“North Atlantic Seafood” and “Mediterranean Seafood” by Alan Davidson

“Mr. Davidson has a gift for conveying memorable information in a way so effortless that his book makes lively reading for its own sake.”  (Elizabeth David)

For those not familiar with Alan Davidson’s important works “Mediterranean Seafood” and “North Atlantic Seafood”, it is fortunate that Prospect Books have reprinted them, as they would both make invaluable gifts for fish cookery lovers everywhere. Their new, glossy front covers are colourful and  eye-catching featuring beautiful illustrations by artists Simon Drew and John Gillo respectively. First published in 1972 and 1979, the books have remained in constant print and have been translated in many languages, offering that very rare thing amongst encyclopaedic tones: a humorous and human touch.

As all lovers of Davidson’s “Oxford Companion to Food” {1999} know full well, entering his work means losing oneself in a catalogue of wonder and curiosity: from one section you will be drawn into the description of something quite irrelevant to your first line of enquiry, but so absorbingly interesting that a few hours later you have uncovered far more than you set out to find. For all scholars, cooks and enthusiasts, Davidson’s erudite and comprehensive studies are always at the very top of their genre of research, and these two books are no exception.

In both cases, the habitats from where the different fish and seafood flourish and breed are analysed and drawn in detail to provide a background of depth, range, temperature, continental shelf and salinity. The enormity of the subject is considerable.

“The Atlantic ocean is vast. It stretches from the Arctic to the Antarctic. At its point of greatest width it is 5000 miles wide. It is a single ocean.”

The maps provided also show the important Greenland, Norwegian, Labrador and Gulf Stream currents that affect the zones.

The inter-relationship between the two bodies of water is interesting:

“What keeps the Mediterranean going is the Atlantic. About one million cubic metres of Atlantic water flow into the Mediterranean past Gibraltar every second. At the same time Mediterranean water flows out into the Atlantic, in slightly less volume.”

In the “Catalogues” section each fish or shellfish is described in detail: its name is translated in several languages; the habitat, supplies, relations and fishing methodologies described. The “Cuisine” section describes the most common methods of eating the fish and this is followed by a list of useful, and in some cases unusual, recipes.

Definition, ichthyology and taxonomy are crucial in a work of this exactitude:

“The crustaceans are not, strictly speaking, shell-fish, although often so described. They are members of the animal phylum Arthropoda, which also includes the spiders, scorpions and insects.”

The history, both ancient and modern, of fishing and its economic importance is set in context:

“There are grounds for thinking that the European colonisation of North America was prompted to a large extent by the existence of large stocks of cod on that side of the Atlantic. Cape Cod was of course named for the cod; and Boston, the home of the bean and the cod, has an effigy of the sacred cod.”

In Ancient Rome a morbid “red mullet fever” gripped the higher echelons of society, such that the Emperor Tiberious had to impose a tax on the fish market which led to its ultimate decline.

The Russian writer Aksakov, in his 1847 “Notes on Angling” book, explains that “Almost all young fish, particularly some of the smaller species, are so beautiful, or better, so sweet in appearance, playful and clean, that people in the south of Russia use the term little fish (rybka} as an expression of endearment and tenderness in praise of a woman’s beauty and charm.”

Such treats would not be afforded in an ordinary fish recipe book. Derek Cooper described “North Atlantic Seafood” quite rightfully as “A catalogue, cookery book, universal aquarium, gazetteer, compendium and social history.”

How to choose fish, keep them fresh, prepare and cook them are delineated in the “Cooking fish” chapters, and here the methods of grilling, braising, cooking en papillotte, frying poaching, stewing, boiling and steaming are described in detail.

Each region that borders with the Mediterranean Sea and the North Atlantic seas has its own fish specialities: in Andalucia “Caldillo de Perro” is made with the juice of bitter oranges and hake; in Provence tuna is cooked in a “chartreuse” mix of fresh vegetables, including lettuce hearts, anchovies, sorrel and wine; in Poland salted herring is served with apple and cream; in Canada fresh smelts are prepared with roast ground almonds, butter and lemon. A “cataplana” is used in Portugal to cook clams with onions, bacon, sausage and tomatoes. The latter looks like a heavy, bi-handled wok, made of copper or aluminium, with a rounded lid that is hinged at one side, so that the cataplana is sealed and the contents simmered over a low flame.

Certain regions, like for example Estonia, have rounded wooden boxes in which to salt fish, whereas in Finland a special round mould is used in the making of Kalamureke, a minced pike steamed fish pudding flavoured with egg and cream, to serve with Hollandaise sauce.

From England, Davidson includes recipes for Royal Lamprey Pie from the City of Gloucester, Red Herrings and Bloaters, Northumberland Potted Salmon, Cod with Samphire Sauce, John Dory with herbs, cider and cream, East Riding Mackerel and Eliza Acton’s Baked Soles {amongst many others}.

There are also specific notes on ingredients, implements and cooking techniques pertaining to the season and region that underpins the prevalence of each species of fish. It is interesting to learn about Hamburg parsley, a large, parsnip-like root vegetable which is very easy to grow and tastes of celeriac and parsley combined.

It is also particularly interesting to see the fish recipes of lesser known cuisines: an Osten fish stew is so very different from that of Livorno or Marseilles and Faroese fish balls are so different from the equivalent in Maryland or Russia. In Denmark plaice is served with cranberry sauce whereas in the Netherlands it is served with crushed coriander seeds and dill.

The history and heritage discovered and shared by Davidson are all the more fascinating now, when a new generation of cooks is faced with inalienable fish shortages and sustainability issues surrounding the entire fishing industry around the globe. Will many of the fish described in these two books be extinct in another decade’s time and these recipes become mere historical reference points?

Many of the fish described in these two books are also difficult to find in any shop other than on an extremely well stocked fish monger’s cold slab in either a capital city or on the quay side of a major fishing harbour stall. Britain supermarkets, even high quality ones, serve the same drab selection week-in-week-out, and for an island nation this is a sad state of affairs.

We should all be cooking and eating more interesting fish, molluscs, bi-valves and crustaceans: with Davidson’s guides we can all be more informed and inspired to ask for a wider range, for it is demand that creates supply and increased consumer awareness that fuels change.

Further Information

Prospect Books: www.prospectbooks.co.uk

Follow Prospect Books on Twitter: @prospectbooks

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