"Eat with horseradish sauce, good bread and a poached egg - if you fancy - and tease every last morsel from the spine bones and head. Like crab picking, kipper eating is a tactile, hands-on, sucking, plucking, greasy-chin affair." Nick Fisher - River Cottage
I haven't done a first recipe post for a while, so on this cold and rainy day I turned to the next Jane Grigson book - Good Things - which has been sitting on my desk for some time waiting to be opened at its first recipe - or in this case, recipes - on how to cook kippers for breakfast.
They adorn the cover of this little Penguin paperback published way back in 1971, along with the celery - star of the favourite recipe in this book - celery and lemon stuffing for the Christmas turkey. I actually think this family would be happy to do away with the turkey and just eat the stuffing. But I know I've talked about this before. I think this is my favourite of all her books, and I love almost everything in it. It is stuffed with good things.
And I also know that I have quoted large chunks of the introduction to this book here and there. Much of it could well come from any foodie writer today - deploring fast food, imported food when local is better, frozen, packaged, precooked foods ... The low quality of fruit and vegetables as the growers pander to the supermarkets requirements ... She was pessimistic about the future:
"The sad thing is that, unless we fight, and demand, and complain, and reject, and generally make ourselves thoroughly unpopular, these delights may be unknown to our great-grandchildren. Perhaps even to our grandchildren."
So I think, that although some of the evils of commercialisation still exist, she might be pleasantly surprised at the variety and quality of what is now available in our supermarkets - let alone our markets. Not to mention the proliferation of the 'artisan', provenance and the multicultural nature of modern food. To take a really simple example. When I first came to Australia you could buy just four kinds of apple I think, Golden and Red Delicious, Jonathans and Granny Smiths. Now, it seems to me, that every season there is yet another new and totally delicious apple to try. In spite of there still being a lot of stuff out there that is bad, bad, bad, on the whole the quality available today is far superior to back then.
And another parallel to the food writers of today is the emphasis on seasonality:
"One does not remember the grilled hamburgers and frozen peas, but the strawberries that come in May and June straight from the fields, the asparagus of a special occasion, kippers from Craster in July and August, the first lamb of the year from Wales, in October the fresh walnuts from France where they are eaten with new cloudy wine. This is good food." Jane Grigson
Our seasonal treasures of course are different and the seasons are back to front - mangoes and cherries at Christmas, that asparagus that is just coming into the shops now, citrus and apples in winter, spring lamb, 'real' tomatoes in summer - and so on, but the sentiment is the same, and one that is expressed often by those who provide us with recipe ideas.
And much of this is down to the pioneers - Elizabeth David, Robert Carrier, Jane Grigson, Claudia Roden et al. A tradition that continues today with the best of the cooking popularisers and even the supermarket magazines.
But back to kippers - the first item in her first chapter 'Fish' - which begins with this rather lovely and idyllic picture of a fish kind of picnic.
Kippers used to be the food of the poor. We sometimes had them in our house, although I didn't want to try them because the smell was horrendous. Indeed when I was searching for pictures to illustrate this post I saw one producer say that some of his workers were told to remove their clothes before entering the house when they returned home at the end of the day, because of the smell. It is indeed very strong, and there doesn't seem to be a way to avoid it. Delia suggests barbecuing them. That might work.
What are kippers? Well they are smoked herrings from the North Sea and in Britain the best ones come from Craster in Northumberland, from Scotland, and from Whitby in Yorkshire.
"To make a kipper, a fresh herring is split open, gutted but not boned, salted, then suspended over smouldering wood chips - usually oak - for 12-24 hours. ('Kippering' is an old name for the salting and smoking process.) Nikki Duffy - River Cottage
And here's an interesting little aside. They are suspended on rods or on hooks - tenter hooks which themselves are suspended from rods. This is a tenter hook and they were originally used to hook woven woollen cloth after it had been washed, on a wooden frame called a tenter. The hooks kept the cloth stretched as it dried. And from here comes the phrase 'on tenterhooks' - a mildly unpleasant state of apprehension. Actually from all of the pictures I saw of kippers smoking they mostly seemed to be threaded on to those metal poles, not hanging from hooks.
Kippers these days are almost a luxury item - certainly in Australia. I think the herrings were overfished for a while during the herring wars between Norway and the UK. Apparently the stocks are now returning and so there is a renewal of interest over there. Not here though. You will only find them in tins in your local supermarket, but I have been able to get them at the Queen Vic Market and probably a good fishmonger might have some. Imported of course. We don't seem to do herrings here. There is an Australian fish called a herring, but it is not related to northern hemisphere herrings, so not the same thing at all.
For some reason they are always sold in pairs. I don't know why this should be. And beware a dyed one:
"A good kipper won't be thin and skimpy or dyed (to the colour of an old mahogany commode). It will be silvery brown. It will still be in possession of its head, tail and backbone. And, full of its own fat, it won't need to be sold with pats of butter.
"The good kipper is one of this country's worthy contributions fo fine food. That indifferent kippers should now dominate the fish counter strikes me as a minor national disgrace. But then we so often lack piety towards our best things." Jane Grigson
So what does she do with them? Here I'm afraid I am going to quote in full her very first set of recipes - the way to cook them for breakfast:
"Everyone has a favourite way of cooking kippers, but it's worth trying a new method sometimes, even if breakfast does not seem the right meal for experiments. There are only two rules to observe: don't overcook them, and don't add butter until they are served as good kippers cook in their own juice.
Jugged kippers are my favourite for breakfast. Put them head down, into a 2-3 pint stoneware jug. Pour boiling water onto them straight from the kettle (as if you were making tea), right up to their tails, leave in a warm place for 5-10 minutes, drain well and serve. They can be laid in a roasting tin, instead of a jug, but this is dangerous as the boiling water slops about if one makes a careless, half-awake movement.
Baked kippers. Wrap them loosely in kitchen foil. Bake for 10-15 minutes in a moderately hot oven. This saves washing up.
Grilled kippers. (1) Place the kippers skin side up on a piece of foil on the grill rack. Grill gently for 5 minutes until the skin is deliciously crisp, not charred. (2) Jug the kippers for 2 minutes, then grill for 2 minutes on each side.
Freid kippers. Grease the frying pan lightly with butter, just enough to prevent the kippers sticking and no more (unnecessary with a non-stick pan). Fry gently for 2-3 minutes on each side.
Whether grilled, fried, baked or jugged, eat the kippers with plenty of bread and butter, lemon quarters, pats of butter or parsley butter can be served as well."
I think my mother grilled them, and certainly most of the recipes I saw used that method.
Later in the chapter she tells you how to make kipper paste which I'm sure I have mentioned before and which is even better than a smoked trout paste. Just blend your jugged (then deboned and skinned) kipper with melted butter, some lemon juice and a touch of cayenne. Leave to chill in the fridge. Or a kipper flan - which is really a quiche. Also very yum.
And what does everyone else do with them these days? Well here are a few suggestions: Kipper Kedgeree from Allegra McEvedy - there are a lot of recipes for kedgeree of course, because kippers are the must have ingredient. Kipper, spinach, bacon and new potato salad from Brian Turner which sounds rather like a similar salad in Delia's How to Cook Book Two, which Neil of Neil Cooks Grigson said was the most disgusting salad he had ever tasted. So go figure. This one looks quite nice. Herbed kipper pasta from The Australian Women's Weekly and if you are feeling more adventurous - Kippers with carrots and potatoes from Nigel Slater and Miso-buttered kippers with avocado and sprouts from Thomasina Miers - very twenty first century. Jamie, somewhat amazingly, had nothing.
They're healthy too, so seek some out and try them. I'm a convert:
"these cold-smoked herrings are as tasty as you like, cheap and belong to that hallowed shoal of goodness known as Oily Fish." Allegra McEvedy
Last thought. KIPPERS - Kids in Parents' Pockets Eroding Retirement Savings. Not a good thing.