A Cautionary Caudal Fin (that’s a tail to you Missus)
(Much of this was taken from The Observer Book of Fishes, from Alan Davidson’s North Atlantic Seafood and also from Rick Stein’s fish sausage recipe).This monlogue was originally performed in a pub in Bournemouth and also at the Norwich Fringe Festival.)
So you want to eat fish? Well, if you’ve got to eat fish, take heed of this list. Don’t diddle your dish with tiddly bit fish. Immature monsters or little fish.
Fish with bitty littlely bone bones, bitty in your mouth, threaded through dental cavities, insinuating their way along your tongue, tickely dickely tongue down to your stuck up throat full of helicopters and queen mothers on the diddly dabs again.
Get the fiddly diddily tweezers out, Doc! Maam has swallowed another pot of wriggly wrasse, undersized bass, black gobies, fifteen spined sticklebacks, dragonets and tompot blennies.
She’s got her chomps on a Cornish lump sucker and I don’t mean the …ucker that lordies it prince like over the Whales, but the ones with suctorial discs situated beneath the throat and formed partly by the base of the pectoral fins and modified bones of the pelvic girdle.
I’ve got a girdle. I’ve got a girdle you can see it if you like, it’s got rubber strectchy bits to make me look good. I’d let you wear it if I could, but I’m stuck in it.
Oh lordy dat queen mother. How she suckles and stickles dem bones down her gullet, mullet don’t go where the gobies go for England, cod and the queen mum.
Nah. Don’t eat littluns. Avoid the father lasher, the sea scorpion, short-spined cottus, bull-trout or sea toad. Steer clear of the pogge. They are winter spawners, all. Their eggs are adhesive and demersal sticking to the rocks and weeds of the shallows. It is said they may exceed twelve inches but I have yet to see a specimen from the south of England more than ten inches in length.
Stick to the big brothers. The mothers of all fish. The voracious, loquacious, voluptuous species. The fishies that eat all the other fishies. The ones with bones like tanker ribs.
Desist especially from pouting and bibs. They are but poor cod. The bib, pouting, pout whiting, Whiting Wule, or Bragay, goes off rapidly after being caught and is hence also known as the “Stink Alive”.
One two three four five, once I caught a stink alive. Six, seven, eight, nine ten, then I let one go again (parp). Yet, according to some, the stink alive, eats excellently when cooked immediately after capture. Rapture, however, it is not, when got from the slab of a local poissonnerie.
That’s fish monger to you duckies.
There are some amongst these bibmongering slime, who slip and slither Stink Alive in with their whiting and sell them thus to an unsuspecting public. Treat these men harshly, pester them with trifles. Have them drink the stale of horse mackerel. Fill their underpants with burbot. Stuff their trousers full of hag-fish, that lowly eel-like, hermaphrodite relation of the lamprey, which attaches itself to its victims and eats away all their insides, and for this reason is sometimes also called the devourer.
Cue DEVOURER Music:
Dally not with the devourer! Take heed! Beware the lampreys!
These fish exist upon the fringes of society. Fish and not fish. Boneless and pernicious. The lamprey has but a single circular lip, surrounding the mouth, wherein reside nine rows of sharp suctorial teeth and a loathsome tongue, itself covered in four pairs of additional pointy pointed sharp pointy fangs.
Observe, aghast, the vestigial third eye on top of the head.
These “fish” are parasitic slime, who often attach themselves to the side of a ship and so are carried to new hunting grounds whereupon they wreak havoc amongst the fecund cod and the noble salmon. They are even known to insinuate themselves into the flesh of the great basking shark.
Attaching itself to its victim by means of its suctorial pad, it rasps and sucks away until it has made a meal of the victim’s blood, sucking out quantities of flesh and body fluids. An anticoagulant substance, which is secreted by their oral glands, prevents the blood of their prey from clotting until the lamprey has satiated its appalling appetite. Such attacks are fatal when the victim is small, and they do no good at all to larger fish.
But worst of all is the hagfish. The devourer himself. Blind, jawless and depraved, his body is covered with a thick layer of mucus whose secretion is stimulated chiefly by excitement.
Picture, then, the scene in a suburban salon:
Mrs Hagfish: Don’t get over-excited darling, you’ll just break out in slime all over again.
Mr Hagfish: Your perfume, my dear, would elicit the glutinous secretions of an entire shoal of Caspian lampreys.
Mrs hagfish: Ooh, you make me feel all gelatinous. Shall we…..?
It is said that if a pair of hagfish is put into a bucket of water, they soon turn the water into a thick, viscous, slimy jelly with their malodorous mucus.
And here’s one that I prepared earlier (throw “water” at audience in time with brass blast or remove one from trousers).
The Hagfish resides deep beneath the waves, wriggling his abominable eel-like body into the seabed at depths of over a thousand metres until only his head protrudes.
They have been found so deep down, buried within the ocean floor, that some believe they have burrowed their way upwards from hell itself.
There they skulk, meander and slither, loitering with intent, devouring benthic invertebrates and any unfortunate fish that come their way. They have an especially despicable predilection for sick fish and those caught up in nets. Indeed their amoral depredations have often caused mayhem amongst the trawls of honest fishermen.
So you want to eat fish?
Well all right you can but Desperate Dan wouldn’t eat this so if you persist don’t say I didn’t warn you because I diddily did!
Let us now consider the Swedes. Do you know what they do to herring? Oh my GOD! You don’t know?
YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT THE SWEDES DO TO THEIR HERRING?!!!
Surströmming. SSSSSSSurströmmingggggg. (Violent shuddering on floor.)
Let me tell you how it all started.
In the sixteenth century, the Swedes were wont to set forth every spring in search of herring, which they would salt at sea. They would often set sail with their wives, children and goats, and many empty barrels in which to salt the herring. Having fished all summer, they would then bring home their catch.
One year a group of these intrepid fisher folk caught more herring than they had salt for, so some of the herring began to ferment and these understandably could not be sold to their regular customers. Luckily the cunning Swedes found some guileless forest people of Finnish extraction, to whom they were able to sell their faulty produce, confident that they would never see them again. The following year they took ample salt with them and came back with perfect produce only to be greeted by the Finnish Forest men who demanded of them the same as last year. And so it began.
Every year the herring are placed in barrels with insufficient salt and exposed to the summer heat until 20 August. They are then re-opened for re-packing and 5 days later there is a stampede along the Swedish coast to acquire this hideous delicacy.
Alan Davidson quotes a story from a fishery official who, as a young man was in the harbour of the Island of Uvlon on the August day when 200 barrels of surstromming were opened. As the smell billowed upwards, birds began to drop dead from the sky.
Every year small children are hospitalised, women weep and their men folk turn to drink.
Surstromming fillets are served with small oval potatoes the Swedes call almond potatoes, and thin slices of special bread (tunbrod) which the Swedes carry about in their wellington boots, and butter.
Are these people not deranged? Is it any wonder the suicide rate in Sweden is higher than anywhere else in Europe. Anywhere in the universe…..anywhere, even, in my trousers. Anywhere, that is, except Iceland!
The Swedes are not the only icthyologically insane Nordic race. Let us discuss also the unfathomable depravities of the Icelanders.
And let us first put this into context. Note for example, that Iceland now has undisputed rights to the richest remaining cod grounds in the world.
The Americans and Canadians have hunted their cod to commercial extinction. The British are on the brink of doing the same. And the Basques, who were exporting salt cod from the Americas in the 15th century, have long since given up trailing across the now barren Atlantic. But the Icelanders still have cod in droves. They have so much cod they export it to Britain, thus sustaining our unsustainable love affair with fish and chips.
So what do they eat? These men of Cod? What?
Lumpfish. They eat Lumpfish. Lumpfish in aspic with eggs and vegetables. Lumpfish hung in a cool place until it has turned yellow. Lumpfish eaten too late in the season, so that it has become a slithering mass of jelly. Sir Thomas Browne, in 1662 described the Lumpfish as being “esteemed by some as a festival fish, though it affords but a glutinous jelly and the skin is beset with stony knobs after no certain order”.
Sir Putrefied Posit Buttockbrain, fourth earl of Shoppingmall, is even more critical saying “I do not like the flesh myself; it is like a glue pudding.”
The Dutch, in their infinitely more civilised culinary tradition have their own name for the Lumpfish. They call it the SNOTDOLF. I say, excuse me, I’m from Iceland and I’d like a bucket of SNOTDOLF please. Certainly sir. Would you like it wrapped or deposited directly into a chemical toilet to eat now?
Don’t eat SNOTDOLF.
And yet, you still want to eat fish. I read it in your ghastly faces, haggish and crumpled by long years of crusty fish fingers and stinky kipper jinks on a Saturday night, down among Daisy Jones’s locker knocker knicker licker room, where gentleman should never go.
Well then, if you must, there is just one last thing….. if you are going to eat fish. One last warning from fishtory.
I speak of course of the giant Greenland shark. Other sharks you may eat and may well already have done so.
You may be oblivious to the fact that all sharks make and maintain in their tissue a supply of urea, a constituent of urine, thus reversing their tendency to lose water to the sea and enabling them to sustain an osmotic balance. Do not be deterred by this wee saturated flesh, for shark meat can be very good.
But avoid the Greenland shark.
The Greenland shark not only frequents the waters of … um Greenland but also, unpromisingly, of Iceland, and is even known to wander as far south as Scotland.
In 1895, on a night not unlike a dark stormy night, when trees were abed and the weird sisters flew through the air like horseradishes, blowing their trumpets and bellowing Rick Stein’s recipes for fish sausage in exaggerated tones…(races around blowing trumpet )
‘Ideally you should have some sort of sausage making equipment, but before starting, do make sure all the ingredients are cold. Put the fish, breadcrumbs, butter, egg, salt, white pepper and lemon juice into a food processor and blend until smooth. Add the lovage, parsley and spring onion tops and then quickly pour in the cream taking no more than 10 seconds. Fill the sausage skins with the force meat and twist into 3.5 inch long sausages’.
…in 1895 on a wild, inhospitable night, not unlike tonight, a Greenland Shark with a length of 21 feet was caught off May Island in the Firth of Forth.
Greenland shark have been known, upon stumbling across a dead whale, to devour it voraciously. In the process of doing so they are oblivious of all other things. On one occasion the specimen was so absorbed in its meal that even when repeatedly stabbed in the head it took no apparent notice at all.
“Ah waiter, I’ll have the dead whale and the Dom Perrignon, “65 please. Oh, and would you mind terribly stabbing me repeatedly in the head. Thank you so much.”
But the shark is not the real danger. In fact it has some considerable value. The liver can yield up to three barrels of oil. The skin of the shark is used for making shoes and boots, or cut into long strips and twisted into a kind of rope. No, the real danger comes in the form of the demented Icelanders themselves.
Imagine living on an island with only volcanoes and sheep for company. No trees, no Macdonalds, no opera to speak of, no young women dressed in the crisp starchy uniforms of traffic wardens, no charity shops stuffed to the gills with second hand lingerie, and, in the winter, no light. One can almost sympathise. Almost. But just remember the bastards have got all the cod. They could eat cod. But no. What do they eat? They eat Greenland shark. Let me tell you the real problem with the Greenland shark. It’s not that they grow to 21 feet. That is not problem for a nation of whalers like the Icelanders.
It is the mountain of flesh that represents the real problem, for it contains cyanic acid. Cyanic acid, to consume which is to bring about a disagreeable death. (Convulsions, bleeding ears, in-growing toe nails, flatulence, corpulence, opulence, decadence, garrulousness, cretinism and of course, Rick Stein fish sausage recipe disease (trumpet fanafare)
Ideally you should have some sort of sausage making equipment, but before starting, do make sure all the ingredients are cold. Put the fish, breadcrumbs, butter, egg, salt, white pepper and lemon juice into a food processor and blend until smooth. Add the lovage, parsley and spring onion tops and then quickly pour in the cream taking no more than 10 seconds. Fill the sausage skins with the force meat and twist into 3.5 inch long sausages.
Well now, here’s the rubby dubby. The Icelanders have discovered, that if you bury the flesh of a Greenland shark beneath a cow byre, and allow it to ferment, the cyanic acid leaches out of the flesh and it becomes, and I quote, “safe” to eat. SAFE TO EAT. This dung encrusted, rotting meat, the Icelanders call Hakarl.
They are not, however, NOT, I repeat, content to stop at this. No no no. For frequently they will turn Hakarl into Harkarlstappa. This they do by picking off the cow dung flavoured, fermented flesh (which may or may not still have traces of lethal cyanic acid in it), boiling it, draining it, talking to it in a lewd and wholly salacious manner, mashing it up with sour butter and then frying it in rancid mutton fat.
Apparently it can be eaten hot or cold, with or without sheep, on bread (which is presumably kept, as in Sweden, in the Icelanders’ wellington boots).
I rest my case.
There are edible fish.
I am not personally one of these. But I have friends who are.
I have their phone numbers. If you want to make soup, I know where their children live. If you would like to take advantage of this opportunity, you may bribe me, at the bar, by topping up my osmotic balance.