Jane Grigson's Fish Book by Jane Grigson

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Jane Grigson's Fish Book by Jane Grigson

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Category: Cookery
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: A scholarly but readable book which covers just about every edible fish. Unless you have access to an excellent fishmonger much of this book might be wasted on you.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 576 Date: May 1998
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
ISBN: 0140273255

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Jane Grigson is one of my food heroes. It was Delia Smith who convinced me that I could actually put reasonable food on the table, but it was Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson and her successor as Food Editor of the Observer Magazine, Nigel Slater, who taught me how to cook. Just before Christmas I had a splurge at Amazon and one of the real gems that I picked up was Jane Grigson's Fish Book. It's part of a series of weighty, scholarly books which includes her Fruit Book and Vegetable Book.

Don't be put off, though, by the fact that they're scholarly because the books are friendly and certainly not intimidating. They convey thought, information, recipes stories and even poetry in the same way that the very best teachers inspire their pupils to learn. The depth of knowledge behind each of the books is amazing; when I read Jane Grigson I'm always left with the feeling that however much she's said, we've barely scraped the surface of what she knows. These are not books which have been specifically researched - they've been written from a tremendous depth of knowledge accumulated over decades.

The principle is the same one that she uses in her Fruit Book and her Vegetable Book. Take a fish - any fish - and it will be there in alphabetical order. If the fish might be known by a different name then it will be cross-referenced. There's a Table of Contents at the beginning and a comprehensive index just to pick up anything that you can't find otherwise. All the fish are there, be they the cod and haddock that you buy in the supermarket or the eel, carp, perch and sea bream which you might only find in a specialist wet fish shop.

Before you cook the fish, though, you're going to have to learn quite a few other things. There is some excellent advice on choosing, cleaning and preparing fish. Perhaps the most important advice is that you should cultivate a good fishmonger, which would probably have been easier when the book was first written, in 1973. Nowadays a fishmonger is almost as much of an endangered species as some of the fish he would sell. After that you'll learn how to make court bouillons, butters, sauces and batters. Mrs Grigson is not a lady for short cuts and I struggle to think that she might ever have met a stock cube in her own home.

Then it's on to the fish and what fish there are, from the anchovy through to whiting. Let's look briefly at one of my favourites, the salmon. Actually 'salmon' is the name for the fish which weighs between three and fifteen kilos. The smaller fish is called a grilse. I didn't know that. Salmon spend most of their lives in salt water but return to the rivers where they were spawned - quite how is not known - but from the moment they leave salt water they cease to eat, so from the cook's point of view, the sooner the fish is caught and eaten, the better. A salmon returning to the sea is, she says, a dish for nobody.

Her views on farmed salmon have been overtaken by events, I'm afraid. In her day fish were not as densely farmed and the quality was good. If only that was the case today. Her advice on cooking whole salmon applies equally to the farmed or wild fish and the techniques are so simple that they are within the capabilities of even a novice cook. She aims for simple presentation but agrees that it's reasonable for a caterer to prepare his salmon hours in advance and have it "dressed up like Tom Kitten".

The recipes which follow range from the simple - my favourite is seasoned salmon steaks placed in a baking dish, covered in cream and baked in the oven - to the more complex, such as Kulebiaka. That's salmon, rice, hard-boiled eggs and mushrooms baked in pastry. It's not a fast meal, but it is a very tasty one. There's considerable information too about smoked salmon and finally a recipe - salmon rilletes - which uses both the salmon and his smoked brother. I counted sixteen recipes for salmon with a range which would cover most occasions.

Think of that being done for every fish you could imagine and you will begin to realise the scope of this book. There are no glossy pictures to pad out an inadequate text - the only illustrations are line drawings by Yvonne Scargon which supplement the text but certainly don't intrude upon it.

So, what do I think about the book? When I finished reading it my immediate reaction was that it couldn't be less than five stars but after thinking about it I've come to the conclusion that four is appropriate and I'm not even going to say that you should buy the book. I think I'd better explain myself!

Some parts of the book have been overtaken by events - the demise of the fishmonger and the increase in fish farming are two examples that I've already quoted. The book obviously doesn't entirely cater for the situation we have today. Obviously basic recipes and techniques don't change but availability of foods has altered. I'd go as far as to say that if the only fish you can readily buy is the limited range offered by the supermarket then this isn't the book for you.

On the front of the book there's a recommendation from Jennifer Paterson (one half of The Two Fat Ladies) that the book is "one of the essential bibles of the serious kitchen" and I think she sums it up perfectly. Few people, though, have serious kitchens and this really is a book for the cook who wants to put a lot of time and effort into her cooking. It's also a book for the more experienced cook. Mrs Grigson does explain the why as well as the how of cooking but a certain level of knowledge is assumed. She also generally assumes that you'll be cooking for six people, which isn't always the case!

If you are looking for a book to give you a basic grounding in fish cookery then Delia Smith's How to Cook - Book 2 could be a good buy. If you really would like to read Jane Grigson on fish I'd recommend her English Food where there's a whole section devoted to fish but you'll get a lot else besides. On a similar basis you could also look at Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall's River Cottage Cookbook which might even tempt you to catch your own fish. If you get the chance though do read Jane Grigson's Fish Book. It's an inspiration.

Buy Jane Grigson's Fish Book by Jane Grigson at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Jane Grigson's Fish Book by Jane Grigson at Amazon.co.uk


Buy Jane Grigson's Fish Book by Jane Grigson at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Jane Grigson's Fish Book by Jane Grigson at Amazon.com.

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