Today we were to be taken through our paces by Tim Maddams (affectionately jibed by Steve Lamb as 'Tim off 'telleh!' in a Yorkshire accent for an undisclosed reason), he of the bad-boy-burners familiar to many from Hugh's Fish Fight. Tim is Head Chef at the River Cottage canteen and deli in Axminster and therefore had to go and do his proper job after mucking about with us lot each day, but this had no detrimental effect whatsoever on his fantastic sense of humour and infectious passion for good food, lovingly handled and with respectful provenance.
First up, Mackerel. All hail the underrated Omega 3 king of bycatch! Did you know that when they are spawning, shoals of mackerel can actually be spotted by the oily film they leave on the water's surface? Or that to get the same omega 3 hit from, say, haddock, you'd need to eat a LOT of it's liver? Tim explained that fresh fish should smell of the sea, that a decapitated fish is likely not to be the freshest on display as they eyes give their age away, and that a fish fillet is likely to be even older, so, by buying a prepared fillet, you are likely to be paying a premium for the oldest fish on sale.
We were shown how to open up the fish starting at it's *ahem* 'vent' and clean out the cavity before removing the head whilst retaining as much flesh as possible by keeping the fishy 'shoulders'. A quick demo of cutting down the spine to the tail (but not all the way down so as to create two fillets, natch), removing the central and belly bones and creating a v-shaped trough by cutting out some cavity bones and it was our turn!
Blood and guts everywhere, basically. Mostly belonging to fish. But I got there in the end!
Then we lovingly filled the mackerel's cavity with our salsa verde, tied it delicately twice and it was ready to take home for dinner!
Tim was to demonstrate a number of times his confidence in the quality of freshly obtained food, and number one came now. He demonstrated hot smoking of mackerel fillets on a griddle in a tin box containing oak chips (fruit tree wood also imparts a nice flavour, apparently, pine, not so much!) over a gas flame (or barbecue preferably unless your kitchen is also River Cottage classroom-sized) for 7 minutes. That's 7 minutes. Hugh goes for 10 and this is a fishbone of contention as Tim reckons this dries the fillets too much. The delicately smoked and still warmed fillets were delicious and moist, a million miles away from the vacuum-packed plastic packets we've all bought before.
Tim also presented us with mackerel sashimi dotted with English mustard and it made me very happy to think that something so humble as a mackerel could be so versatile and yet somehow exotic. Like me on a Friday night.
Before we knew it, it was time for a fisherman's nip cookalong and today's 'snack' would be mussels. Key learning? Open mussels don't have to close when you tap them for them to be ok to eat. They can just stir grumpily and that is still fine. So we chopped garlic, onion and chilli, cooked it off, turned up the heat, threw in our mussels, waited a few painstaking moments before adding a Floyd-worthy glug of white wine and minutes later we were greedily picking, slurping and grinning while we wiped juice from our chins and eyed up another hunk of Olly's chorizo focaccia.
Before we knew it, it was back to work.
Black bream is a somewhat menacing-looking fish with spines that once numbed Tim's hands for a whole day due to their alien bacteria and scales the size of contact lenses. Quite handy to be able to extract a few of these from one's hair on the commute home to secure a quiet carriage, apparently...
Now, either Tim forgot that the next bit usually happens outside, or he was just feeling mischievous. We were shown how to trim the perilous spine and use a chefs knife to deftly swipe the scales from the bream before slashing the sides and inserting some herbs ready for cooking in yesterday's pizza oven. Tim wanted us to eat the whole fish, bones n' all, to learn how to navigate our way around it.
Scales everywhere. Hair, handbag, eyes...
But good fun though.
Then we moved onto squid. Now, I am proud to say that I have had squid in more ways than calimari-ed, less so that my role in the prep of such dishes has been strictly commis.
Squid are fascinating creatures and we were taken through what was basically an anatomy lesson while Tim painstakingly score the flesh and explained the origin of his perfectionist neuroses before we were sent to deconstruct and score our own squid ready for a hot griddle pan at home. Now I know that a squid has a beak and a quill. Handy for a pub quiz, one day!
To round off our day Tim carried out two demonstrations - one to fillet a flat fish, megrim sole, and another of a round fish, gurnard. Poor, misunderstood megrim. We don't eat it a lot here as it looks a bit special, but they love it in France! I shall keep my eyes open for it's poor little squished face and give it a chance when I see one. As should you!
That done, it was time to eat the fish of our labour. We watched hungrily as the bream was roasted in the brick oven and they were a delight with salad and amazing pork-fat roasted potatoes. Just look:
And then there was this cake. Let me tell you, it's not often that I buy a cookbook on the merits of one single recipe but this was no ordinary cake. Keep your eyes peeled on my blog as I will be making this amazing honey cake for a get together this weekend and will share more about it!
I'd like to take this opportunity to thank a number of my wonderful classmates who let me take their squid and mackerel home and eat them because they had no way of cooking where they stayed. Amy and Harry and I found them delicious, and even their dog Barney, normally a grumpy teenager anyway, was especially miserable to not be allowed any. Thank you!