Fish pie and Fridays

Updated: Nov 17, 2021

"It's the warm, fuzzy equivalent of settling down for the Sunday afternoon film with a mug of tea" Felicity Cloake

No it's not Friday, it's Sunday. But for some strange reason it felt like Friday to me today. That's what happens when you're retired. The days blur. The weekend is no longer significant.


I remember weekends. They were significant in so many different ways, according to whatever stage of my life they were at. Today not so much. After all, the shops are always open these days. Not so in the past. I remember the fights as David and I, getting up pretty late on a Saturday, would rush to the shops in London town, blaming each other for the rush, because the shops would close at midday. But that's not the only thing, of course, because there is no work looming on Monday. And yet even in retirement there are still markers during the week - rubbish bin days, the days we get the newspaper, my Italian lessons on Thursday, the nights a particular television show is on ... But you know, those are actually the only signposts I can think of. Oh yes - Aldi specials days. Such is the paucity of our lives. Well not really because of course the magnificent thing about life without the marker of the weekend, is that every day is a weekend, and every day is therefore full of potential surprise and beauty, not to mention ordinary old rest and relaxation.

One of the reasons today felt like Friday is because of fish. As I lay in bed pondering on what to cook for dinner I came to fish - something with fish because we had not had fish during the week - and we should - at least once. Also I had been reading The Australian's weekend magazine and there was a recipe and a rather tempting picture of a fish pie. An actual pastry pie - because that's what we usually think of when we think of pie isn't it? Pastry. And yet fish pie is usually topped with potatoes - well the British version thereof anyway. Indeed this month's Coles Magazine had a recipe for Easy fish pie with colcannon, which has been sitting next to me at my desk, waiting for me to find some way of fitting it into a post because that too, although not particularly enticing to me, was at least potentially interesting.

And even though it's Sunday - not that Sunday means a film and a cup of tea to me - I hate tea and have vowed never to watch the television during the day - today it seems like Friday - so fish and fish pie in particular seemed to be appropriate subject for today. I can't quite remember why Friday is fish day, but I do know that it's something to do with Christianity. We always had fish on a Friday when I was growing up.


So today on my Sunday Friday we are going to have fish - but risotto not pie - pastry or otherwise.


I don't think we ever had fish pie at home when I was growing up. I know I have eaten it - possibly for a school lunch - but I don't remember being a fan. I think the fish bit is too runny. Even though I love that other British pie, that is not a pastry pie - Shepherd's pie - somehow mashed potato on top of a creamy fish sauce never appealed. I'm still not sure that it does.


So what did I find out about fish pie? British fish pie. I did see a Curried Fish Pie from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, who is very English, but then it's a very British thing to do to add curry powder to almost everything. He had a pastry top too, so another black mark against authenticity. I also saw quite a lot of Thai fish pies, but I suspect these are also not really genuinely Thai. I think they are also the British fiddling with their own fish pies. I actually found a video of Jamie (and his then very young son Buddy) making a Thai sort of fish pie. But is there an actual authentic British fish pie anyway?


"The simpler the meal – and let’s face it, fish pie is fairly simple – the greater the number of quirks that each household can add, and the more my fish pie will leave you yearning for your mum’s." Stephen Bush - The Guardian

J. Sheekey's - a restaurant in London's Covent Garden, started life as an oyster bar, and supposedly has the most famous fish pie - the recipe for which you can find here. And interestingly it does not include any kind of smoked fish.

And as an aside and while we are on oysters - well almost - Yotam Ottolenghi has an inauthentic version that included tinned smoked oysters. He called it Smoked oyster fish pie. Now I once accidentally ate some smoked oysters and thought they were completely repulsive, so this one is not for me.

Actually though the smoked oysters are not necessarily that inauthentic, as the standard mix of fish seems to be some white fish and some smoked fish. There seems to be more controversy over whether to add salmon or things like prawns.


"the “theory” of a fish pie – you can change the components at will, while retaining the essential hallmarks: a white fish such as haddock for the base, an oilier fish such as salmon, plus another flavour such as kippers, depending on your mood." Stephen Bush - The Guardian


Felicity Cloake of course, does her thing and runs through the most common variants - that's her final version at the top of the page. And what are those variants? Well the choice of fish, whether you cook the fish first and if so how, how you make the sauce, what else you might add. Raymond Blanc thinks that:


"Often, the fish ends up completely over cooked, lacking its identity, texture and flavour" and so he tells us to: "cool the sauce and then add the fish to the cold sauce before baking in a hot oven."


Perhaps what is most controversial though is what you put on top. I say controversially because, honestly the traditional topping is mashed potato. But these days there are heaps of variants on this - mashed potatoes mixed with other root vegetables and herbs, or just a mash of some other root vegetable, a kind of potato roesti topping - again either just straight potato or mixed with other roots, sliced potatoes ... Then there is pastry - puff, shortbread, filo ... breadcrumbs, or a kind of crumble - which is what Nigel Slater goes for and of which Felicity Cloake says:


"Nigel Slater suggests a most unorthodox crumble mixture (which I consider 10 kinds of wrong)" Felicity Cloake

And most controversial of all - cheese or no cheese - mixed with the sauce, mixed with the potatoes or just sprinkled on top or none at all.


So here is a gallery of possibilities: two from Jamie - Happy fish pie, and Crazy simple fish pie. He has various other versions as well, like that Thai version I mentioned before. Delia has four but I have not included the pictures here for some reason. One is described as Luxury fish pie, on which epithet Stephen Bush of The Guardian says:


"For me, “luxury” food is (a) something that someone else brings to me, (b) is cooked by someone else, or (c) makes me wince when I see the bill. Nothing I make in my kitchen is “luxury” as far as I’m concerned."


But back to my gallery. After Jamie we have: Donna Hay's Black pepper fennel fish pies and Fish and prawn pies and finally that one with sliced potatoes from Richard Allen that he calls Hearty fish pie. There are heaps more on the net, and in your cookery book collection. Taste.com says it has 248 recipes.

Easy peasy they all seem to say - with the exception of Nigel Slater who says:


"Fish pie is straightforward enough if you get organised. It is not a dish for the chaotic cook or anyone short of time." Nigel Slater


If you've got time you can look at an episode of Heston Blumenthal's series In search of Perfection in which he attempts to redefine fish pie. And if you've got time you can actually try and cook it, although I suspect that, from the little bit that I saw, it's all just too hard, and, dare I say, possibly not worth the trouble?


No - if you want classic you should probably try something like Gordon Ramsay's version if you're feeling classy, or another Coles recipe for Seafood chowder pie (pastry not potatoes) if you're not.

"the complete neatness of it: a soft and soothing meal packed into one big dish that will feed lots of us." Rachel Roddy


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