fish & seafood
The East Anglian port of Great Yarmouth has been a centre for herring fishing since medieval times. Alongside the fishing industry, Yarmouth became important for curing herring and turning the fish into bloaters. A bloater is produced when the herring is cured (salted) and then cold smoked while still whole and ungutted. The process gives a stronger taste than if the fish were gutted.
By Victorian times, Yarmouth merchants had began turning their bloaters into bloater paste. Bloater and other fish pastes are not a cooking ingredients but are a type of paté common in England. The bloaters are minced and mixed with spices and fat and then sealed in jars. Heat sealing the jars extended the life of the bloater far longer than the original cold smoking could achieve. The result was a product that could be transported all over the country without risk of spoiling. This in turn meant that inland areas could enjoy fish paste all year round and it became hugely popular all over England spread on hot buttered toast or in sandwiches.
Curiously, the dominant location for the fish paste industry ended up not in the commercial fishing port of Yarmouth where it had started but in Chichester on the Sussex coast. In 1892 a local grocers and butchers owned by the Shippam family expanded their business by building a fish and meat paste factory. Shippams pastes became world famous and they still make bloater paste as well as various other fish pastes in Chichester although they did move to a new factory in 2002.
If you want to avoid the excesses of a Full English Breakfast then most good hotels will offer you kippers as an alternative. Personally, I would go for the Full English every time but, if you fancy smoked fish for breakfast, then kippers are the English way of doing things. In the healthy eating stakes kippers will win over the Full English breakfast every time. Although both are quite salty the kipper is packed with omega 3 fatty acids which help reduce the risks of heart disease. In contrast the Full English is heavy with artery-clogging saturated animal fats.
A kipper is a whole herring which has been gutted and split from head to tail but with the backbone still in place. The split herring is brined and then cold smoked for up to 16 hours. Manx Kippers from the Isle of Man are well known but in England the historical centre for kipper making is Northumberland. The kippering process had been used for centuries as a way of preserving fish and could be applied to salmon as well as herring. But in 1846 a man from Seahouses named John Woodger started shipping his cured and smoked herring to London and called his product the Newcastle Kipper. The small town of Craster just along the Northumberland coast from Seahouses is today considered to be the centre for top quality English kippers and firms like L. Robson & Sons have been smoking their kippers in the same Craster smokehouse since 1856.
If, like me, you can't face kippers for breakfast then they make a pleasant lunch with some crusty wholemeal bread. Kippers are not fully cooked like hot-smoked fish and need baking, grilling or boil-in-the-bagging before being eaten which is why they are usually served hot.
You may find it hard to get hold of potted shrimps but they are a real English delicacy on a par with any seafood anywhere in the world. The brown shrimp, Crangon crangon, is a small, sweet-tasting shellfish found in abundance in shallow coastal waters such as Morecambe Bay in Lancashire. Potted shrimps are made by boiling the shrimps in butter and spices which are secret to each manufacturer. Pots are then filled with the cooked shrimps and the shrimps sealed with a layer of melted butter to exclude air and aid preservation.
Potted shrimps are only preserved for about 10 days so they do not have a long shelf-life like, say, salted anchovies. If you're curious to see what they taste like Morecambe Bay Potted Shrimps can be ordered by post from Furness Fish who also have a stall in Borough market, London's foodie heaven. Another firm, Baxters, have been making potted shrimps in Morecambe since 1799. Waitrose supermarkets also sell Morecambe Bay Brown Potted Shrimps in 57g pots
Once you've acquired your potted shrimps the best way to eat them is as follows - spilt and lightly toast an English muffin on both sides, mix the shrimps and butter topping all together and place generously over the toasted muffins and, finally, lightly grill until the butter has melted and the shrimps have warmed through. Sprinkle with chopped dill leaves and a little lemon juice and wonder at the taste.
English fish pie
As far as I can tell fish pie isn't specific to one English region but my mother's fish pie was a boyhood favourite of mine so I thought I would include it here. I have one of my mother's old cookery books, Learning To Cook published in 1946, and it includes a recipe for fish pie but so does Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management from 1861. So it's certainly an old favourite.
The obvious characteristic of an English fish pie is that it is topped with mashed potato not pastry. Mrs Beeton describes the recipe as "economical" because she uses cooked cod left over from another meal. Fresh cod or other white fish is also acceptable because it is poached in milk in the first stage of the recipe. The cod is then flaked and added to the sauce which has been made with the poaching liquid. The sauce is a simple white (bechamel) sauce flavoured with parsley, salt and pepper. Mrs Beeton adds a dozen oysters to her pie but she was writing at a time when oysters were cheap and plentiful. The recipe in Learning To Cook suggests adding sliced tomatoes to the sauce but my mother's fish pie (and mine today) adds a layer of sliced hard-boiled eggs instead.
The fish pie is then baked in the oven until everything is heated through and the mashed potato is browned and a little crisp in places. I don't particularly like the phrase but if you were to make me choose my ultimate "comfort food" this would be it.
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