“THE SEAFOOD of Venice and the Adriatic coast,” reckons renowned food writer Jeffrey Steingarten, “is easily the best I have ever tasted.” I have no reason to dispute this claim, although personally I also rate the piscine residents of the Cornish coast and whatever delights my mother-in-law’s fish man brings to her home most days, freshly pulled from the Philippine Sea. Steingarten, having been at the top of the food journalism tree for the best part of three decades, knows his stuff. Any claim he makes should be taken fairly seriously.
Besides, I have a strong memory of two amazing hours in Rimini, spent eating the freshest, most wonderful seafood I had ever tasted. I had arrived early on the train, equipped with two pretty, English female friends – fellow exchange students at the University of Bologna. At the same time the local fishing fleet was docking, and largely thanks to the girls I breakfasted with the boatmen, who set up a brazier on the dock, topped it with a paella pan and threw in morsels as they cleaned their catch, plus garlic, onion, stock and white wine, to create first a stir-fry and then a fish stew. Hooked out of the fire on bits of bread it was ambrosial, and promptly spawned in me the kind of hankering for frutti di mare an upbringing in the landlocked hills of Worcestershire had done little to prepare me for.
Twenty years later and living just two hours down the same coast from Rimini, I have somehow managed to visit not a single restaurant in my home town. I’m not quite sure how this has happened, although to be fair, most places have been shut for much of the winter. Still, all that changed today. I arrived home from Abruzzo at one o’clock, starving, and was overjoyed to find that my wife had booked us and visiting friends into a local place for lunch. The Chalet San Marco is famous locally for its seafood, supplied by the proprietor’s very own fishing vessel. Even better, it is about 200 metres from our front door. Our visit was epiphanic. We had fish antipasti cold and hot, frittata and arrosto misti, mussels, clams, a plate of pasta and beautifully-fried curls of potato. Lord knows how, but the children even managed ice cream as we bolted espresso coffee in an attempt to jump-start our digestive systems. We staggered back along the beach nearly three hours later, vowing to return at the earliest opportunity.
Under my arm was a foil-wrapped box containing quite a bit of roasted fish, the overspill from our feast. Adriatic fish tends to be smaller than most, but the species variation is incredible. Not one of the pieces in our doggy bag was the same, ranging from bits of large flat fish to entire, smaller, ugly things. They were fried in breadcrumbs, which rather hampered identification.
But what did I care? The flesh, I had already decided, was destined to become fish cakes. This is a delicacy that occupies a peculiarly divided place in my heart. On the one hand I have become a complete fan of Thai food in recent years, thanks to several brilliant restaurants in the UK and a period of cohabitation with a British/Thai couple. The Thai half was the better cook, and I learned a great deal from watching her at work. Of course, a staple starter at any Thai joint is the fish cake, a light, spicy creation combining herbs, spice and fish in an incredibly satisfying way.
A survey of my life reveals a 15-year, on-off relationship with the marvellous city of Sheffield. I have lived in several other places during that time, but have always maintained some form of reason to either visit Steel City or call it home. I love the place for its easygoing – if a tad morose – locals, its position at the epicentre of the British rock climbing scene and a cosy, villagey feel completely at odds with its status as one of the biggest cities in Britain. These and the fact that many of my mates live there. What fails to draw me is Sheffield’s unique take – it has a unique take on many things, and this isn’t one of its better ones – on the fishcake.
To most Brits a fishcake is pretty much a de-orientalised version of the Thai one, having as its principle component, well, fish. There may be a disguise of breadcrumbs on the outside, but you know that within lies a soft core of fish flesh and seasoning. It is simple, effective and goes really rather well with salt ’n vinegary chips. Stroll into a Sheffield chippie and demand a fish cake, and the hapless outsider will receive what can only be described as two massive slabs of potato, sandwiching a smear of fish and deep fried in batter. If you want a fishcake as the civilised world knows it, you have to use the word “rissole”. You will be regarded as a deviant by all your fellow fish supper shoppers, but at least you won't have to endure what has to be one of the vilest creations in all gastronomy.
I pried open my laptop to see what the Web might have to say on the matter of the Sheffield Fishcake and its foreign rival, as the home of The Full Monty is notoriously happy to give its two pennorth when its culinary peculiarities are under discussion. The best available comes from Sheffield Forum, allegedly the busiest community forum in the country. I quote it in its entirety:
Remember when they used to write on the chip shop windows in something that goes white? probably Windowleen. Well I was in my local chippie one night when somebody had been messing about rubbing some of the writing off. A man asked for chips and a pissole. The woman behind the counter said " That P is supposed to be an R". "OK" said the man "Chips and an Rsole".
Armed as I was with the wonders of the Adriatic and a deep-seated horror of South Yorkshire’s version, I determined that my fishcakes would tend towards the Thai way of thinking. Besides, there are no potatoes in the house today. I stripped the leftovers of flesh, then paused for a moment. What exactly goes into a fishcake? I wondered. Delia Smith is an obvious initial point of enquiry It’s interesting to chart Delia’s evolution, as it provides a fine barometer for that of the British palate. She started writing cookery books in 1971, and her all-time classic Cookery Course first turned up seven years later. It has evolved and updated itself constantly since, and has a central place in my kitchen. I rarely actually use a Delia recipe in its entirety, but tend to consult her for basics. Can’t remember the proportion of egg to flour in a crèpe? Ask Delia. Need an idea of the fundamental ingredients in a fish cake? You know where to look. The current (I’ve got through three) Delia on my shelf is the 1989 edition, reprinted in 2000. Fish cakes are obviously on Delia’s radar as it contains two recipes – kipper and salmon-based, with capers enlivening the latter. But for a Thai version I need to come forward a few years and delve into her Internet output.
Delia’s shopping list includes: fish, which I obviously have; Thai red curry paste, also present in the fridge; lime juice and green chillis, which I don’t possess. As usual, it’s time to improvise a little. Into the liquidizer goes the fish, bulked out by some tuna as our dogs look resentfully on. They love tuna, and assume instantly that opening a tin heralds a feast for them. Then I added a tablespoonful of red curry paste, four of my Thai friend Kannika’s mother’s ferocious home-grown red chillis – a bag of which lives in the freezer, a good shake of freeze-dried lemongrass (the fresh version is impossible to find on the Adriatic Coast, for reasons of culinary patrimony that are discussed elsewhere in this blog), the juice of several Sicilian lemons (plentifully available for reasons of culinary patrimony…), some fresh coriander which improbably survived the winter in pots on our rear balcony and a tablespoonful or so of nam pla, the South-East Asian fish sauce which I tend to throw into dishes with abandon.
The mix doesn’t need to be incredibly smooth, so after just a little liquidizer action it was formed into patties, which I rolled in breadcrumbs and a dangerously generous shake of lemon chilli powder – found by my friend Neil in a Pakistani-run shop in Leicester. The result was fried in hot vegetable oil. In case the centres needed a little extra cooking, I threw the cakes into the oven for ten minutes while I cooked some rice and steamed matchstick-shaped chippings of courghette above it. When the latter were nearly done I gave them a quick fry in the pan vacated by the fishcakes. Perhaps they would catch a little Thai flavour that way, I thought.
In the end I did little more than sample this dish. Still replete from the Chalet San Marco, my wife and I had a small plate each. Friend Neil however, had been toiling through house-restoration duties as we frolicked on the beach. He had cycled 15 kilometres home and was ravenous. He finished the lot in lip-smacking style, giving a huge thumbs-up to this fusion of Italian and Asian flavours. I’m thinking of sending the recipe round to San Marco, although culinary patrimony means it is sadly unlikely to find house room there. Should anybody in Sheffield fancy printing it out and pasting it to the door of their local chippy, be my guest.