"eat a fish, save a river" Maggie Beer
If only it was that simple. Although we could certainly try harder than we do at the moment. For although carp may indeed be the most popular farmed fish in the world it is the most despised fish here in Australia. It's one of Australia's major pest species. So consider this post to also be part of that very intermittent series on our pest animals and plants.
I'm continuing with my lucky dip book - Maggie Beer's Maggie's Harvest. I decided for this lucky dip to do two lucky dip pages - well it's such an enormous book - and my second dip found me looking at a recipe - Pan-fried carp with anchovy butter - in her chapter on river fish. There are actually two recipes for carp and two for Murray Cod. I think she was trying to show how one is prized and the other despised and yet they can both provide good eating.
And as an aside, it's interesting that the two pages I picked happen to be on slightly unusual foods. Most of the book is about more ordinary things, but, being Maggie Beer many, indeed most, of the recipes are not that ordinary. Like most of my cookbooks I should use it more.
There actually is a National Carp Control Program, and, of course, there is some controversy about it. But why is carp a pest? Well it's not native - it's actually a native of China and Europe, where it is actually a prized delicacy - throughout Asia and Eastern Europe in particular. Hence the farming. They think it was introduced to Australia back in the mid to late nineteenth century - partly for fishing sport and partly for decoration. Some carp - from little goldfish to rather large koi are very decorative. Some of these may have escaped, and definitely some were deliberately introduced for anglers.
They are a pest for a number of reasons, not the least of which is their reproductive ability and their longevity. They are bottom feeders, and stir up the bed of the rivers which not only causes erosion but also makes the water muddy, which prevents fish who rely on sight for their hunting for food unable to do so. So because of their numbers they also take more of the food. The carp also eat the eggs of the native fish. And so over the decades they have multiplied to such an extent that they apparently make up some 90% of the biomass of Australia's rivers and lakes. Now that is huge.
Apparently they are very popular amongst fishermen but even in England where they are not as much reviled, Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall says:
"There are plenty of people in this country who are nuts about catching carp - and then putting them back in the water."
Because they have this reputation for not being good to eat. And I shall return to that.
Back in 2016 the notion of introducing a herpes virus, specific to carp, into the river systems where they flourished, was mooted, and indeed I think may have been tried. However, it has still not been implemented in a widespread fashion. As far as I can ascertain, there are disputes about whether it is really, really safe for other species, even though the evidence seems to suggest that it is, and also arguments about the real problem being the agricultural uses to which the water from our river systems is put. Maintain the level of the water in the rivers, and don't pollute it seems to be that particular theme. The other problem though is what to do with all the dead fish. If they are left in the water they will rot and pollute the water - we are talking about masses of dead fish here remember, and if we don't leave them in the water how do we get them out? One suggested answer has been to reintroduce turtles who would eat the dead fish before they rot, but it seems to me you would need an awful lot of turtles, and maybe that would also throw the system out of balance. Then there is the problem of never being able to get rid of all of them and so they would revive, become resistant to the virus and multiply again. Like the rabbits. Add to all of that the incompetence of this particular government and the problem is not going to be solved any time soon.
So why don't we just fish them and eat them if the Asians and the Europeans love them anyway? Indeed why don't we export them?
To take the second question first, they would have to be frozen immediately. Which is part of the answer to the first question too. River fish tend to taste muddy. If you put them immediately into an ice slurry and then keep them in fresh water for a few days, the muddy taste will disappear. Expensive to do this for export. I actually saw one article that suggested you took your live fish home and kept it in fresh water in your bath for a few days to solve this problem. I don't think so. Although I gather this is exactly what they do in Eastern Europe for the Christmas carp.
There are easier ways to get rid of the muddy taste. According to Maggie Beer:
"An easier option is to remove the skin when cleaning the fish and then soak the fillets in verjuice, or a mixture of 1 part vinegar to 4 parts water, for 30 minutes. The advantage of using verjuice is that it won't mask the flavour of the fish as vinegar can."
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall agrees with the keeping the fish in fresh water for a couple of days, but honestly would you? and he does say that good farms will do this anyway. Or you can do as Jane Grigson remembers (if you've caught one that is):
"the freshness of running water with its weeds and tiny forms of floating life are what make the difference. The first carp I ever cooked came from a French river, the Loire. We wrapped it up, with seasoning and butter and a splash of white wine, in a foil parcel, which was laid on a grill over some smouldering charcoal. After 10 minutes we turned the package over to cook the other side. Then we ate it with lemon juice, bread and butter and glasses of white wine. I have persisted with farm carp, but have never found one which came near the perfection of that river fish."
They are ancient fish and have been popular as food from ancient times. The Romans in particular loved them and it was a species that became particularly popular with the Eastern Europeans and the Germans who traditionally eat it on Christmas Eve. I have a book, which I rarely use - Central European Cooking which has half a dozen recipes for carp.
The recipe you see the most from this area is Carp in black sauce - the black coming from prunes. I can't say it looks that tempting to me. Others are in a red wine sauce, a paprika sauce, with sour cream and also in a soup. Sweet and sour is the other way to go here - and this comes from the Jewish influence.
The Asians cook it in all sorts of different ways. This one is a simple pan-fried version from Szechuan, but I'm sure there are dozens if not hundreds of different ways to prepare it. You would have to wonder, given the number of Asian immigrants there have always been in Australia, why carp has not been more utilised. If it's plentiful and easy to catch - some small companies do fish it - you would think that it would have become a big thing.
I gather as far as eating goes it has two other disadvantages - huge scales that need to be removed - the Germans keep one for luck from the Christmas carp for the year ahead, and lots of bones. Well I guess the easiest way to deal with that is to buy it filleted. They say it's easier to avoid the bones with chopsticks, though Maggie Beer says, "don't be worried about bones - use your fingers". She adds this injunction to the end of a sort of recipe which is similar to Jane Grigson's:
"If you are comping by a river, try cooking carp on the campfire. Gut a 1kg carp and stuff it with lemon and onion, season throughly with salt and freshly ground black pepper, then wrap it in about eight pages of wet newspaper and barbecue for 15 minutes a side or until the paper dries out. When you open the parcel, the skin will peel away, exposing the steamed flesh."
No need to remove those scales for that. And if it is so popular elsewhere and always has been then surely it must taste good. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Maggie Beer both think so with Maggie saying it beats redfin any time, and Hugh saying that
'With its rich flesh (it's classed as an oily fish, and is a good source of omega-3) and curdy flakes of meat, it can be quite delicious."
But you won't find it in your local supermarket, or not even at the market perhaps. I'm not sure about that. Which seems a waste. Now eating carp may not solve the whole problem, and it's probably too difficult and too expensive to export, although if we can export rock lobster then why not carp? And barramundi is a river fish sometimes isn't it? Not to mention trout and salmon. I won't give you lots of recipes because - well you and I are not going to cook it are we? - but Hugh-Fearnley Whittingstall has a tempting recipe for potted carp - cook the fish, flake it and mix with melted, flavoured butter (juniper berries, thyme, bay and lemon) before chilling, and Maggie's recipe with the anchovy butter is pretty simple - just flour and pan fry then top with the anchovy butter. She also has a recipe for Thai fish balls which sounds good.
Elizabeth David though, even though she gives a recipe for the Jewish sweet and sour thing, is not a fan:
"Unless carp is exceedingly fresh it is scarcely worth cooking. ... But I think myself that the dish is an acquired taste."
Maybe it's all her fault that we don't like it. But if the Italians and Greeks can turn Australia on to squid and particularly calamari, why can't the Asians and the Eastern Europeans turn us on to carp? As Maggie says - "eat a fish, save a river."