two for £20 followed, then big sides of green gammon for £20 (‘green’ in a butchering context meaning a piece of bacon or gammon that’s been neither cooked nor smoked) and boxes of ducks, four for £20. The punters were still very keen to buy, and much money changed hands in a sort-of feeding frenzy. “This is fabulous,” said the chief butcher. “Great to see so many people spending money. It’s ’cos of Brexit, of course.”

Ribs of beef were brought out to cheers from the crowd, for this was probably what many had been waiting for (all that was needed was for someone to strike up a chorus of ‘The Roast Beef of Old England’); they were quickly snapped up by eager buyers, along with more shoulders of pork and whole suckling-pigs which buyers carried away on their shoulders which must have made for some curious glances on the Tube ride home. As reinforcements arrived – dozens of boxes containing more beef ribs, brought along on a fork-lift and then hurriedly unpacked by the assistant butchers – the coin-toss ritual began. This is a simple game which is very much a part of the ritual at the meat auction – call the coin-toss wrong, and the punter has to pay the asking-price. Call it right, and the meat is his (or hers) for free. Given that the asking-price is in any case a bargain, it’s a win-win situation.

By this point, the auction was coming to an end. People – some of whom had come with backpacks or shopping-carts (or had parked nearby, for it was a Saturday and parking is free in the vicinity at weekends) were started to leave, fully-laden with enough meat to feed their families for some time.

As the sale died down and the clearing-up operation began, some punters remained – those who’d picked up on an aside earlier, to the point that if anyone wanted their meat cut up on the spot it could be done at the end (having been to Smithfield of an early morning before, we were well aware that a Smithfield butcher will only cut up a piece of meat for you after he’s sold it to you – this is, after all, a wholesale market). We came away with a beef rib, a pork shoulder and a topside of beef – all of which had, of course, to be carried home on the train.

A London Christmas tradition experienced, and great fun it was too!


The stories behind Father Christmas

Christmas leads many of us to wonder about certain festive traditions and their origins. Why, for example, do we have Advent calendars? Who on Earth thought sprouts were a good idea? And, to turn to the subject of today’s blog-post, where exactly does the bearded present-distributing bloke in red come from? Various places, as it turns out.
To begin with, Father Christmas is (or rather, was) the traditional English personification of Christmas. For centuries he could be found as a character in the traditional folk plays known as mummers plays, although he did also make appearances in various Christmas-related publications, especially in the mid-seventeenth century when the Puritans banned Christmas (from around 1644 until the Restoration in 1660, the celebration of Christmas was forbidden in England; Father Christmas, as the embodiment of the old festive traditions, thus became linked with the Royalist cause in some of the pamphlets of the time). He had no real connection with present-giving, or with children in general for that matter, until mid-Victorian times – traditionally, he was all about feasting and being merry.
By the 1840s, he was portrayed as having a beard, dressed in a long robe (green more often than not, although red wasn’t unknown), wearing a crown of holly and surrounded by a plentiful amount of food and drink. Among other works of the early Victorian period, this was the image presented in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, which first appeared in 1843 and was hugely influential in terms of reviving interest in Christmas and the themes and traditions attached to it; although not named as Father Christmas, the Ghost of Christmas Present (“clothed in one simple deep green robe, or mantle, bordered with white fur … on its head it wore no other covering than a holly wreath … its dark brown curls were long and free: free as its genial face, its sparkling eyes, its open hand, its cheery voice, its unconstrained demeanour and its joyful air”) has many of the attributes associated with the figure sometimes also known as ‘Old Christmas’.

He became a gift-giver in the mid-nineteenth century as the Victorian idea of Christmas slowly evolved to become associated with giving children presents, among other things that we would associate with a modern Christmas; this was also the time when sending cards and decorating a Christmas tree became popular things to do in Britain at Christmas time. The Christmas tree is a German tradition that was popularised here by Prince Albert, although the Royal family were already accustomed to the idea as it was something they’d originally brought with them from Hanover in 1714. It was also in the mid-nineteenth century that the English idea of Father Christmas became inextricably linked with a similar personification of the festive season from the other side of the Atlantic, an American variant of the Dutch figure Sinterklaas.

Sinterklass is based on a real person – the fourth-century bishop St Nicholas who is the patron saint of children, sailors (in Greece he’s seen as a Christian version of the sea-god Poseidon), repentant thieves, lawyers, perfume-makers, murderers, pawnbrokers and orphans, among others. His reputation for gift-giving arises from one of many stories told about him – concerning a neighbour of his, a poor man who had three daughters but couldn’t afford to look after them, which had led him to consider sending them to work as prostitutes. Nicholas gave them money so they wouldn’t have to, but rather than doing this in person he threw the money through his neighbour’s window; on the third night of doing this, the neighbour found out who his family’s mystery benefactor was. A variant of this story has Nicholas climbing onto the roof and dropping the money down the chimney, with the coins landing in the girls’ stockings which they’d hung over the embers in the fireplace to dry.

In the Dutch tradition, Sinterklaas is usually depicted as an old man with a white beard wearing a red cape over a bishop’s robes, topped with a mitre. He gave gifts to children who’d behaved themselves on 6th December (St Nicholas’s Day) and it was this tradition that was taken to the New World by Dutch colonists, although not before it had been altered somewhat during the Reformation, with the gift-giving date being changed to Christmas Eve and his name being altered to Christkindl, which translates as ‘Christ Child’ although it was anglicised as Kris Kringle, with the name Sinterklass evidently surviving long enough for it to be anglicised as Santa Claus. This Dutch background is overtly acknowledged in that classic Christmas movie Miracle on 34th Street, when Kris meets with a young Dutch girl who doesn’t speak English and surprises everyone watching, including the sceptical Susan, by conversing with the girl in fluent Dutch and singing a Sinterklass song with her.

The extent to which Dutch Christmas traditions had survived into the early nineteenth century USA is debatable (New Amsterdam had become New York in 1664), but what is well-known is that the modern-day perception of Santa Claus owes a lot to a famous 1823 poem, published anonymously in New York and later attributed to either Clement Clarke Moore or Henry Livingstone Jnr, called ‘A Visit from St Nicholas’ which is perhaps better known by its opening line, ‘’Twas the night before Christmas’. This is where the notion of Santa riding around on his present-laden sleigh pulled by eight reindeer (Dasher, Dancer etc – but not Rudolph, who didn’t appear until 1939 in a separate poem) comes from.

It’s believed that ‘A Visit from St Nicholas’ was in part based on Washington Irving’s A History of New York (1809) which included a dream-sequence in which Santa Claus – the name first appeared in print in America in the 1770s – flies over the treetops in a flying wagon of some sort. Irving, who was as influential on the American perception and celebration of Christmas as Dickens was in this country, was apparently trying to lampoon Americans of Dutch ancestry with his Santa reference. For his serious essays about Christmas, which appear in The Sketch Book, he apparently made great use of mid-seventeenth-century texts about English Christmas traditions which had been written at the time when Christmas had been banned (see above).

It is worth noting that the St Nicholas figure in the poem is not described as wearing red – “dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot … his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot” is how his attire is described. Received wisdom will tell you that the idea of Santa wearing red comes from his long-standing association with Coca-Cola, although as I found out when I read a book about drinks last year, the red clothing actually pre-dates this. The famous adverts for said drinks brand began in 1931, and he’d previously been depicted in red in adverts for mineral water and ginger beer, as well as in pictures of him published in magazines and on Christmas cards in both Britain and the USA in the first few years of the twentieth century – the time when any remaining differences between Father Christmas and Santa Claus faded away.


Fish for Chrstmas, part 2: Gravadlax

With the herring pickling away in the fridge in the shed, it is time for the next part of the Christmas fish preparation – gravadlax. For this, I’m relying on a truly excellent book called Food DIY by Tim Hayward that I received as a birthday present; it has all sorts of recipes and ideas for those who like to get their hands dirty and expand their food-making skills. As someone who bakes bread and has even made a pork pie a few years ago, this is very much my sort of cookery book. I’ve read through and several recipes have jumped out at me, so I can foresee all sorts of culinary adventures for 2017.

But first, the Christmas gravadlax. Gravadlax is, quite simply, cured raw salmon. Hayward explains that it’s a Scandinavian thing – the word derives from the Swedish for ‘buried fish’ and originates from fishermen “saving part of their catch by burying it on the beach. Presumably the salt in the sand had a preservation effect”. Rather than the usual smoked salmon for Christmas, this year we are going for gravadlax. Our fishy festive saga started at Billingsgate a couple of weeks ago, and in addition to gutting and filleting the herrings for pickling I also filleted the whole (gutted) salmon that we bought. I ended up with two thick pieces, both about eight inches by four, along with several smaller fillets which are being frozen for other meals. The off-cuts were roasted, with whatever meat I could get from those being frozen for sandwiches at some point in the future. For now, though, the focus is on the two fillets which were defrosted yesterday, ready for being made into gravadlax.

The cure has four ingredients – salt, caster sugar, black pepper and coriander seeds, all of which were ground up in a mortar and pestle (which is which?). 

The result actually looks a bit like sand which is appropriate given how this method of preserving fish originated. 

Then there was some dill that needed chopping up. The two fillets were then laid out and a thick layer of dill applied to each, followed by the cure (which strikes me as slightly counter-intuitive, as I’d’ve thought that the cure should be in direct contact with the fish, but there you go). 

Then some not-chopped dill sprigs are put atop whichever fillet you’re flipping over.

Now for the tricky part – one of the fillets need to be flipped so that it goes on top of the other. The risk of cure mixture and chopped dill going everywhere at this point is probably why Hayward says that this should be done on cling film! 

The resulting sort-of sandwich then needs to be tightly wrapped in cling film and stored in the fridge for the next 48 hours.

So that’s the gravadlax ready – we eagerly await the result! The next part of the plan will be to bake some rye bread for it to go on. Hayward has a recipe for that, too…


Cocktail hour, part three

For cocktail ideas, we have recently turned to a colourful book called Vintage Cocktails which, in addition to being ring-bound which makes it easier to put on a book-holder, has hit upon the novel idea of keeping the ingredients and instructions as brief as possible, as well as helpfully providing a full colour picture of said cocktail so that us amateur mixers have an idea of what the finished result should look like.

In anticipation of some seasonal cocktails, we’ve prepared in advance to the extent of mixing together a sugar syrup (equal parts sugar and water) which is stored in the fridge. We’ve also bought some vermouth with which to make martinis. But what sort? Good question! Gin or vodka, shaken or stirred, dry or dirty? That last one involves adding some of the brine from the olive-jar, and that is Allison’s preference. Stirring rather than shaking is, it turns out, the preferred way of mixing a martini; evidently Ian Fleming was being a bit of a contrarian when he had James Bond ask for them ‘shaken not stirred’ (Bond makes an appearance in Vintage Cocktails too, for the Vesper martini – the one from Casino Royale – is in there, although it’s not the exact recipe that’s given in said novel).

Anyway, it so happens that if you require a dirty martini, the way to go about it is to rinse a small amount of vermouth around the glass before mixing the other ingredients – gin or vodka, plus the olive brine – with ice and then adding them to the glass; strong stuff (although not as strong as some, for Winston Churchill’s idea of a martini was to show a bottle of gin to a bottle of vermouth, and then drink the gin; thus, a Churchill martini is just neat gin served with vermouth being present in the same room). Moving along, the dry martini consists of equal parts vodka (or gin) and vermouth, stirred together. A compromise – the dirty dry martini (with vodka, rather than gin) – has been developed here.

I rather fancied a whisky-based cocktail instead, so I flipped through Vintage Cocktails to see what I could find. A few, such as the Manhattan, the old fashioned and the Rob Roy, involve Angostura bitters which is not (yet) something with which I’ve seen fit to grace our drinks cabinet although it’s probably only a matter of time. A rusty nail – which I have long regarded as my ideal, go-to cocktail – was out too, because we don’t have any Drambuie. Then I happened across whisky sour.

It’s not really something I’ve come across before. Bourbon is the preferred whisky for this, and we don’t have that either (when it comes to the hard stuff, I’m more of a Scotch drinker), but Vintage Cocktails says that you can use rye instead, and as this is an Anglo-Canadian household we do have a bottle of that (and not just any rye whisky, but Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye; nothing but the best, here). And I’d already made some sugar syrup, so why not?

The Vintage Cocktails recipe for whisky sour called for 2 oz whisky, 1 oz sugar syrup and ¾ oz lemon juice, shaken with ice, strained into a tumbler and garnished with an orange slice (I used a lemon one instead, since I had to juice one of those anyway). A slight variation on this can be found in Len Deighton’s Action Cook Book; the man behind The Ipcress File simplifies it, with the juice of half a lemon and a teaspoon of sugar being added to 2 oz whisky and shaken with ice. What with having already made up some sugar syrup, I stuck with Vintage Cocktails for this one.

Needless to say, I enjoyed the result!


Up the hill, and down the pub

What to do with a couple of hours to kill in Edinburgh before the train home? I was up there for the day yesterday, and so was faced with this question. After browsing the souvenir-shops along the Royal Mile, I thought it would be fun to climb Arthur’s Seat, the big hill just to the east of the city, but realised that this would probably take longer than the time I had left.

Instead, I focused my attention on the smaller Calton Hill which rises above the eastern end of Princes Street and is topped by a variety of early-19th century monuments which has led it to be dubbed Edinburgh’s answer to the Acropolis (and thus, probably, the reason why Edinburgh has sometimes been referred to as the ‘Athens of the North’, although as the city has seven hills it has also been compared with Rome).

The climb was a fairly easy one. From the top, you can see all the way to the docks and beyond into the Firth of Forth – the island of Inchkeith is clearly visible, as is the Forth Bridge. As for the city, much of it is laid out before you, from Holyrood Palace and the Parliament building up to the Castle perched atop its rock.

Like several others who had come to Calton Hill, I climbed up onto the National Monument, that unfinished replica of the Parthenon which was started in 1822 as a memorial to the Scottish soldiers and sailors who had died during the Napoleonic Wars, although they’d only managed to erect a dozen of the columns before the money ran out. 

Nearby, among various other structures, is the Nelson Monument, a tower built on the highest point of Calton Hill shortly before the National Monument to commemorate Lord Nelson; it replaced a mast that had been used to send signals to the ships on the Firth of Forth (the flags that make up Nelson’s famous signal, the ‘England expects’ one, are flown from the monument every Trafalgar Day). The fact that it looks a bit like an upturned telescope is, apparently, deliberate.  

Naturally I can never resist the chance of climbing any available tower and as luck would have it I was there about half an hour before it closed for the day; plenty of time to go to the top and enjoy the panoramic view of this historic city.

After descending back into the city, I felt that a pre-train pint was in order, and that there was one Edinburgh pub above all others where this need could be best met. I have long been a fan of the Rebus books, Ian Rankin’s series of detective novels which are set in Edinburgh and which present a view of the city far removed from what the tourists see (rather like what the Morse books did for Oxford and the Zen ones for Italy, I suppose). The curmudgeonly yet likeable John Rebus may be a fictional character but he has a favourite pub, which he shares with his creator: The Oxford Bar in the New Town, that part of the city which was built in the late 18th century and which retains much of its Georgian charm.

My guide book describes the pub as “that rarest of things: a real pub for real people, with no ‘theme’, no music, no frills and no pretensions”. I rather liked the sound of that, for it sounded like my sort of pub.

I also rather liked the name of the street on which it is located.

I really liked what I found – a quiet, old-fashioned sort of back-street pub where one could order a pint – it had to be Deuchars IPA – from the small bar at the front and take it to the main room and sip it in quiet contentment with the only accompanying sound being the rambling conversation from the people on the table opposite (even in the week before Christmas, there is clearly a point before which it is not the done thing to just leave work early and head to the boozer).

It brought to mind pubs like the Mitre off Hatton Garden (a favourite of mine) and various others, usually located in the back-streets, which have an authentic air which is sadly missing from so many watering-holes these days. The Oxford Bar was, I felt, definitely worth a visit in the short time I had before I walked back to Waverley Station, and onto the 17:00 to King’s Cross.


Something a bit special for breakfast

How about something a bit special for breakfast? The first and, let’s be honest here, usually the best meal of the day is one of those meals that I really enjoy cooking (must be something to do with the smell of frying bacon), and when we have guests staying it’s nice to do something a bit different. Bacon and parsley hotcakes it is, then, using a recipe that Allison clipped from the BBC Good Food magazine a few years ago.

We start by cutting up the bacon into lardons and dry-frying it until it’s crispy (contrary to what I appear to have learned in the Scouts, there’s no need for oil when frying bacon). 

While that’s cooling, the dry ingredients – self-raising flour, grated cheddar cheese (the more mature, the better), a small handful of chopped parsley, thyme (fresh or dried, either will do), salt and pepper – are mixed together in a bowl, to which the bacon is added.

Then come the eggs and the milk – the recipe says to use six tablespoons but I’ve found that you don’t need to use more than four to get a nice, thick batter. 

Spoonfuls of the batter are then fried, a couple at a time (oil is needed for this bit of frying) until golden; the recipe says that it serves four (meaning that it makes eight hotcakes) but I sometimes find that I can make six of them with the quantities provided. 

The recipe says that these are best served topped by a couple of poached eggs but I prefer fried ones; probably because I find poaching eggs to be a bit of a hassle (and it would involve more washing-up; by frying the eggs, I’m limiting the number of pans used to one).

So, there we are – bacon and parsley hotcakes, for when you want to make something a bit special for breakfast.


Of London's Christmas traditions, with references to Samuels Pepys and Johnson

Looking into the stories behind London’s various Christmas traditions has been a fun thing to do for my latest Londonist piece. I must say that my favourite bit is the one about the ‘Boy Bishop’ of St Paul’s, probably because I used to be a chorister myself and am therefore favourably inclined to the idea that, in times past, one of them briefly got to be a mock-bishop. This would seem to be an ecclesiastical variant of the ‘Lord of Misrule’ tradition (whereby the social order was briefly inverted) which was prevalent in the Middle Ages but which dates back to Roman times. Anyway, it is one of several aspects of a London Christmas, modern as well as historic, which made it into my seasonal article which also looks at (among other things) the meat auction at Smithfield, the lack of public transport on Christmas Day (something about which many Londoners are oddly accepting) and the question of which was the first London department store to have a Santa’s Grotto. The result can be found via this link:

My source for the ‘Boy Bishop’ story was a book called London Lore: The Legends and Traditions of the World’s Most Vibrant City by Steve Roud – a really good compendium of London’s folklore, of which there is a lot (including various ghost stories, local customs, etc). Definitely recommended reading for anyone with an interest in London’s rich and varied history.

Sticking with Christmas, though, there are of course some things that don’t change much over the years and even the centuries. For evidence of this, we can look at the experiences of Samuel Pepys on Christmas Day, 1661; he had an argument with a close family member and witnessed someone dealing with a drunken guest, both of which are things that many would readily identify as festive occurrences in our own time. After going to church, Pepys had dinner followed by an argument with his wife (“taking occasion, from some fault in the meat, to complain of my maid’s Sluttery”), causing the diarist to go “up to my Chamber in a discontent”. Later on, Mr and Mrs Pepys popped in on a neighbour, Sir William Penn (the admiral and father of the man who founded Pennsylvania). Unfortunately, another guest, a Captain Cock, “came to us half-drunck and began to talk; but Sir W. Pen, knowing his humour and that there was no end of his talking, drinks four great glasses of wine to him one after another, healths to the King &c., and by that means made him drunk, and so he went away; and so we sat down to supper and were merry; and so after supper home to bed.”

I have also recently been drawn to the writings of Samuel Johnson, in particular his essays which were for the most part published under three short-lived periodicals – The Rambler (1750-52), The Adventurer (1753-54) and The Idler (1758-60). There are some true literary gems to be found here, and it surprised me to learn that a few are dated Christmas Day, meaning (presumably) that the great man could sometimes be found writing over the festive period as opposed to going out and indulging in some seasonal perpotation (a word that is in his Dictionary and means, and I quote, “the act of drinking largely”).

One such essay, from The Adventurer (25th December 1753), concerns the folly of wanting too many things. Taking the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates as his starting-point, Johnson ponders “the great business of life to create wants as fast as they are satisfied”. He observes that “there is no man, who does not … suffer himself to feel pain for the want of that, of which, when it is gained, he can have no enjoyment.” A couple of paragraphs later, he writes: “What we believe ourselves to want, torments us not in proportion to its real value, but according to the estimation by which we have rated it in our own minds.” Some seasonal food for thought there!


Fish for Christmas, part 1: Pickled herring

Up at early o’clock last week for a visit to Billingsgate Market, London’s wholesale fish market located down in Poplar. The objective was to buy some fish for Christmas; in particular, we were after a salmon with which we could make gravadlax and some herrings with which we could make, well, pickled herring.

The market was as busy as ever – we’d got there by about 5am – and as is usual on a visit to Billingsgate, you do need to keep an eye out for the porters with their heavy trolleys. We were very quickly able to find ourselves some herrings, sold fresh at £5:50 for three kilos. They hadn’t been gutted but I’ve done that before so I reckoned it wouldn’t be a problem. 

Last time we made pickled herring we’d a hard job trying to find a fishmonger selling the stuff (eventually settling on a kosher place in Edgware that just happened to have some in stock), which was one of the reasons why we’d opted for Billingsgate this time – for if you can’t find the sort of fish you want there, you might as well give up. Then we looked for the salmon, coming across someone else selling herring that had already been gutted and filleted in the process! After getting the salmon (gutted, this one), we picked up a few other bits and pieces before going for breakfast.

This was in one of the market’s cafés, decorated with photos of porters in the old market in the City (where they wore those leather hats that they could balance several crates of fish on); that one closed in 1982 when the market moved to its current location in the Docklands. On previous visits to the café I’ve always been tempted by the smoked haddock and poached egg option (it is a fish market, after all) but had shied away from the £10 price on the grounds that we’ve not usually got much cash left by this point. But cash we had today, so I ordered it. So did Dad. Turns out that it’s a big piece of haddock so you really do get your money’s worth.

Back home, my big job involved gutting and filleting – first the herring, then the salmon (the latter had already been gutted, at least). I have a thin, sharp knife for this, and I have gutted and filleted herring for the purpose of pickling it for Christmas before; that said, it probably took two or three fish to get back in the hang of it. Once the fillets have been removed, they need to be gone over with a pair of tweezers to make sure the bones have all been removed. After this, the herring fillets were washed, dried and put in the fridge to anticipate the pickling process. The salmon was filleted – and after the fillets were cut up we had some to spare for the freezer as well as for the gravadlax (of which more in a later post).

We make two kinds of picked herring – garlic herring and, err, pickled herring. The first – my favourite – has the herring fillets layered in jars with a mixture made from shredded carrots, a shredded onion, tomato juice, garlic, pickling spice, a bay leaf and vegetable oil; this mixture is heated until the carrots and onions are cooked and then cooled and the bay leaf removed before being added to the jar with the herring fillets. Pickled herring is the herring fillets layered in a jar with onion slices, with the jar then being filled with the pickling liquid (water, vinegar, sugar and pickling spices) that’s been boiled and cooled.

This needs to be done about two weeks before you are due to serve it. So that’s one part of the food for Christmas done!