#395 Red Herrings


Here’s a recipe – or, rather an entry with advice – from English Food that I thought I would never get to cook for two reasons. The first was that I suspected that Jane was having a little joke at our expense and that her entry on red herrings was actually a red herring in itself! Having only ever used the expression and never laying eyes on the food, the penny did not drop for a good while that the saying must have come from somewhere. So, after looking in a few other books I decided red herrings were, in fact, real.

The Red Herring Freehouse, Great Yarmouth
According to Jane’s entry, they are made in Great Yarmouth, and although they have fallen out of favour her in the UK, they are shipped over to the Caribbean in their droves where they are still a very popular food, indeed, a staple food:
Once they were slave food, now they are a food for the poor, a cheap, storable, provider of protein.
So if they are made in abundance on the south coast of England, a few must escape the net and show up in England itself, right? First I looked online, then in Afro-Caribbean shops in Manchester. Not a whiff. Then, when I lived in America, I detected a scent; apparently they are widely available in Afro-Caribbean stores. Well, not in any of the ones I looked in!
I was ready to give up hope, but then, when I returned to Manchester after my two-year hiatus, I eventually found somewhere that sold them, and that place was an online store called the Smelly Alley Fish Company, Reading. Hooray!
I ordered four and eagerly awaited their arrival. In the meantime I had to work out what to do with them.


Before I tackle any recipes, I’d better tell you what a red herring actually is.

A red herring is a heavily brined and smoked whole herring, rather like a bloater, except it is brined for at least a week, dried, and then cold smoked for at least four weeks. It is this extreme curing that gives both its red coloration and its unbelievably long shelf life so that it can easily survive long journeys and the humidity of the Caribbean.
The red herring cure originated in Scotland, but the herring fished in the North Sea were fatty; making them delicious, but decreasing their shelf life. However, the herring caught off the south coast of England at Great Yarmouth had little fat, and therefore were perfect for trade, eventually outcompeting Scotland.
Red herrings were a staple food for poor people living inland during the Middle Ages, especially during Lenten days, and predated the kipper, which is a relatively new invention.
I love Dorothy Hartley’s description of them from her 1954 classic Food in England:
Red Herrings are a form of super-salted bloater, very popular on the western seaboard, specially [sic] in Ireland. They produce a terrible thirst – all artists seem to like them: I cannot account for this. Rudyard Kipling makes his “Hal o’ the Draft” cook salt herrings in the Cathedral, but he provides the only corroborative authority that I can produce for this notable dietetic discovery.
Note: At Hogmanay, if the [sic] Glasgow friend wishes you well, he slips a red herring down his sleeve into the palm of his hand as he grasps it.
Next New Year’s Eve, I shall try that trick.
Now we know what a red herring is, why is it used in the famous idiom? Red herrings were used as a method of training hunting hounds. A false trail using the pungent red herring would be laid so that the training hound or hounds could be taught to ignore the obvious strong scent and pick up the faint and subtle scent of their hare or fox quarry. Hence, when someone is falsely distracted from their path or purpose, they have been given a red herring. Every day’s school day.
So what do you do with your red herring, once you have found it? Well, here are Jane Grigson’s instructions, which as per the rules of the game, I must follow:
If you ever manage to buy some, soak them well in water or milk. Then grill them or toast them in front of the fire, basting them with butter or olive oil. Serve them with scrambled eggs or potatoes mashed with plenty of butter. Or think of them as anchovies, to be used as a relish rather than a main food.
All good so far, but they are so dry, I wasn’t sure how long to soak them for. Hours? Days? I needed more instruction.
In Good Things in England (1932), Florence White gives us an 1823 Great Yarmouth recipe:
  1. Choose those that are large and moist.
  2. Cut them open, and pour over them some boiling small beer.
  3. Let them soak half an hour, then drain and dry them.
  4. Make them just hot through before the fire, and rub them over with cold butter.
  5. Serve with egg sauce or buttered eggs; mashed potatoes should also be sent up with them.
All well and good, but mine were not moist, but as dry and hard as if mummified.
Here’s a recipe from a lady called Meg Dodd’s, via The Scots Kitchen: Its Lore & Recipes (1929) by F Marian McNeill:
Skin, open, and trim red herring. If old and dry, pour some hot small beer or water over them and let them steep a half-hour, or longer if hard. Broil them over a clear fire at a considerable distance, or before the fire; rub them with good oil or fresh butter while broiling, and rub on a little more when they are served. Serve them very hot with cold butter, or with melted butter and mustard, and mashed potatoes or parsnips.
And finally, from the Smelly Alley Fish Company’s own website:
To cook them, soak for 48 hours, then fry with tomatoes – a great breakfast! They are great as they are (they don’t need to be cooked), and as they are very salty, you might need a pint of beer to drink with them.

I took Jane’s instruction and soaked them in milk, in the end, overnight. The next morning, the house awoke to the pungent smell of soaked red herrings. I fished them out of their now rufous milky marinade and grilled them smeared in butter, serving them with eggs for breakfast.
They were still pretty dry after all that soaking, though the roes found inside were nice and soft, and quite possibly the saltiest things I have ever eaten in my life. Trying to eat the flesh of the herring was tricky as it could not be parted easily from the bones. I had, as warned, a huge thirst, and the smell of red herring had still permeated my little terrace a week later.
#395 Red Herrings. What to say of red herrings!? Well they did taste good, but they were so unbelievably strong in flavour, and so difficult to eat (think fish jerky) I barely ate half of one. I think I need to revisit them following advice from those other recipes. A slow simmer in some hot milk might be a good idea, to help rehydrate the fish, or give a two-day cold soaking, but I think that it might be best cut with plenty of butter as potted red herrings or something like that. I have two left, so shall keep you posted on that one. Score? 7/10 I think, because the flavour was great, given even its pungency, it just needs taming!

#358 Bloater Paste

The thought of eating fish paste may make people shudder, people would think differently if this recipe were named smoked fish pâté, I feel. However we are not French so fish paste it remains. Perhaps people think back to those nasty cheap homogenised pots of meat and fish paste from their childhood. If you make your own it is a very different creature and I am sure this one will be same.

The other thing that may put one off from this recipe is the name of the fish in question – the bloater. It’s not the most delicious sounding fish is it? There have been several bloater recipes and this is the final one, but if you are not in the know a bloater is in fact a cured herring. The cure is very similar to that of the kipper and the only real difference is that bloaters are cured completely whole giving them a more gamy flavour than a kipper. Because they are intact they bloat as they smoke, hence the name.

This is a nice straight-forward easy affair. Start by gutting your bloaters, removing any membranes from the cavity. I had just one, but was lucky to find two nice fat roes inside within so I reserved those and tossed the rest of the innards in the bin.

Pour boiling water over your fish and roes; the skin will curl and the body of the fish will noticeably tense and plump up. Leave for around 10 minutes to poach in the water. Remove the skin and flake the flesh, being careful to pick out any bones, don’t worry too much about the very thin hair bones, they will not be noticed.
 
Don’t forget to fish out the roes, should you have any. Weigh the fish and place in a food processor along with its equal weight in softened butter. Whizz up until you have a spreadable consistency you like. Season with ground black pepper, lemon juice and a little salt. Serve with hot toast.

You get quite a lot of paste – I got two 250 ml pots from just the one bloater. Not bad at all I reckon.

#358 Bloater Paste. This was delicious and light – the butter helped whip the bloater into a wonderful consistency and the lemon juice really accentuated the fish’s own natural piquancy. Very good. 7.5/10.

#310 Smoked Mackerel

There are ingredients for recipes in the book that I really thought I wouldn’t be able to find, and one of those is smoked mackerel. Smoked mackerel was a new addition to English cuisine at the time of writing English Food and these days it is quite easy to find in supermarkets. So why is there a problem? Well, Griggers says to keep away from the hot-smoked (i.e. cooked) mackerel as she says it often ends up as mush; no, only cold-smoked mackerel will do. When I lived in Britain, I had no luck finding anywhere that sells it. However, here in Saint Louis, as I was having a walk around Global Foods – a large international food market – what did I happen upon just sat there in the refrigerator as bold as brass? Yes, a large cold-smoked mackerel. It is amazing what you find when you’re not looking. It turns out that cold-smoked mackerel is very popular in Eastern Europe. It obviously didn’t catch on that well in England, though Griggers gets full marks for trying to push it.

Like many recipes in the Cured Fish section of the Fish chapter, this isn’t really a recipe, as there is no cooking involved, it’s really advice on how best to serve it.


First you need to fillet the fish, removing any bones, and arrange pieces of the fillet on a plate. I was pretty impressed with my presentation here; I’m not very good at that sort of thing normally. She suggests serving the mackerel with lemon quarters and brown bread and butter. Because there was no cooking involved, I felt it was a bit of a cop-out recipe, so I baked some bread myself. Jane also suggests making a gooseberry sauce flavoured with horseradish. There is zero chance of finding gooseberries here in Missouri so I couldn’t do that part, but it was just a suggestion, so I reckon I can let myself off…


#310 Smoked Mackerel. A delicious fish it was, no wonder Grigson wanted to get us all eating it. It was very much like eating smoked sashimi, which is certainly not a bad thing. It was much more firm and flavoursome than smoked salmon, which can often be weirdly gelatinous in its texture. The smoky flavour was excellent and bona fide; it smelled as though it had just been snatched from the smokehouse. I think cold-smoked mackerel might catch on these days; sushi is popular and people are much less likely to turn their noses up at raw (though perfectly-cured) fish. Hopefully it might get a second chance. 7/10.

#287 Scotch Woodcock

Here’s a quickie that was a popular savoury in Victorian times in the same vein as Locket’s savoury and Gloucester ale and cheese. None of them are really eaten these days, though most of the time they are very tasty (though also very rich; no wonder everybody had gout). Although such savouries were served at the end of a meal in those days, it is is perfect for a first course or as a light lunch these days, I reckon.
It doesn’t contain any actual woodcock, of course, but is basically anchovies and eggs on toast – the fish and eggs being a substitute for the prized game bird. Just like how Welsh Rabbit is really cheese and bread instead of the delicious meaty mammal.
This recipe makes six woodcocks:
Start by draining a tin of anchovies before mashing them with two ounces of butter. Next, get the toast ready – cut circles out of six slices of bread and toast them on both sides. Spread with butter and then the anchovy mixture. Keep warm whilst you make the eggy sauce. In a saucepan, add two egg yolks to half a pint of whipping or double cream. Beat the yolks and add pepper a little salt and a good pinch of Cayenne. Stir over a moderate heat until the sauce thickens. Spoon over the anchovies, add a flourish of chopped parsley and serve it forth. If you don’t fancy making the thickened cream sauce, make some softly scrambled eggs made with a bit of cream instead.
#287 Scotch Woodcock. Previous anchovy-based recipes in this blog have ranged from the most delicious to the worst and most bizarre. This one however can join the ranks of the delicious. The intense saltiness of the anchovies was balanced very well with the bland creamy sauce. Very, very good. I ended up eating three and it gave me stomach ache. Hey-ho, you’ve to take the rough with the smooth in life aintcha? Tres bon, 8/10.

#252 Bloater and Potato Salad

This dish gets right away from the high-tea image and shows how delicious bloaters can be at the beginning of a dinner party’ says Griggers. I wasn’t aware they had that image. These days, I suppose, they have no image at all seeing as they are rarely eaten. Indeed, these had to be ordered, like many of the fish in this book, online at The Fish Society. This is a simple dish and actually probably more suitable as a buffet item… With this recipe, I managed to use up all the fish in my freezer before the move to Houston. Indeed, any recipe after this one will have been done in America. I wonder how successful I will be!?

First prepare three bloaters by removing the skin and removing the fillets. Bloaters are already cooked, but if removing them from the bone is a problem, immerse them in boiling water and leave for a few minutes. Flake the fish or cut it up and put in the centre of a serving dish. Cut up a pound of boiled, waxy potatoes and mix in a vinaigrette. Griggers suggests this one: 5 tablespoons olive oil to one of lemon juice, plus salt, pepper, sugar and a heaped tablespoon of chopped chives. Reserve a tablespoon of it to pour over the fish. Now arrange the potatoes around the fish in an artistic manner and serve.


#252 Bloater and Potato Salad. Not the most exciting meal. The bloaters were very nice, as were the lemony potatoes, but it didn’t feel like a complete course. It would have been much nicer with additional dishes too I think. Could do better, Lady Jane: 5/10

#247 Anchovy Matchsticks

I had a few friends round for my 33rd birthday last week and thought it would be a good excuse to do some of the finger foods in the book. This is a slightly strange one and the anchovy-based recipes have been pretty hit-and-miss. I couldn’t really see anything that was hit about this recipe: anchovies, boiled eggs and cream. However, I’ve been surprised more times than disappointed doing this blog….

To make your very own anchovy matchsticks, start off by rolling out 8 ounces of puff pastry into two rectangles thinly. Place anchovy fillets in rows, spacing them around 1 ½ inches apart on one piece of pastry. Next, make the egg filling: mash together 2 hard-boiled eggs with a tablespoon of cream and a little salt and pepper. Carefully add a stripe of egg over the fillets, before painting egg wash over the gaps and placing the other piece of pastry over that. Press down and cut into ‘matchsticks’. Glaze with more egg and bake in the oven at 220⁰C for 15-20 minutes. Serve hot.


#247 Anchovy Matchsticks. These were absolutely vile. The combinations of the hot boiled egg and salty fish made my stomach turn. Horrible, horrible, horrible. 1/10

#240 Smoked Sprats (and #232 Pickled Eggs revisited)

‘An inexpensive luxury’, says Jane Grigson of smoked sprats. That sentence should be now changed to: ‘An expensive luxury’. How times have changed. I’m not sure why smoked sprats aren’t more widely available because fresh sprats certainly are, so it’s not like they are hard to come by. The only place I’ve seen them is The Fish Society’s website. You eat smoked sprats whole, rather like whitebait, the difference of course, is that they are quite a lot bigger than tiny whitebait.

Anyways, my friends Simon and Rachel came over to visit after their super-amazing trip around South America. They blogged it, natch, have a look-see at it here. I thought smoked sprats would make a great starter. Because my friend Stuart – a staunch vegetarian – came along too so I served some pickled eggs, remember them? Have a look here to see they were made.

To cook the sprats, simply grill them and serve them with lemon wedges and brown bread and butter. To eat them, pull off their heads and tails and eat. If that seems a little too much, you can remove the fillets from each side with your thumb.


#240 Smoked Sprats. I really liked these alot. The problem of bones/guts was, in the end, a non-issue. The bones were just the right side of not being too crunchy or sharp. They were quite strongly smoked, but also sweet in flavour and not over-powering like some cured fishes can be. If you see some, be sure to give them a go. 8.5/10

#232 Pickled Eggs. These were also very good – they required a little wait for the viengar to work its pickling magic, but were worth it. If you’ve had vile pub pickled eggs, don’t be put off by these. the white wine vinegar made them very subltly sharp and the chillies in the pickling liquor lent a decent spicy-punch to them. 7/10.